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A Typist, Radio Star, and Traitor: Miwa Yanagi’s ‘Zero Hour’ Tackles Tokyo Rose

Miwa Yanagi's Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose's Last Tape. AYUMI SAKAMOTO

Miwa Yanagi’s Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape.

AYUMI SAKAMOTO

In 1949, Iva Toguri d’Aquino, a young Japanese-American typist, became the seventh person in the history of the United States to be convicted of treason. She was brought from Japan to America, arrested immediately, tried, and put in prison for six years. As many Americans realized by 1977, the year Gerald Ford pardoned her, she was not guilty.

During World War II, Toguri would have been better known as “Tokyo Rose”—a radio personality known for hosting The Zero Hour, a nightly show designed to lower American morale. (“Tokyo Rose” was actually several Japanese-American typists, but soldiers never knew who these women were.) Toguri was neither professionally trained for the job, nor did she ever stop thinking of herself as American as she made Japanese propaganda.

Toguri’s identity was not revealed until after the war ended, when two American reporters, hungry for something to defame the Japanese, discovered it and made a sensation out of “Tokyo Rose.” It’s this part of the story that takes up the majority of Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape, Japanese artist Miwa Yanagi’s experimental play, which is currently in the middle of its three-night run at the Japan Society in New York. (The Japan Society has included it in “Stories From the War,” a series of performances that mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.) After Saturday, the play will continue its tour across the U.S. with two performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Zero Hour is something like a John le Carré novel by way of Bertolt Brecht—a pulpy, though always human, story of wartime intrigue that is never anything less than a challenging theatrical experience. For starters, its story is nonlinear—the epilogue comes somewhere near the beginning (and is also repeated, this time in an extended, more emotional version, at the end), and the audience is expected to pick up on various historical details as the play goes on. There are also several extended sequences where various events—a trial, a chess game, a broadcast—become a mix of interpretive dance, projected images, and spoken word.

The play is mostly about five women who look very similar. They all wear black hats that cover their eyes, and collared white shirts that clash with their knee-length black skirts. When they do take off their hats, it becomes an event, punctuating the typists’ part-Japanese, part-English chatter. (Thankfully, for viewers who don’t speak Japanese, subtitles are projected onto the top of the minimalist, all-white set.)

This focus on women is typical for Yanagi, who is known for her photography and videos—most notably Elevator Girls (1994–1998), a series of photographs of the women who work the elevators of Japanese department stores. These women, like the ones in Zero Hour, all look alike because they wear the same outfits and act the same way. (Like the play, these photographs are also visually stunning—they’re lit like a ’50s melodrama and have the cold beauty of a Vogue spread.) Yanagi was chosen to represent Japan at the 2009 Venice Biennale, where she showed Windswept Women, a series of black-and-white, floor-to-ceiling photographs of women who seem to be performing some kind of ritual dance.

Yanagi’s work is decidedly feminist. In Zero Hour, the medium is the message, and the message is the women. They address the audience often, using such repeated phrases as, “Can you hear me now?” Of course we can, but we’re not supposed to tell them that—although in a few cases, the audience (including myself), not realizing this was the performance and not a mic check, did respond. Yanagi means for there to be communication problems, but, like the American soldiers who tuned in every night, it’s hard to resist not thinking of the typists as humans, even if they all act and dress the same way.

At the beginning of the play, the five women fan out into the aisles and place radios around the theater. From the beginning, Yanagi is interested in how media distorts ideas and personalities. After the performance, Yanagi, who spoke in Japanese using a translator, told me that she was “intrigued by these anonymous recordings,” which were “lies.”

“I’ve been interested in the role of media in the context of theater,” said Yanagi, who has spent the last four years writing and directing plays. “Media is used for political reasons, and as a social context. It can be used as a tool.”

Sure enough, Zero Hour looks at theater as an artistic medium, and how it communicates with its audience. Toward the end of the play, during Toguri’s trial, Daniel, a Japanese-American soldier determined to prove that Toguri was innocent, addresses the audience as if it were a jury. At other times, viewers become World War II-era soldiers—captive listeners to Toguri’s broadcast.

More than anything else, the play keeps its viewers on their toes and makes them reevaluate a little-known piece of American history. “These voices sometimes reach the audience, sometimes do not, sometimes come close to one’s ear and then trail off into the distance,” Yanagi writes in an essay that accompanies the play. “Perhaps it is only through live theater that we can replay these voices that have disappeared into the waves of history.”

Correction: January 31, 2015: A previous version of this article stated that Toguri was placed in a detainment camp after being convicted. Toguri was imprisoned, rather than put in a detainment camp. This version is corrected.

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