Sachiko Hara makes her mark in Germany

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo-born Sachiko Hara, 46, was the apple of her ordinary, working-parents’ eye. She was encouraged to get a degree in German studies from the prestigious Sophia University, and after that it seemed some sort of high-flying career was hers for the taking.

But during her time at Sophia, Hara developed another interest, which began with acting in small underground theater productions. After graduation, she first became heavily involved in Tokyo’s thriving small-scale avant-garde drama scene, next came Japanese TV-drama roles, and then she joined the cast of a play performed in Germany.

It was during that 1999 working visit to Germany that Hara auditioned, in German, for a new play by Christoph Schlingensief, an acclaimed cutting-edge stage and film director and icon of contemporary German culture. Since landing that role, Hara has lived and mainly worked in Germany. Her radical portrayal of a raven-haired, Lolita-type Polly Peachum, the main character in Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece, “Die Dreigroschen Oper” (“The Threepenny Opera”) at the Hanover State Theater, directed by the rising star Nicholas Stemann, propelled Hara to the leading position in German theater she has occupied since.

The Japan Times caught up with Hara on a recent visit to Japan.

What brings you back to Japan just now?

I was in Hiroshima last week to attend a reading event for schoolchildren. Though it’s the summer vacation, kids there go to school on Aug. 6 to learn about the war, the atom-bombing of the city on that day in 1945, and nuclear weapons.

Also, I heard that a company in Hiroshima was going to perform the late Hisashi Inoue’s 2008 masterpiece “Shonen Kudentai 1945″ (“Big Boy, Big Typhoon”), which is about the experience of a teenage boy during the atom-bombing of Hiroshima, and I wanted to see that. I actually introduced the same play to the Hannover State Theater in Germany and was among the cast in their performance of it last September. Now it has become part of their repertoire.

That play has a strong universal message about the dignity of every human’s life. I think that one of the important roles of theaters is to show people reality, such as that of radiation exposure, even if there are some horrific descriptions.

In Germany, I sometimes hold a theater event called “Hiroshima Salon,” in which I introduce local food from Hiroshima and screen a video of me interviewing people in the city. With this year’s visit, I’ve done further research for that event, and I plan to rework it to add segments about Fukushima and its nuclear power plants.

How did you end up in Germany?

When I first went to Germany to work in 1999, I was in a tourist mood and I was gaily telling anyone and everyone I met — even strangers in a cafe — that I’d come to Berlin to meet my artistic idol Christoph Schlingensief. Then, amazingly, within a few days I somehow found myself auditioning for his new play “Deutschlandsuche” (“Search for Germany”).

The play was a kind of improv that broached hot political subjects and there would be a surprise guest for each performance — someone from business or politics. I’d heard that Schlingensief was looking for peculiar characters for the play, so for the audition I used an odd style of movement and did everything I could to be strange. And, astonishingly, he hired me.

That was really just a stroke of luck, but I was proud all the same. At that time, though, I didn’t give it too much thought and simply decided to give it a go. I’ve been working all over Germany and Austria ever since.

That kind of impulsive decision is typical of me.

Why did you choose to continue working in Germany and not Japan?

I married a young German dramatist and had a son, so I moved to Berlin in 2001. However, a few years later, I got divorced and suddenly I felt cast adrift. My good friends, including Schlingensief (who died in August last year, aged 49) and Stemann, who were both the darlings of German contemporary theater, were incredibly supportive and helped me get a regular job at the Burgtheater in Vienna in 2004.

I’ve never thought of Germany as a better place to live than Japan, but because I was lucky enough to meet those two brilliant, provocative artists, I simply wanted to work with them as much as possible — which meant working in Germany. Unfortunately, I’d never had such exciting working experiences in Japan.

Nowadays there are actors from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds in Germany, but many of them were born and brought up there. Foreign actors like me are still very rare, but being in that position gives me a different, third-person view of the country and its culture. Because of this, many young dramatists have been interested in my perspective and my opinion, and I have often been invited to join their projects. For example, the world-class director René Pollesch created a role for me to express my feeling as a foreigner in German society, and he let me perform it in a realistic way.

Why do you think contemporary theater is less prominent in Japanese society, especially when compared with Germany and many other European countries?

First of all, the ticket prices are too high in Japan.

In Germany, even though the economy isn’t very strong at the moment, the state governments (similar to a prefectural governments in Japan) still offer substantial support to public theaters, and they have many types of ticket concessions to attract a wide range of people. The citizens, too, are proud of their state theaters and often discuss their programs in everyday conversation.

Theaters in Germany work at maintaining a good relationship with local citizens, and they line up a variety of programs to respond to any generation. Also, German theater appeals to tourists, and it attracts many foreign producers who come looking to buy the rights to plays.

I’m sure this business model could work for theater in Japan, too — if the will was there at the top.

Why do you think Germany could be a better environment than Japan?

From what I’ve heard from my son, children in Germany assert themselves and clearly express their opinion from an early stage at school. They also debate topics in class, arrive at points of compromise and come to conclusions. It seems that children have proper discussions and assume everyone has a different opinion. Then they move forward logically. So, I believe there is a good education system in Germany.

We should have debate-type lessons in Japanese schools, but above all I think Japanese, in general, need to be able to state their position clearly in any situation. Japanese people seem to think too much about other people’s feelings, so they choose their words carefully to fit in with the majority view. In Europe, nobody would behave like that.

I’ve been in Europe for 11 years and I have come to understand that nobody will take much notice of me unless I make my opinions or my requests known.

What do you see for your future?

Regarding theater, I always think about whether I am really interested in the program I’m involved in and whether I’m excited about it or not. So, as long as I’m getting interesting jobs in Germany, I will stay in Germany.

When I moved to Germany I was already over 30, so I often think of myself as a typical Japanese living in Europe. I will probably think again about where to live when my son finishes university in Germany and becomes independent.

Sachiko Hara’s next appearances are both in Germany — “Demokratie in Abendstunden & Kein Licht” (“Democracy in Eveningtime & No Light”), a new play by Elfriede Jelinekne, premiering Sept. 29 at the Schauspiel Köln; and “Die Niberungen,” premiering Oct. 23 at the Schauspiel Hannover. For more details, visit www.schauspielhannover.de (German), www.schauspielkoeln.de (German), mash-info.com (Japanese).