Teen's Female Performances Draw Him a Crowd Whether he plays a man or a woman, Taichi Saotome draws fans from all over Japan to his theater for the masses performances.
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Teen's Female Performances Draw Him a Crowd

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Teen's Female Performances Draw Him a Crowd

Teen's Female Performances Draw Him a Crowd

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In Japan an old cross-dressing tradition updated is creating a sensation. Audiences are going wild for a teenage boy who plays women's roles on stage. He performs a sort of Japanese vaudeville known as theater for the masses.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn offers this portrait of the young actor.

(Soundbite of theater audience)

ANTHONY KUHN: It's a packed house at the Great Victory Theater in Tokyo's Asakusa district. They're there to watch Taishu Engeki or theater for the masses - a distant cousin of the better-known and more formal Kabuki Theater. Taishu Engeki is to Tokyo's old Asakusa entertainment district much as musicals are to Broadway. But here tickets are cheap enough for many locals to come several times a week. The theater has a low stage, and the audience sits on legless chairs on the floor, snacking on rice crackers and looking as it home as if they were in their own living room.

The star of tonight show is Taichi Saotome. Speaking before the show, Taichi says he doesn't know why audiences are so crazy about his female characters.

Mr. TAICHI SAOTOME (Theater Actor): (Through translator) Why? Why? I'm not really sure why. But I do think it's a good thing that people of all ages like to watch my performances.

KUHN: Taichi and his parents are part of the troupe of around a dozen performers. Like most Taishu Engeki troupes, they spend much of the year on the road, performing at theaters, bathhouses and spas. Taichi says he's eager to expand into new roles.

Mr. SAOTOME: (Through translator) I've been acting women's roles since I was four years old. I didn't like it much then, and I don't like it much now. I want to play men's roles - sword-fighting parts. And I want to try my hand at more conventional drama.

KUHN: The show begins with a play. Taichi plays a young outlaw samurai on the run from his old posse and searching for his long-lost parents. He finally finds his mother but then leaves her to go confront his outlaw past in a sword-fighting showdown.

(Soundbite of play, "Taishu Engeki")

Mr. TAICHI SAOTOME (Actor): (As Character) (Japanese spoken)

KUHN: It's a soap opera plot that leaves many of the middle-aged women in the audience in tears. After the play, Taichi puts on his female geisha outfit and prepares for the dance numbers.

(Soundbite of play, "Taishu Engeki")

KUHN: Taichi's manager is Hiroyuki Fujioka. Speaking in his office, he credits Taichi with reviving the public's interest in "Taishu Engeki."

Mr. HIROYUKI FUJIOKA (Manager): (Japanese spoken)

KUHN: Simply put, he's a genius, he says. There are plenty of good dancers, but Taichi attracts people just by standing there. He has this incredible aura.

(Soundbite of play, "Taishu Engeki")

Mr. RICKY MARTIN (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

KUHN: The dance numbers start with red and blue lights, dry-ice, and confetti. Taichi flits and twirls across the stage in white makeup and an elaborate hairdo.

(Soundbite of play, "Taishu Engeki")

KUHN: Another number, another kimono. Taichi kneels. He sprawls on the floor. He feigns a tear. He extends his hand with a wistful gaze.

(Soundbite of play, "Taishu Engeki")

KUHN: Taichi twirls his scarf, spins his parasol and flips his fan. He holds an envelope full of money between his ruby-red lips.

(Soundbite of play "Taishu Engeki")

KUHN: The music is campy, schmaltzy. One minute he's a he, next he's a she. In any language and in either gender, Taichi is a consummate showman. The audience is entertained out of their socks.

(Soundbite of applause)

KUHN: The audience spills out into the street, giddy after three and a half hours of sensory overload. Outside, an elderly woman in white, who identifies herself as Mrs. Okada, appears to be in a blissful trance.

Ms. OKADA (Theatergoer): (Through translator) Taichi seems like more than a human being, like a goddess. Every time I come to see his performances, I feel purified. I come out of the theater feeling lighter.

KUHN: Her wallet is a bit lighter too, after giving Taichi a gift worth about $6,000. Other fans give gifts of flowers, food and drinks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KUHN: Taichi comes out of the theater and is surrounded by his adoring fans. This is the last show before the theater closes down for renovation. Taichi has just turned 16 and he's moving on to do more screen roles.

Audiences here will remember this time as a turning point for a rising star. It's a rare moment in this age of TV and the Internet when theater creates such an intimate bond between actors and audiences. Taichi says he's still committed to performing "Taishu Engeki," at least part of the time. And to add to his repertoire, he is learning tap dancing.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

BRAND: And you can see a picture of Taichi Saotome in full custom at our Web site, npr.org.

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