Japanese visual and theater artist Miwa Yanagi opens up a window into a fascinating story in Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape, which is performing at the Japan Society as the first stop in a North American tour. Inspired by historical events, the show tells the tale of a group of Japanese American women who were stranded in Japan during World War II and coerced into becoming radio announcers for what was originally conceived as a propaganda program for the Japanese Imperial Army.
Yanagi—responsible for concept, script, direction, and stage design—crafts several striking stage pictures. However, the dialogue is not as theatrically engaging and the pacing is at times too languid. The show is performed in English and Japanese, with English translations projected onto a screen when necessary. Moments when there is overlapping dialogue can be a bit confusing to audience members who are not fluent in both languages. Yanagi also plays around with the chronology of the action, explicating some of the most relevant details while leaving others shrouded in mystery—sometimes problematically so.
Five women—dressed identically in white blouses, black skirts and black hats—perform the roles of the announcers whom American G.I.’s collectively dubbed “Tokyo Rose.” Choreographer Megumi Matsumoto has synchronized many of their movements, and added a layer of abstraction to the everyday activities they engage in revolving around such items as a typewriter and headsets.
It is not until well into the piece that the women emerge from their collective group identity to become more recognizable as individuals. Jane (Ami Kobayashi), the only one to have had professional training as an announcer, recruits women from the typing pool to participate in the broadcasts. Among them is Annie Oguri (Hinako Arao), a Japanese American woman who refused to renounce her American citizenship. Annie is at first reluctant as she does not wish to betray her country, but is swayed by the knowledge that Australian and American POWs are helping to craft the program, dubbed “The Zero Hour.” She is further reassured when she discovers that the program is mostly about playing music and that the supposed anti-American “propaganda” can be subverted by the way the women deliver their lines.
Annie is based on the real-life figure of Iva Toguri D’Aquino, who was convicted of treason for her participation in these broadcasts and later pardoned by President Ford when some of the testimony against her was discredited. A similar fate befalls Annie, who naively admits to being Tokyo Rose at the end of the war when she is told how much the broadcasts meant to American soldiers, and is promised lucrative contracts for telling her story.
Yanagi adds into her theater piece a fictionalized tale of a Japanese American communications soldier serving in the Pacific, Daniel Yamada (Yohei Matsukado). Daniel has a keen ear and is able to identify the voices of the various women who served as announcers, which in the play also include—in addition to Jane and Annie—Kathy Morita (Aki), Lucy Hayase (Sachi Masuda), and Mary Kano (Megumi Matsumoto). Yet, Daniel is convinced there was a sixth announcer who was responsible for the more questionable pronouncements delivered by “Tokyo Rose,” and which have unfairly been attributed to Annie.
He attempts to get answers from Toshiya Shiomi (Sogo Nishimura), a Radio Tokyo employee who worked on the program. They strike up a sort of friendship and chess rivalry that lasts over 60 years despite Shiomi withholding crucial information from Daniel about that mysterious sixth announcer. However, the reasons for their continued correspondence is never fully justified, particularly following Shiomi’s damning testimony at Annie’s trial.
Matsukado’s performance is unfortunately lacking in the empathy necessary to bring the role to life. His line delivery often feels forced, particularly in the scene in which he first meets Shiomi and several of the announcers. Nishimura comes across more naturally, although his performance is hampered by a lack of clarity in his continued relationship with Jane following the war. Kobayashi is the most consistently compelling of the female performers, while Arao successfully conveys Annie’s bewilderment in regards to her situation.
The use of pre-recorded voice-overs for the American soldiers listening to the broadcasts and for the public prosecutor at Annie’s trial tends to flatten out the stage performance. I preferred when the chorus of women took on the additional voices of reporters and other individuals as it took advantage of the liveness of the event.
Zero Hour: Toyko Rose’s Last Tape performs at The Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, NYC) through Saturday, January 31. Subsequent stops on the production’s national tour, organized by Japan Society, include The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. (February 6 & 7); Asian Arts & Culture Center at Towson University in Towson, MD (February 13); Japanese Canadian Cultural Center in Toronto, Canada (February 21); and REDCAT in Los Angeles (February 26-28). For more information, visit www.japansociety.org/event/zero-hour-tokyo-roses-last-tape.