Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater by Eric P. Nash

This beautiful book traces the history and development, rise and fall of kamishibai, a form of storytelling that was once phenomenally popular in Japan and now has all but vanished.

“Just as bonsai create a miniature forest, kamishibai is a microcosm of 20th-century Japanese history. Kamishibai is not only the story of a lost medium, but a cross-sectional look into the cultural mindset of a people who experienced the worldwide Depression of the 1930s, imperialist expansion in World War II, and crushing defeat and encounter with the West other during American occupation.”

As described in Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater, the medium of kamishibai combined visual art with narrative and street-based performance. A story would be illustrated on several painted poster boards (each was a little larger than the size of a comic book page turned sideways) placed in a “Punch-and-Judy-like stage” and as the kamishibai man would tell his tales, he would slide out each board to reveal the next page of the story.

These itinerant storytellers would travel from village to village with their butais (miniature wood prosceniums), and make their money off of candy sales to the crowds of children who would always gather to watch (not that different from how modern movie theatres make their money). The stories would range from samurai stories to westerns, folk tales to sci-fi and fantasy, and during World War II, the kamishibai men even served as one of the few methods of relaying news to the populace.

Kamishibai takes us back to a Tokyo of an earlier time, a city of crooked dirt lanes, tilting two-story structures, and crowds of grimy urchins shod in wooden geta. kamishibai men made an uncertain living by selling sweets as the price of admission to their fantastic little tales. A good kamishibai man ran the gamut of voices and facial expressions for his paper plays, from mincing female tones to gruff samurai expostulations.”

Author Eric P. Nash demonstrates considerable skills as a historian and art critic, and manages to connect his story with popular and traditional arts from around the world. He positions kamishibai as a storytelling medium that links traditional Japanese scrolls and woodblock prints with modern manga and anime.

“If most Japanese pop culture, from videogaming to toy merchandising, is based in manga, manga has its roots in kamishibai,” he writes.

One of the book’s biggest highlights is the inclusion of several full-length kamishibai stories, as well as many reportedly rare images reproduced for the first time from Japanese archives. The dust jacket even folds out into a full-colour poster featuring many of the key images and characters from kamishibai‘s history. The illustrations alone are worth the price of the book.

Early in the book, Nash describes the early history of the medium, from its ancestry in eighth-century Buddhist scrolls and Edo-era woodblock prints, through to the introduction and development of newspapers, cinema and cartoons from the West in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“Prince of Gamma in The Demon Castle of Outer Space”

The notion of cultural hybridization and mash-up recurs throughout the book, giving a sense of global interconnectedness that can be dizzying. In a random sampling from the book’s first two chapters, there are references to Jean Cocteau, Alfred Hitchcock, Steve Ditko, Gumby, Chester Gould, Jack Kirby, George Lucas, Betty Boop, and Ingmar Bergman. And we haven’t even reached the part in the story where the story of kamishibai takes off.

Kamishibai had its Golden Age, just as American comics did,” Nash writes.

That time was the 1930s. A fascinating chapter on kamishibai‘s characters and creators reveals how many of the writers and artists of that “Golden Age” later became key figures in the history of manga, including Takeo Nagamatsu, Sanpei Shirato, Shigeru Mizuki, and Kazuo Koike.

“The repertoire of underground lairs, hooded henchmen, and giant robots is foreign but strangely familiar. Kamishibai resembles manga in its dizzying range of genres, including one of the world’s first illustrated costumed super heroes, Golden Bat, in 1931, who edged out Lee Falk’s Phantom by several years … kamishibai (also) featured some of the world’s first illustrated superheroes with secret identities, like the Prince of Gamma, a boy in Peter Pan costume with the ability to fly and whose alter ego is a street urchin.”

But the kamishibai stories were not all adventure and fun. During WWII, the medium was used for propaganda, and two of the most heart-rending stories reprinted in the book (Children of the Bomb and Prayer for Peace) detail the aftermath of Hiroshima from the perspective of a child.

At times there’s almost too much information in this book, and there are moments that seem to beg for more details, such as the kamishibai men. There’s a lot of time spent on the artists and writers behind the most famous kamishibai stories, and when the people who delivered these stories to the audience are described, it opens the world of kamishibai up considerably, but those key players are noticeably less visible overall. This isn’t so much a flaw as it is a desire to learn more about the subject.

We meet one of them in the book’s nostalgic introduction by noted manga scholar Frederik L. Schodt, author of one of the first books introducing manga to the West, Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. He recalls meeting “one of the last true kamishibai narrators” in Tokyo in 1981, watching one of his performances, and his laments of how the audience has changed.

“Television had also changed them, he said, for they didn’t laugh out loud the way they used to; they also tended to anticipate the endings of the kamishibai stories, which made it difficult for him. But they loved the interaction between the narrator and the audience.”

After the war, censors under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur “forbade representations of martial themes in popular arts,” crippling an industry that before the war attracted audiences of up to five million people per day, and sustained 40 production houses and 50,000 storytellers in Tokyo and Kansai alone.

“Fireflies on a darkening street corner”

Along with persecution — over the themes of its stories, the candy it sold (nailed for being unhealthy), and the subversive and critical nature of some of the street performers — came television, which effectively killed off traditional kamishibai.

As Nash describes, when the tube came to Japan, the main reference point for the population was kamishibai:

Kamishibai‘s demise neatly overlaps with the end of the occupation in 1952 and the advent of television in Japan in 1953. kamishibai was so ingrained in Japanese life that when television was first introduced it was known as denki kamishibai (electric paper theater) … One kamishibai man lamented in haiku style the passing of the medium to television: ‘The ambience of kamishibai at fall of evening; fireflies on a darkening street corner. A screen can’t compare to that.'”

The final chapter in Nash’s epic history offers a study of kamishibai‘s influence on modern manga, and how Japanese comics differ from American ones (as well as answering a common question about manga and anime: “What’s with the wide eyes?”).

The books ends with a suggestion that kamishibai‘s influence continues to be felt in a sort of “cultural spin cycle” that has seen various elements of Japanese popular culture gaining prominence in the West. Kamishibai hasn’t entirely gone away either, finding new life as an educational tool in schools and spreading to countries other than Japan.

There’s a wonderful series of photos in the final chapter of a modern-day kamishibai man. His expressions are infectious, and the photos suggest that the traditional kamishibai may return. As Nash writes, “we never tire of hearing a good story.”

RATING 8 / 10
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