Friday, September 2, 2011

‘A little girl against the world’

Upcoming film to bring real story of Tokyo Rose to light

Express Staff Writer

Filmmaker Terry Sanders spoke to an overflow crowd at The Community Library in Ketchum on Wednesday about the myths and truths of Tokyo Rose. Photo by David N. Seelig

For young Iva Toguri, patriotism came naturally. Born on the Fourth of July in Los Angeles, a UCLA graduate and a fan of all things American, she never for an instant considered that her country could turn against her.

Nearly 170 people jammed The Community Library's lecture room Wednesday evening for a presentation by filmmaker Terry Sanders on his upcoming movie about Toguri, aka Tokyo Rose.

Sanders' talk included excerpts from his previous films and documentaries as well as screen tests from the actress tabbed to play Toguri in the film, scheduled for completion in a year and a half. Sanders, who owns a vacation condo in Sun Valley, said in an interview that the intent of his presentation was partly to solicit additional investment for the $6 million film.

Sanders said his hope for the film is for people to learn the truth, not just about Toguri's fate, but the abject failure of the U.S. justice system to provide a fair trial for one of its citizens.

"The injustice that was visited upon this girl, Iva, was just mindboggling," he said.

He said he knew as little as most people when he embarked on the film project. Much of what he thought he knew—that she was "a temptress, a traitor, a spy"—was untrue.

"It's hard to dislodge a myth," he said.

In 1941, Toguri went to Japan to care for a family member. While there, World War II broke out and she became stranded. Unwilling to renounce her American citizenship, she was treated by the Japanese as an "enemy alien," Sanders said.

Jobless and close to starvation, she eventually found work at Radio Tokyo. She met three prisoners of war there who had been forced to write propaganda for broadcast to Allied troops. In an attempt to undermine their abhorrent mission, the three came up with the idea to parody propaganda. Toguri, happy to collaborate with a plan to sabotage the Japanese in the only way they could, agreed to read the plays and other communications over the air, Sanders said.

With the end of the war, news reporters came rushing to the Pacific to wire stories back home. Toguri agreed to tell her story as one of the many English-speaking "Tokyo Rose" broadcasters, so named by American G.I.s.

When an unscrupulous journalist heard Toguri's story, he found it less interesting than he'd hoped. Sanders said he contrived a story that Toguri admitted to being a traitor. She was quickly arrested.

After a year in prison, she was exonerated, Sanders said. But her ordeal was just beginning.

"Back in the United States, there were other forces at work," he said.

In 1948, with anti-Japanese sentiment still running high and a presidential election nearing, no one wanted to be accused of being soft on traitors.

Toguri was allowed back into her native country on the condition that she stand trial for the crime of treason. Certain of her innocence and longing to go home, she agreed.

"She came back to the United States to find that the entire government was lined up against her," Sanders said.

Sanders said the prosecutor believed she was innocent and the jury wanted to acquit her, but those other, stronger forces refused to let their scapegoat go.

False testimony against her by two Japanese-Americans and "total misconduct on the part of the United States," Sanders said, resulted in one of eight counts of treason sticking.

Toguri served six years of a 10-year prison sentence and lost her American citizenship.

"That probably hurt her the most," Sanders said.

She was finally pardoned by President Gerald Ford. She has not, however, been exonerated.

In looking for an actress to portray Toguri, Sanders said he found talented young Maya Erskine, who was "diminutive" like Toguri. A small, young female was significant to the story in a symbolic way, he added, because Toguri was "a little girl against the world."

Toguri died in 2006 at age 90.

Ketchum resident Gary Hoffman attended the presentation to learn more about the story of Tokyo Rose.

"There is a fascination with topics we think we know about ... but are largely based on myth," he said. "Very few people have the desire to delve and keep delving when everyone else says, 'Give up.'"

"There are so few black-and-whites and so many shades of gray," he added.

Sanders cautioned the audience to be vigilant for injustice and untruths in contemporary society, including in the government and the press.

"Be alert, be honest, and insist on the truth," he said.

Rebecca Meany:

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