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"Good Evening, Fellow Orphans in the Pacific" - Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose's Last Tape

Published on
February 5

            The stage for "Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose's Last Tape" is sparse and elegant: white floor, a white backdrop with a long rectangular window that can open, revealing a German-engineered state of the art (for 1945, at least) tape recorder, and a large donut-shaped white table made of five identical pieces. Yet this simple set, along with well-choreographed lighting and movement, is used in highly effective and powerful ways to tell the intriguing story of the announcers on the Zero Hour program, and to draw the audience in to the mystery: who is the woman behind the voice on the radio? Who is Tokyo Rose? 

            Zero Hour was the name of a radio broadcast created by the Japanese Imperial Army in an attempt to spread propaganda and demoralize American troops. The announcers were mainly Japanese-American women, living abroad during the war and forced to read the pre-written statements in support of Japan. Many American soldiers enjoyed the program, largely due to the voices and personalities of its announcers. Soldiers would create names for each of the different announcers on the radio based on their distinctive voices – the favorite was “Tokyo Rose,” with a distinctive voice that lingered sensuously on each word as she addressed her listeners, "Good evening, fellow orphans in the Pacific". After the war ends, one such soldier, Daniel is determined to discover the identity of the alluring Tokyo Rose. He enters the radio station, where he finds radio technician Toshiya Shiomi, and calls in the five employees. But while many believe that Annie, a U.S. citizen and staunch patriot, is the voice of Tokyo Rose, Daniel is not convinced. As Annie deals with first fame and then accusations of treason, Daniel continues pressuring Shiomi to find out the truth. 

            What made this production so remarkable was how it weaves seamlessly back and forth through fact and fiction, through historical accuracy and poetic beauty. Some key elements of the play are completely fictionalized, yet these moments add layers of symbolism and depth to the truth. Miwa Yanagi spent most of her career as a visual artist, and only stepped into the world of theater five years ago. She explained in the talk-back how difficult it was for her to transition from a single, captured image in her photographic work to a constantly moving image on stage; yet to my eye the staging seemed effortless, natural, and elegant. The fluidity of the set and the well choreographed movements of the actors (not to mention the table) allows for instantaneous transitions between time and place. The actors are fluid as well – in addition to playing the five radio announcers, the female actors serve as an “anonymous Greek chorus.” They transition from paparazzi to police officers to pub patrons, and in the play’s final scene, seem to play glimpses of memories. The five female actors are forced throughout the play to take on whatever role they need to, just as the announcers were forced to speak the words of men. The two male actors, in contrast, are always themselves, though they both age throughout the play. Daniel and Shiomi play games of chess (literally and figuratively) with each other throughout the years, and use Tokyo Rose and the other women as their pawns.  

           The play is visually stunning, but much of its meaning comes from sound, and specifically from voice. The five female characters seem almost identical, yet they each have a distinct individual voice. Daniel has an incredible ear, and is immediately able to determine which voice belongs to which person. This is what convinces him beyond doubt that there must have a been a sixth announcer who supplied the voice of Tokyo Rose, despite Shiomi's insistence that he is mistaken. Annie is soon arrested and tried for treason, and Shiomi betrays her by testifying against her. Daniel fervently and desperately defends her, playing the tapes of each of the six voices from "Zero Hour" and begging the prosecutor to listen... but to the prosecutor, the voices are indistinguishable from each other. What does it mean to have a voice? When Annie spoke on "Zero Hour," was she really using her own voice, or was she just a conduit for the voice of a man? The play is presented in both English and Japanese, with subtitles in both languages displayed on the white backdrop. Many scenes revolve around not the words being spoken, but on the voice itself doing the speaking. Several important characters in the play, including the prosecutor, only appear as voices. The phrase "Good evening, fellow orphans of the Pacific" is repeated countless times throughout the play, but each time is different because each time it is spoken in a new way. Ultimately, Daniel is the only character who listens closely enough to hear these differences - to the rest of the world, the voices of the women all blend into one undifferentiated mass. Although this play explores a fascinating moment in history (one which I knew very little about before), some of the most interesting questions it raises go beyond the event itself and touch on larger issues of gender, society, and what it means to have a voice.

            "Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape" is the start of Japan Society’s new series “Stories from the War” marking the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. While this production continues its North American tour, Japan Society will host numerous other performances, lectures and workshops that explore the war and issues of Japanese-U.S. relations through a contemporary lens. If these upcoming stories are told as captivatingly and beautifully as Miwa Yanagi told this story, then they are certainly not to be missed. 

Image Credits 

Top Left and Right: © Ayumi Sakamoto
Bottom Left: Zero Hour © Miwa Yanagi