This show opens with one of the most beautiful and stylized requests to turn off phones I’ve ever seen on a New York stage. Five women dressed in matching starchy black skirts, cream-coloured blouses and black cloche hats entreat the audience in Japanese, English and the most precise and elegant sign language to switch off their devices. The same women have already carried some huge World War II style radios to the aisles and the front of the stage and once their announcement is over, the radios crackle into life with a beguiling voice: “Hello, you fighting orphans in the Pacific.”
Tokyo Rose was a household name during World War II – the host of propaganda radio shows broadcast from Tokyo. The programmes were supposed to demoralize Allied troops based in the Pacific by making them homesick. It’s thought that Tokyo Rose was not one person but a group of about five Japanese American women who took turns fronting the show called Zero Hour. Their honeyed tones as Tokyo Rose gained a following among GIs from Guadalcanal to Hawaii with their quirky catchphrases and apparently prescient knowledge of the next line of attack. In real life and in the play, one of the Tokyo Roses was tried for treason on her return to the US and stripped of her US citizenship even though she had been forced to broadcast by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Miwa Yanagi, a renowned Japanese artist, has based her play around the mystery of who Tokyo Rose really was. Famous for her photographs of Japan’s uniformed, female elevator attendants in settings all around Japan, Yanagi has concocted a marvelous stylized vision of these radiant radio personalities and their place in history. She also designed the set and costumes. In fact, the visually stunning tableaux and dances that punctuate the play rather overshadow the spoken drama that in comparison seems a bit rambling and slow.
The five Tokyo Roses spend much of their time on stage behind white semi-circular desks that they can roll silently and smoothly about the stage to make different formations. The desks, created by Torafu Architects, were almost a character in themselves and were covetable furniture not least as the ultimate airport check-in desk. A backdrop splashed with mesmerizing motion graphics portrayed to great effect the frantic intelligence eavesdropping that took place across the wartime airwaves.
The play is the first event in the Japan Society’s ‘Stories from the war’, a series from now until August of plays, lectures and films that mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The war is a controversial issue for Japan. Its role as an aggressor in Asia has for many years been downplayed domestically with history textbooks focusing mainly on the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan. Indeed, the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, recently took issue with some American textbooks that contain a more comprehensive account of Japan’s role in the war including the forcing of Korean and other foreign women into prostitution for Japanese troops. So it is a bold move for the Japan Society to tackle this particular episode of Japanese history and it will be interesting to see how forthright the rest of the series of events will be.
The ethics of war and the position of Japanese-Americans both in Japan and the United States are explored here, expressed in part through an epic chess game played over decades by two male characters. But while the game is wonderfully evoked in movement by the five Tokyo Roses, the dialogue between the men has less of an impact. In the end the production focuses more on the mystery of Tokyo Rose’s real identity than the fundamental causes of war but it remains an intriguing and memorable piece of theatre even so. I hope that Miwa Yanagi will continue to create art for the stage and that more of her work will be seen outside Japan.