can you hear my voice?
by Douglas Messerli
Miwi Yanagi Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape / Los Angeles, Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) at Disney Hall, the performance I attended was on February 26, 2015
On September 26, 2006 Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino died at the age of 90. D’Aquino was a young American visiting a sick aunt in Japan when World War II broke out, and she was forced, accordingly, to remain in Japan for the duration. During that period she was either forced or willingly took on the role—one of several women who were prisoners of war asked to participate in the broadcasts—of a figure that came to be called, collectively, Tokyo Rose. Tokyo Rose had many voices, but D’Aquino’s gravelly voice and slight lisp, according to news reports, was the most memorable of them. Calling herself “Orphan Ann,” she became the one most associated with the radio celebrity, taunting American soldiers in an almost “cartoon”-like manner, naming soldiers’ names and, supposedly, reporting of failed missions. Writing of D’Aquino in The Washington Post reporter Adam Bersntein claimed that “She and other captive Allied nationals decided to turn their ordeal on its head, deliberately making a hash of the propaganda."
After the War, U.S. officials sought out the Tokyo Rose broadcasters, and singled out D’Aquino in particular; but ultimately they felt there was insufficient evidence. D’Aquino, who fought hard to keep her American passport attempted to return to the U.S., but as she attempted to, she was met with outrage by conservative news-columnist Walter Winchell, who, with the backing of the American Legion insisted she be tried for treason. Several figures testified against her and she was found guilty, spending some years in prison before she was released. Over the years it became more and more obvious that D’Aquino had been innocent, and in 1977 President Gerald R. Ford pardoned her as one of his last acts in office.
Miwa Yanagi’s new play, Zero Hour, named for the broadcast hour that featured the Tokyo Rose broadcasts, presents five featured women playing the Toyko Roses: Megumi Matsumoto, Sachi Masuda, Ami Kobayashi, and Hinako Arao, the last identified as Annie Yukuko Oguri Moreno, a figure very similar to D’Aquino.
Using, some of the brief recordings left of the Tokyo Rose broadcasts, and the recorded voice of the Public Prosecutor, Robert B. Spenser, the playwright takes us through a quick-moving, visually-charged and almost balletically choreographed performance in both Japanese and English. The young girls asked to play the siren are seemingly quite innocent, giggling between their written messages and the recordings which drew the soldiers to listen to the broadcasts. Annie, at first, refuses to participate, but finally determines that she can better control the propagandistic messages by participating. And it is clear, at least from this performance, that in their broken English and girlish voices she and the others were unlikely threats to the American boys tuned in for the music. Only one voice, a missing sixth Toyko Rose, seems to have truly haunted the waves. As a witness to the public broadcasts, Daniel Yamada (Ohei Matsukado), able to distinguish between the women’s voices—as this play asks us to do—finds no one who sounds like the haunting siren he recalls.
Trying to find a scapegoat for the outrage of their wartime activities, the propaganda chief in charge of the Zero Hour, Toshiya Shiomi (Sogo Nishimura) testifies against Annie. Daniel insists the jurors should attempt listen more closely to the various voices, and to note the obvious differences between the Annie’s voice and the one recording left of the “real” Tokyo Rose; yet the Americans on the panel, perhaps in xenophobic ignorance, claim to be unable to hear any differences between the voices, and Annie is found guilty.
Despite Daniel’s outrage over Toshiya’s clearly false testimony, the two develop a deep relationship founded on their opposing views, played out through 100 games of chess, until both them become long-lived survivors of the War, old men trying still to outwit one another. What becomes evident in Miwa Yanagi’s telling is not only that, given the pulls of history and events, we often hear what we want to hear, but that distinctions that should be obvious are ignored, and small differences become vast chasms which can never be bridged.
Daniel comes to believe that the husky-voiced siren version of Tokyo Rose was, in fact, not a woman at all, but the voice of the Radio Tokyo employee, Toshiya Shiomi, who manipulated the high quality German- or American-made tapes, distorting his male voice through slowing down and speeding up the process just enough to transform it into the voice most remembered by the lonely American sailors waiting in the waters surrounding Japan and their Pacific assignments.
What does a sexy voice coming out of the dark truly sound like? asks this playwright. Obviously, we sometimes hear only what we desire.
Los Angeles, February 27, 2015