Small Japanese Musical Company Makes Dream Come True at FringeNYC

New Yorkers were introduced to Takarazuka Revue, a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe, when it performed its version of Chicago at Lincoln Center last month. The troupe was founded in 1914 by Hankyu Railway president Ichizo Kobayashi, who wanted to attract more tourists to a resort in Takarazuka, a city in Hyogo Prefecture that’s about 15 miles away from Osaka. Takarazuka Revue is wildly popular in Japan, performing to more than two million people each year, and Lincoln Center was filled with New York-based Japanese and Japanese Americans who otherwise wouldn’t be able to catch the show in Tokyo because it’s always sold out.

Coincidentally, there is another all-female theater troupe based in Takarazuka, OZmate, which will perform an original musical, The Legend of Oni, as the only representative of Japan in the New York International Fringe Festival.

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Naoko Tsujii, President and CEO of OZmate

OZmate president and CEO Naoko Tsujii did not set out to form an all-female troupe when she started a music and dance studio in Takarazuka 25 years ago. Her intention was to gather people who wanted to perform Broadway-style musicals, and her original group had a number of male performers.

“They gradually started quitting, and by around 2008 it was all females,” Tsujii said through an interpreter. “I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, and Takarazuka is known for another theater company that’s a big name, so I didn’t want everyone to think, ‘Oh, they’re copying them.’ But I did a play [with all female performers], and it was successful. I felt comfortable, so I decided to follow through.”

OZmate performs original works and adaptations of Japanese and Western folklore and children’s stories, including The Wizard of Oz, from which OZmate takes its name.

For the past 20 years, Tsujii has visited New York to attend Broadway musicals, taking what she learns back to Japan and teaching it to her company.

“I love the original Broadway musical,” Tsujii says, noting that musicals produced in Japan are not “true Broadway musicals” in that they emphasize a look more than what Tsujii calls the “core.”

“To be closer to the real Broadway, I wanted to see what was different between Japan and New York,” says Tsujii. “Is it the look, as most of Japan’s musicals are? Or is it in the ‘core’? And I wanted to go for ‘core.’ I wanted to expose the core on the stage and then expose it to people on Broadway.”

Tsujii has a long list of favorite musicals, but when pressed, she says she likes Rent the best. But at a time when she was unsure about continuing the group and felt depressed about whether or not she should quit the company, Footloose cheered her up and revived in her the sense to continue. Tsujii’s dream has been to bring her company to New York to perform. About two years ago she felt confident enough to start looking for options and applying to festivals. That’s how she found FringeNYC.

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Members of OZmate rehearse “The Legend of Oni”

From August 12 through 17 OZmate will perform The Legend of Oni, an original work by Tsujii that’s set in the Heian period (c. 794-1185). An “oni” is a demon or ogre that is critical in Japanese folklore. They are scary creatures that terrify humans, often feasting on human flesh.

Tsujii’s musical is based on the story “Oeyama Shuten Doji,” a legendary tale of General Minamoto no Raiko defeating Shuten Doji, a fierce oni. She was also influenced by a mass murder that took place in the Kansai area at the time she began writing the musical.

“I started wondering, ‘What was that person thinking about to do such a horrible thing?’” Tsujii asked.

In her story Tsujii pits a father, Nagamichi, against his son, Ebuki in a power struggle. Nagamichi looks like a human but has the heart of an oni, while Ebuki changed his appearance to an oni to act out on the hatred and grudges he held against his father.

Tsujii wants to convey that we all have the potential to become an oni, that we all have hatred, anger, and grudges in each of us. She says that after watching this production, audiences “will understand the core of the Japanese. Inside is a boiling-hot heart. You can’t see it, but once you open the inside and see it, it’s very passionate,” Tsujii says. “The Japanese are known for being very reserved, but the inside is very hot and passionate.”

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Members of OZmate rehearse “The Legend of Oni”

Despite her years of experience as a performer and musical theater director, Tsujii admits that she’s “very nervous” about her debut at FringeNYC.

“I’m thinking of how the audience will react,” says Tsujii. “Don’t look at it as a very different Japanese musical, but think of it as a regular Broadway show and feel the core of the musical.”

She hopes that the audience is filled with local Americans, and the production will be in Japanese with English supertitles on a 60-inch screen. Translating from the Japanese that was spoken in the Heian period into English wasn’t a simple task for translator/interpreter Hiromi Zeppieri. “To leave that world as it is, and then to have American people understand it is very challenging,” Zeppieri says.

There’s also the challenge of females playing the roles of males and monsters.

“I teach them that it doesn’t matter if it’s a female part, a male part, or even an animal, you have to become that [character],” says Tsujii. “Takarazuka actually teaches their actors to make a deeper voice to be a man, but I think that’s unnatural. I want them to be natural and feel from the heart.”

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The cast of “The Legend of Oni”

OZmate’s participation in FringeNYC has created a buzz in the group’s home base of Takarazuka, a city of around 200,000 residents that’s surrounded by mountains and rivers.

“As soon as we announced that we were going to be at Fringe, everyone started looking at us differently,” Tsujii says, pointing out that the musical company of around 18 members ranging in age from 20 to 37 is being followed by a camera crew that is making a documentary about their “once-in-a-lifetime experience” in New York. “For the first time ever, we feel like the whole world is watching us.”

Tsujii wants the New York audience to watch them as well.

Naoko Tsujii, OZmate, Studio Oz, FringeNYC, NYC, Japan, Takarazuka, Takarazuka Revue, The Legend of Oni, oni, demon, Broadway, musicals

The Legend of Oni

Friday, August 12 at 9:30 p.m.

Saturday, August 13 at 2:30 p.m. (FringePLUS performance, which will be followed by a meetup at FringeLOUNGE or in the venue itself, in some cases. Cast, crew, staff, etc. are expected to attend this party and interact with the audience.)

Monday, August 15 at 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday, August 16 at 7:15 pm.

Wednesday, August 17 at 2:00 p.m.

Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente – 107 Suffolk Street (between Rivington & Delancey Streets)

Admission: $18/$13 seniors

To purchase tickets, please visit FringeNYC’s website.