Rumors of an Old War: “Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape”

Last week, a troupe from Kyoto landed in Los Angeles and put on a show in REDCAT (which is the space designated for experimental theatre in the basement of Disney Hall).  The show was about the search for “Tokyo Rose,” once one of the world’s most notorious media personalities.

Almost 75 years ago, Japan and America sent troops (not actors, but soldiers, sailors and fliers) into the Pacific Theater. (Which was not a hall, but how the military designated an entire half of the planet).  The show they mounted was called World War II.

As the Americans pushed farther into the Pacific, the Japanese countered by sending the sultry voice of a woman across the waves — ocean and radio — and into the Americans’ ears, minds and hearts. Between “swing era” love songs and dance tunes, she whispered of loneliness and defeat, of losing wives and lovers, of losing lives.

tokyo rose

Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape begins with invasions.  Lights rise on a white stage, empty but for a huge segmented circular white desk, making us aware of two spaces — the lighted one, where we expect the play to happen, and the darkened one, where we’re sitting.

Five women enter, in schoolgirl dresses and straw caps with the brims pulled down hiding their faces, a popular mid-century style.  They’re identical, yet without identities — actors without masks or characters, women under the male gaze, Asians in American eyes.

The women scuttle about the desk, and set a digital projector on it.
They announce the play, in Japanese and English and sign language, while the projector flashes English surtitles on a screen — reminding us we are gai-jin, as well as moderns intruding into their 1940s world.

They also bring giant wooden radio receivers, and stride into our space to set them up.  The sounds the women create at the desk will infiltrate and dominate our world. But for now, we hear the noise we call “static”  (broadcasters call it “interference,” because it blurs the message — rather like stereotyping and propaganda blur reality.)

Swiftly and silently, the players thus invoke the ways war (and prejudice) invade life.  They also focus our attention on the way a new technology, radio, was used last century to counter-invade, slipping behind the lines with words and music instead of weapons.

Enter “Tokyo Rose.”  As the women rush to their posts at the desk, we hear scraps of Rose’s monologs from Zero Hour, her shrewdly named show (the Zero was Japan’s most feared fighter plane, and “zero hour” was military jargon for the moment to begin an attack).

The rest of the play unfolds the story — fictionalized from the actual experience of LA native Iva Toguri — of Japanese-American women caught in Japan by the war’s outbreak and conscripted to be Rose’s voice, and of the postwar search by the American military (and news media) for Tokyo Rose.

The story is regularly punctuated by dance interludes.  While the five women move desk segments about to set up a new scene, they also enact key moments — the rush to create Zero Hour broadcasts, the stunned confusion of Japan’s people hearing radio news of Hiroshima and the Emperor’s surrender, the station staff’s frantic attempts to hide or destroy records.

I could say these dances break the momentum, taking me out of the story.  But the dances in a noh drama do that, and they’re supposed to — they pause to distill the story’s emotional and spiritual meanings, and celebrate them.  Come to think of it, so do the songs and dances in an American musical, or an opera.

I could say repeating the same few fragments of Tokyo Rose’s monologs becomes frustrating.  But then, most of the broadcasts were live, the station’s few tapes were destroyed, and all we have are these bits.  So the play accurately creates the frustration of anyone seeking Tokyo Rose; every search into history or memory ends in incompletion.

I could even say the actors’ mastery of English left a few words at times ungrasped.  But the play is about stretching and shattering our languages, about translations and misunderstandings and lies, about the human effort to send and receive messages — and distort them, while the universe itself interferes by throwing in “static.”

Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape overcomes the interference and succeeds in raising its dramatic questions.  It makes me feel — and think about — the meaning of loyalty, honesty and justice in a world where the rules and laws are being violently changed.

It also makes me feel — and think about — the similarities and differences between Japan’s and America’s theatre worlds.  Not just our performance traditions (realism, musicals, kabuki, noh), but what our audiences bring to the theatre, what we take for granted and what we expect.

And it makes me think — with deep feeling — about the interaction of our two cultures, from last century’s fear-fueled efforts to hate, dominate and destroy to this century’s easy sharing of sushi and hamburgers, comic books and manga.  It’s hard to believe our grandparents did — and suffered — what they did.  But it’s one of theatre’s jobs to help us remember, and to appreciate the road we’ve traveled.
Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’ Last Tape, written and directed by Miwa Yanagi.
Presented by the Miwa Yanagi Theatre Project, the Japan Society of New York, the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Japan Foundation and the US National Endowment for the Arts, at REDCAT (the Roy and Edna Disney /Cal Arts Theatre), 631 W. Second Ave.

Closed.  [Touring to Toronto, New York and Washington, D.C.]