Japan gender-crossing dancer grips fans with glance

TOKYO Wed Aug 6, 2008 1:26am EDT

1 of 8. Taichi Saotome, a male entertainer who plays women's roles, performs in Yokosuka, Japan June 5, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Caronna

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - On stage, the Japanese dancer, with heavy white makeup and pouty red lips, spins to booming music, sending a rainbow-colored kimono fluttering.

Off stage, the dancer is just another teenaged high school boy, but one with legions of fans, especially female, who can't get enough of his cross-dressing performances.

Nicknamed "Prince of the Sidelong Glance" for his ability to mesmerize audiences with a single look from his downcast eyes, 16-year-old Taichi Saotome's dancing has been praised by domestic media for its feminine elegance and understated seductiveness.

Male actors playing female roles is mainstream entertainment in Japan, where traditional kabuki theatre, which traces its roots back to the 17th century, is still performed only by men.

Saotome, who debuted at the age of four, is a big star of the kabuki-influenced "taishu engeki", or theatre for the masses, which is a more casual, less expensive, form of entertainment.

TV stints and a wave of publicity have broadened his fan base beyond theatre buffs to include Japanese women entranced by smooth-faced, innocent-looking youths.

"It's in all the movement," said the lanky dancer, explaining the secret of playing female roles.

"My shoulders are getting broad and high, so I have to make up for that by using my body, by moving my shoulders more," he told Reuters as he relaxed backstage in a navy men's kimono and without the elaborate make-up that takes him 30 minutes to apply.

SUBTLE SEX APPEAL

Saotome's appeal, his fans say, lies in his ability to capture the essence of old-fashioned Japanese femininity -- graceful yet strong-willed, with a slight hint of sex appeal.

Fans are captivated by his moves, from spinning quickly with his back arched, to hiding his face with a folding fan, tilting his head and gazing distantly into the audience.

"He was so beautiful, I cried at the end," said Kumiko Endo, 45, a part-time worker, after a recent performance outside Tokyo, where frenzied fans scrambled for posters and other memorabilia printed with Saotome's face, both with and without makeup.

"Onna-gata", or men who play female roles, have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, popularized by traditional kabuki theatre, said theatre critic Yoshihiro Nakamura.

"They are men portraying women through a filter. It's not real," Nakamura said. "Add to that Taichi Saotome's youth and you get a fantasy-like beauty."

Saotome says he learns his moves not from watching women but from his teacher of traditional Japanese dance.

His manager hopes Saotome, who sometimes plays male roles, can take on overseas audiences after performing in Hawaii and Beijing last year. He performs again in Hawaii in September.

Saotome, who has appeared in prize-winning director Takeshi Kitano's films "Zatoichi" and "Takeshis'", is eager to broaden his repertoire from dancing to include more acting.

"I don't feel I have that much potential yet," he said about a career outside Japan, adding that he doesn't speak English.

"I want to raise my potential and once that's at a high level, perform overseas."

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)

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