This article was originally published in the Japan Times on the 25 January 2020.
Hiroko Tanahashi is a multimedia artist who creates immersive worlds for Post Theater, a Berlin- and Stuttgart-based media performance company that she co-directs with her partner, Max Schumacher.
After graduating from high school, Tanahashi left for New York, later moving to Berlin. She has been away from Japan for the past 25 years, more than half her life.
“I grew up in a very non-Japanese environment and was not really interested in Japanese culture until I had my first child,” she says when asked why she left Japan. “Today, I’m rediscovering Japan through the interests of my two boys.”
Born in Tokyo as an only child to a father who worked for the camera firm Leica and to a housewife mother, Tanahashi moved to Chiba at the age of 1 and grew up in what she saw as a “characterless housing estate, in the middle of nowhere, on reclaimed land with little connection to Japanese traditional culture.”
As a primary school girl in the 1980s, she developed an interest in Western cultures through shōjo manga (girl’s comics), particularly “Cipher” by Minako Narita, which is mainly set in New York. At one point, she dreamed about becoming a cartoonist.
At around 12 years old, Tanahashi was stirred by the power of film, especially “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy about a fictional Italian mafia migrant family in New York, and she began to toy with the idea of becoming a movie director.
In order to pursue this interest, she took a leap of faith after graduating high school and, in 1995, embarked on a BFA in film studies at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York University (NYU).
Reflecting on that decision, she recalls, “At that time, if you wanted to study film in the U.S., it was a choice between California or New York. I preferred NYU because the campus felt like it was part of the city.”
At university, Tanahashi’s film experiments tended to focus on visuals rather than language. She soon realized that making films was a costly business and began to gravitate toward video, which was far more affordable and accessible.
In her final year in 1999, she met her future husband Max Schumacher who was pursuing an M.A. degree in performance studies at NYU. He was looking for multimedia artists to participate in a mixed-media performance project. “Film showings are often highly repetitive,” she says of her first foray into live theater, “whereas live performance is rooted in the here and now.”
Tanahashi decided to pursue her interests in video art and the “liveness” of performance, and applied for an MFA in design and technology at Parsons School of Design in New York. She focused on physical computing, which was an emerging field at the time, experimenting with the crossover between digital and analog media.
When Schumacher returned to Germany after his studies, Tanahashi began visiting him in Berlin to collaborate on new performance works. There she was drawn to Europe’s patchwork of countries, regions and cultures. Moreover, she found that Berlin’s cheaper venue and equipment hire made life for artists much more amenable than in New York.
“New York is well known as a hard place to survive for artists,” she says. “But after 9/11, it became even harder, particularly when it came to securing a work visa.”
After completing her MFA, she decided to join Schumacher in Berlin. Compared to the U.S., Germany at the time had a relatively more open policy toward migrants, she says, and funding for artists was easier to obtain. Constant funding came in allowing several new productions per year, as well as frequent invitations to international festivals, and Tanahashi undertook numerous artist in residency programs in countries such as Croatia, Iceland and Taiwan to name a few, where she developed theater projects and tapped into all-important artist networks.
In 2009, Tanahashi gave birth to her first son. “(My career) went into an ice age,” she jokingly says about the effect motherhood had on her life.
“I found keeping a work-life balance challenging,” she explains. “On top of that, by that time, Berlin had become a hub for artists, which made it much more difficult to obtain funding.”
Her sons, however, were also a new source of inspiration.
“Children became a potential audience for Post Theater,” she says. “I realized that in Germany, children’s theater was very advanced, and I wanted to create work that spoke to people of all ages, so I decided to produce an intergenerational immersive piece with Post Theater titled ‘I in Wonderland’ (2012-17).”
Inspired by stories such as “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” the piece used elements of theater, installation art and animated film to create an intense experience for only nine people at a time.
The future is looking bright for Tanahashi, having recently received arts funding for a new project inspired by Japanese folklore tsukumogami (tools that have acquired spirits or ghosts). She found this inspiration while watching the classic anime, “GeGeGe no Kitaro” (“Kitaro of the Graveyard”), adapted from Shigeru Mizuki’s manga in 1960, with her sons.
In some ways, it seems Tanahashi has come full circle — fulfilling a childhood dream to work with manga while exploring Japanese culture.
Cover photo: Audience members take part in ‘HexenHuttenTraumPalaste’ (2018-19), an interactive exhibition of fairy-tale architecture, art directed by Hiroko Tanahashi and Max Schumacher. | COURTESY OF POST THEATER