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A Broadcast Through the Years.

March 5, 2015

tokyo roseMiwa Yanagi’s Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape is a radio drama. That is to say, the original Radio Dramas were Plays, acted out on sound stages and broadcast through the airwaves.

Miwa Yanagi captures the essence of a radio drama, through her set design, choice of props, and stage direction. To capture the ephemeral spirit of radio as a medium, Miwa coupled that spirit with the living art that is the Theatre. Combining two temporary mediums, to form a powerful motive energy for her story was pure brilliance.

Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape gives us a glimpse into the lives of the female prisoners of war who were pressed into DJing Zero Hour. The show begins by immersing you into the south pacific, or an approximation thereof. Old radios are brought out and placed around the Theater. These serve not only as a means of broadcasting the distorted audio to the audience, but as a tool to substitute the reality of the stage for our everyday lives. Throughout the show the hiss and crackle of old radio dials can be heard from these radios. The amplified and distorted voices of the actresses come though a little tinny, further suspending reality, and allowing the audience to dive into the story.

The story itself takes place in the past and present. In the past Daniel Yamada (Yohei Matsukado) is a US soldier with a keen ear. He can tell all the Roses apart, and has given nicknames to each. For this reasons he has been tasked with identifying each Rose at the end of the war, as part of an investigation into possible war crimes surrounding the demoralizing broadcast. As an aside to this investigation, Daniel is a fan of Zero Hour, and wants to meet both Orphan Annie, and the main Tokyo Rose.

In the present the war is over, and many years have passed. Daniel is an old, nearly blind man. He awaits the arrival of an old friend Toshiya Shiomi (Sogo Nishimura). Toshiya was the producer, and technician of Zero Hour. They met during Daniel’s investigation. Striking up a quick if at first uneasy friendship, they agree to play each other 100 games of chess. The present awaits Toshiya’s arrival to finish their decades long marathon of games in person.

The majority of the story takes place in the past. We are given a glimpse into how an entire society is influenced by war on an industrial scale. The Roses themselves are all prisoners of a sort. They are first or second generation Japanese immigrants. Either to Canada, the UK, the US etc… They were visiting relatives or sightseeing when the war broke out. Forced to work to survive, many took work in the steno pools, where they translated intercepted broadcasts into Japanese. Eventually the many Roses found their way to the broadcast studios of Zero hour.

The stage direction, and story itself help paint a picture of life under war. Life in a land and culture most of the world don’t readily experience. Everything from the sterile stage built to resemble old broadcast studios, to the robotic movements of the female characters paints a picture of a culture and daily life under stress. The mobile mechanical reconstruction of the set, strains at the need to bring order to the chaos around.

When an important broadcast from the emperor comes over the domestic radio, the girls turn on each other. They had been speaking English, and a few catch themselves, remembering this is a time and place for Japanese to be spoke, not English. Under Daniel’s interviews the Roses, and even Toshiya show the strain of having lived a life under pressure. They want desperately to speak, but their culture, and the authority they had been under stay their tongues. For a time. Eventually Daniel persuades each to open up, in the end, only Toshiya keeps a secret, one he takes with him through the end of the performance.

Daniel convincing the Roses to open up, shows a culture opening up. Modern Japan, while steeped in tradition is more open than it once was. Such changes are made slowly, and you can see these changes in the mannerisms of the Roses, and Toshiya. This speaks volumes to the stage direction, and acting skills of the entire cast. To show subtle physical changes, changes that mirror internal changes on the part of the characters, as well as a culture at large. Acting of this caliber takes great discipline.

A story about Tokyo Rose can’t be told without telling the injustice one of the Roses faced. In this story Jane Yoshiko Sugawa (Ami Kobayashi), plays the female lead. In a cast whose mannerisms and costume are designed to show sameness, Jane stands out. A different hair cut, subtle gestures that allow her to stick out. She is a sore thumb in the culture she is immersed. She retained her American citizenship throughout the war. She refused to give up her citizenship. She also became Orphan Annie, “hello my fellow orphans across the pacific”, being her famous introduction.

Jane’s story perhapse shows the tragedy of war like no other I’ve seen in some time. Just because the war is over, does not mean the lusts have ended. Daniel’s lust to find the Roses, which mirrors the lust of the soldiers who heard her broadcasts throughout the war. A lust for attention, every newspaper man wanted an exclusive with “The Tokyo Rose”, they didn’t care there could be, and were more than one. Finally Blood Lust. The public lusts to blame someone for all the ills suffered during the war. They need to blame someone for their lost loved ones, the forever maimed and scared. When the public has such blood lust, there step in politicians, and policy makers to capitalize on the frenzy. Jane, who had been loyal to the US throughout the war was brought up on treason charges, convicted, and stripped of her citizenship. The same citizenship she had fought to maintain throughout the entire war.

I have spoken of the acting, the set, and the stage direction. I would be remiss not to speak to the beautiful audio that brings Zero Hour to life. Yasutaka Kobayakawa makes sound a living character. The layers of music, distorted voices, static, all bring this radio drama to life. Yes, Zero Hour is a Play, but it is a play about a radio show, and staged in the vein of a Radio Drama. Yasutaka worked to bring sound to life. If it were not for the English captions on the back wall during Japanese speaking segments, it would be possible to listen to the entire performance, instead of watching it. As someone who grew up with radio dramas this was a treat. Yasutaka’s care in designing the sound elements was a treat to listen to. The sound design more than anything else in Zero Hour, helps suspend reality, transporting the audience to the south pacific, where they would be listening to Tokyo Rose broadcast her propaganda.

The key piece to Yasutaka’s sound masterpiece. Recreating Tokyo Rose’s broadcast. I said earlier that Toshiya has a secret. Well, that secret, he is the 6th Rose. Using sound editing he created a ghostly voice, one that haunted Daniel and other soldier alike. As if she were broadcasting from beyond the grave. This has an eerie quality, and it was beautifully done.

Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape is a beautifully complex piece. It uses economy of motion, stage, and sound to transport the audience to another time and place. It might be cliché, but it is a more simple time, a time so simple it is complex. With layer upon layer, each affecting the layers above and below it. Entire nations were at war, entire ways of life were at war. When the world goes to war, cultures are forever altered. Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape gives a brief glimpse into how one such culture responds and changes to the pressures of war.

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