“Peace crane, I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world.”
Sadako Sasaki, Age 12
In the East, the name of Sadako Sasaki is as synonymous with war as Anne Frank’s is in the West.
The story of Sadako opens with a moment that will be forever etched into the collective consciousness of mankind: 8.15am on 6th August 1945, the moment the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, resulting in the immediate death of 45,000 people and the lingering deaths of a further 19,000 in the following months.
Time then moves on 10 years to post-war Hiroshima where Sadako and her family live a relatively happy and carefree life. The pitiless echoes of the bomb are still felt however, and the twelve year old Sadako discovers that she has developed leukaemia as a result of radiation. This play, Sadako, tells the true story of this one girl’s valiant spirit in the face of such a dreaded wartime legacy.
At the Baxter this classic, inspirational and heart-wrenching tale is brought to life through the unique medium of Japanese Bunraku puppetry. The superbly crafted puppets, designed by Janni Younge and dressed by Hillette Stapelberg, are so complex and their motions so precise that they transcend their puppet existence the moment they start moving. The size of the puppets – about the size of a 5 year old child – requires them to be controlled by two puppeteers dressed in black. Even though the puppeteers melt into the background, they too become silent characters in the play, as though they are guardian angels in the darkness, helping and supporting each character to run, to play games and giggle, to push up onto a hospital bed or to fold paper cranes. One cannot help but fall in love with the puppets and their personalities, or to be moved by their characters’ bravery and determination.
Twelve-year-old Sadako is voiced and moved by Roshina Ratnam, who imbues her with an utterly endearing child-like enthusiasm and innocence. When Sadako learns of the legend of the red-crowned crane – whoever folds one thousand paper cranes will have their wish granted – the paper cranes start to collect in wreaths, decorating her hospital bed like a shrine. The repetitive activity of folding and wishing becomes an anchor of faith for Sadako, and as she folds origami, she unfolds her story.
This Japanese story of unyielding optimism, belief and sympathy is touching beyond words, and the lifelike puppets are one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen on stage. With movable stages that are shifted around as needed, the puppets drift in and out of scenes as we drift through the memories of the Sasaki family. At times Roshina Ratnam narrates the story from Sadako’s point of view without puppets, as she writes in her diary and comments on her own state of being. Through the narrations from her diary and the letters she writes to her classmates, we glimpse her fearless mind and experience reality through her resolutely positive point of view.
Sadako Sasaki’s death as a young girl still serves as a reminder for us all. Her statue stands in Hiroshima at the Peace Memorial Museum, and her wish still echoes through the world. Every year in Japan, in the third year of middle school, students visit the Genbaku Dome Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum to remember what happened on their island country less than 70 years ago. Before they go on this trip, every class folds one thousand paper cranes which they string up in a wreath to place at the memorial. And while they fold these cranes, the story of Sadako Sasaki is told.
The Hearts and Eyes Theatre Collective has created a masterful production here, bringing us, through carefully crafted storytelling, this tale from the other side of the world. The actors and puppeteers’ skill in physically bringing the characters to life is matched by their voices which give us a delicate insight into each character’s mind. The simple but striking sets by Illka Louw change organically through the seasons, and the script by Peter Hayes has just enough of Japan in it to give it an authentic flavour. This, combined with the Asian atmospheric sound design by Uebu Jemasu and the lighting by Paul Abrams, sets a dreamlike space filled with memories and magic.
What makes this story all the more poignant is that after the earthquake and Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in 2011, Japanese children are once again being diagnosed with cancers and other radiation-affected diseases. Sadly, it seems as though Sadako’s story is to be repeated. As the leukemia slowly defeated her, Sadako lost faith in the legend of the red crane. She folded well over a thousand cranes, and yet her one wish went unheard – she did not get better. And yet to some degree Sadako will never die. Her story lives on and still serves to inspire and show us the power of positive thinking.
Sadako is a must-see for both children and adults. The Hearts and Minds Collective has brought something incredibly special to the stage, and their execution of it deserves attention. After their show at the Baxter, the production will be taken to France for the Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionette. While they are still here, make a plan to go and see this beautiful piece of art, fall in love with a puppet family and be transported to an important part of Japan’s and our world’s collective history.
Sadako Took place at the Baxter Theatre Centre and runs until 10 August.