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Theater Review: ‘Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape’ at Japan Society

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Hinako Arao in “Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape,” Miwa Yanagi’s telling of a bit of World War II history at Japan Society.

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Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The women are young, workplace-glamorous, nearly interchangeable. Beneath black cloche hats pulled so far down that we can’t see their eyes, their red-lipsticked mouths are uniform perfection.

Which one do you suppose is Tokyo Rose?

It’s a trick question, of course, both in World War II history and in “Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape,” the Japanese artist Miwa Yanagi’s sleekly designed, reimagined telling of the Tokyo Rose story at Japan Society, where the production begins its North American tour. It is the first event in the society’s Stories From the War series, which stretches into August, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

The notion of a radio announcer named Tokyo Rose was an American invention, a conflation of several women who broadcast Japanese propaganda and American pop music to American military listeners on a program called “Zero Hour.” After the war, a young Californian, trapped in Japan during the conflict, was branded as Tokyo Rose and convicted of treason.

These bare bones are useful to know going in. Ms. Yanagi’s “Zero Hour,” which she wrote and directs on a set she designed, is primarily a visual and sonic experience. The tale itself — in English and Japanese, with supertitles — gets a bit muddled.

The play focuses on a Japanese-American soldier named Daniel (Yohei Matsukado), who is certain he can tell the “Zero Hour” announcers apart. He’s sure, too, that one of them remains unaccounted for at war’s end, even as the naïve, American-born Annie (Hinako Arao) gains notoriety as Tokyo Rose.

Ms. Yanagi has spent most of her career as a visual artist, and examining female identity has been a strong theme in her work. Her recent move into theater makes sense; even her photographs are narrative. Here, the story is about women as pawns in a game men play.

But design takes precedence. The show’s white set is elegant in its spareness, yet appearance trumps practicality: Supertitles projected in soft white lettering on an eggshell surface look lovely, but they are not as legible as they might be.

The sound design, by Yasutaka Kobayakawa, is complex and similarly attention-grabbing: the fuzziness of static, the bleeping of Morse code, the bursts of Ella Fitzgerald and Vera Lynn. But there are sometimes too many competing layers of information, and the actors’ voices get drowned out in a way that seems unintended.

The five women in the “Zero Hour” cast — gorgeously outfitted by Ms. Yanagi in full black skirts, fitted white jackets and Mary Janes with just a hint of a heel — are as superficially identical as the women in Ms. Yanagi’s “Elevator Girl” photo series, from the 1990s. In both cases, the interchangeability contributes to their fantasy appeal.

But “Zero Hour” is a very busy production — so focused on its many moving parts that Annie, the so-called Tokyo Rose, gets lost in its midst.

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