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'Tokyo Rose' at Southwark Playhouse

Tokyo Rose tells the story of Iva Toguri, a Japanese-American woman who was accused of broadcasting propaganda to the Allied troops during World War 2 and subsequently stood trial for treason against the United States. The musical takes place in 1949, during Toguri’s trial, as she fights to defend herself and her American citizenship.

The musical’s small cast of six women plays both male and female characters to varying degrees of effectiveness. Worth highlighting are Lucy Park’s main characters, Papa and Fujiwara, who highlight the strangeness and lack of belonging felt by Toguri (played by Maya Britto) in both America and Japan. Park’s performance as Toguri’s supportive but strict father compellingly contrasts against his portrayal of Toguri’s manager at the broadcasting company, who betrays Toguri in court and reveals her own lack of consideration towards the plight of the Japanese people at the hands of the United States. Britto’s Toguri is convincing as a character caught between two worlds, an enemy to both, representing the political and emotional complexities that come with her dual identity.

The cast as a whole boasts strong voices with distinct personalities, but none of them particularly stands out in a musical dense with repetitive songs that, unfortunately, I did not find memorable. Some songs have surprisingly heartwarming, tender moments. For example, ‘Letters’ beautifully captures the heartsickness, bitterness, and enduring love between the intertwining relationships of mother, daughter, aunt, and sister. Other than this, most of the other songs are fun to watch in the moment but do not prompt a second listen. The choreography is fun but again, forgettable.

The set is dynamic and the stage as a whole is well-used. While the lighting throughout the musical is fine, its use in the second half is definitely more interesting especially during the jury’s deliberations of Toguri’s final verdict. The main light fixture at the top of the centre of the stage flickers in anticipation and is timed well with the music to emphasise the ticking of the clock, heightening the tension of the moment.

Most striking is the musical’s use of language. Tokyo Rose’s characters converse in both English and Japanese. While most of the Japanese is somewhat translated, there are moments in the show where language and accent succinctly illustrate Toguri’s and the audience’s foreignness as well as her struggle with her identity – at heart, Toguri is American, but her skin colour and heritage forces her to acknowledge otherwise. The show brings to light crucial issues surrounding the diaspora of Japanese-Americans in post-war America. How far is one’s identity mediated by distance from their homeland? How do a country’s military actions impact the innocent lives of its people so far from it?

Overall, with its funky basslines, strong vocals and intriguing story, Tokyo Rose is thought-provoking and fun to watch. It is also a treat to see a female Asian-led production in theatre and this musical seems to me a sign that there are many more stories yet to be told, or I suppose, sung.


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