Anyone who knows me will tell you that as a critic and sometime creator of mixed-disciplinary performance, I have a particular proclivity for highly experimental theatrical works and perhaps especially combinations of contemporary dance-theatre from Japan and other parts of Asia. So why, I must ask, did Miwa Yanagi’s “Zero Hour:Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape” leave me feeling as cold and sterile as the “box” it came wrapped up in?
The impulse seemed promising enough. Taken from the historic records and particularly the archived tapes of multiple female announcers who came to be known collectively as “Tokyo Rose,” their broadcasts were intended for propaganda to seduce and demoralize American troupes fighting in the Pacific Theater of Operations (PTO) of World War II. Following the war, a frenzy occurred, first in what was the Occupied Zone to find and meet this elusive character, and then later in the U.S. to make a scapegoat of one of the girls, a Japanese-American woman named Annie Yukuko Oguri Moreno in a sensational trial against “the enemy.”
On first encountering the all-white set I was quite intrigued. It immediately spoke to the single vision of Director-Designer Yanagi, a most notable and awarded visual artist. The white back wall looked like a promising projection surface, the all-white slightly raked floor spotless and ready to be defined. One piece dominated the entire set and looked to be a big donut shaped desk, also white, but it would soon break apart into five identical desks that rolled soundlessly around the stage creating different configurations.
I was amused by the first few minutes when five women, identically dressed in shirt-dresses divided into white tops and black skirts, entered the stage with black, what I might call Audrey Hepburn hats, whose brims covered the upper half of their faces making them look both identical and doll-like. The women put a projector on the center desk and then proceeded to carry old-fashioned wooden radio consoles and place them around the auditorium. These little automatons were perfectly in sync, with two of them incorporating into the usual introduction of “turn off your cell phone “ a delivery of audience protocol made wittily in character, drawing appreciative laughs, while two others performed the same orders elegantly in sign language.
The choreography continued flawlessly throughout the evening. Hinako Arau, Ami Kobayashi, Sachi Masuda, Megumi Matsumoto, and Aki are accomplished dancers and beautifully transformed themselves successfully into the emblematic ciphers for Yanagi’s vision.
Choreographer Megumi Matsumoto must be commended for what she created in spare and coolly executed sequences of what I would term post-modern dance moves. I got the connection that the five characters were not only “militarized” and turned into compromised work-zombies, but they were also intentionally made interchangeable for propaganda purposes. I couldn’t help but think this was also making a statement about how so often historically that Americans viewed any nationality of Asians as interchangeable and dismissed as, “They all look the same.” But as good as these dancers were, I felt, as scene followed scene, that everything stayed the same: cool, smooth, expressionless, and finally unmoving.
The conceptual ideas driving the piece seemed overly complex. There were the journeys of the girls themselves, particularly the American character of “Annie,” who had got caught in Japan as the war started and found herself trapped and used as a pawn first by the Japanese and then by post-war Americans. The chess theme was picked up also in the relationship of two men, a Japanese-American G.I., Daniel (Yohei Matsukado,) who comes searching for the woman behind the voice he has been listening to, and Toshiya Shiomi (Sogo Nishimura,) the recording technician at the radio station who happens also to be an expert at chess. They agree to play one hundred games against each other, and the competition draws out many maneuvers and games being played. The problem was that Daniel also tried to help free Annie during her court trial in post-war Chicago by proving her innocence and so it strained credulity that he would continue playing chess for many years following with the man whom he saw lie in court and let Annie take the fall for all the Japanese broadcasting women. Finally, there was another story that had to do with Shiomi and his secret, but this never got sufficiently explored. A pity, it was one of the most interesting and complex character arcs.
The chief problem of Zero Hour, however, lay not in the moves or even the somewhat “clotted” plot, but the sounds. Some but not all of this was a problem with having a cast of some non-fluent English speakers. Yanagi’s fascination with the mystery of recorded voice, how these illusive feminine voices must have been heard late at night in what was primitive broadcasting conditions on Pacific islands and American war vessels, gave her the idea of layering sound. The layering did not help the problem of following the show in two languages and several degrees of accents and abilities with English. Not only were cadences flawed but sometimes over-carefulness plus over-layering ran things aground. If one person was speaking in English and then one or more voices punctuated the air with sound, even if they were just producing single syllables, it became most difficult to understand.
The actual vocal projection of voices was also problematic. Several of the women performers spoke upstage at times, and then all was lost. At other times, especially when speaking English, they pushed sound from their throats creating a strangulation of sound that proved garbled and simply undecipherable.
There is often a danger producing mixed-media and multi-disciplinary work of uneven skills across forms. Performance art does not always prepare actors in their craft to project clear sound healthily nor build the capacity for communicating emotional truth. Both were found wanting here.
In the final analysis, the work demanded that the audience follow what felt like a very long and cerebral approach to dance, design, and theatre, and it proved wearisome. The polite applause at the end suggested I was not alone in feeling that the show ended up as pale and colorless as the set.
Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape had two performances at the Kennedy Center: January 6 and 7, 2015.
Zero Hour: Tokyo Rose’s Last Tape . Conceived, Written, Directed and Designed by Miwa Yanagi . Choreographed by Megumi Matsumoto . Produced by Japan Society . Presented by the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.