Sunday 7 March 2021

Manga Kamishibai by Eric Nash - A Look at Japanese Paper Theater


Before what we know as manga, there was kamishibai. Literally translated as “paper play” (紙芝居) kamishibai was a popular form of entertainment in Japan which is virtually unknown in the West. Luckily, Eric Nash has compiled one of the most comprehensible English-language books about this unique form of Japanese storytelling in Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater.

First, let’s define what we mean by manga. While most use the term as a synonym for comic books, the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai coined the word back in 1814, which basically means “foolish pictures.” Comical manga were sold for years, eventually becoming what we know of as comic strips being printed in Japanese magazines like Shonen Kurabu by at least the 1920s. But full manga books didn’t really exist until after World War II.

Into this void stepped kamishibai in around the late 1920s, but by 1930 at the latest. Kamishibai also has roots in Japanese etoki picture stories, dating back centuries. But kamishibai was a modern twist on it. A storyteller (kamishibaiya) would clack two wooden sticks together to gather a crowd of children. He’d (most kamishibaiya were men, but a few were women) have a little wooden theater into which he’d insert illustrated slides. These slides would form a story, narrated by the kamishibaiya.

A good kamishibaiya would voice the different characters (men and women), monsters, sound effects, and even animals. He’d often tell three stories per session – a comical story for everyone, a shojo story for girls, and a shonen adventure story for boys. Before the show, he’d sell candy to the children, which is how kamishibaiya made most of their money.

Kamishibai gave birth to many popular characters, perhaps none more well-known than the Golden Bat (Ogon Batto/黄金 バット) Debuting in 1931, this bizarre superhero had a skull face, was from Atlantis thousands of years in the future, and traveled back in time to save Japan from Nazo, an evil alien scientist. He was probably the most popular kamishibai character, eventually making the jump to manga, movies, and an anime series in the 1960s.

Golden Bat - a superhero known for his ominous laugh and strange appearance

Other popular kamishibai included the Prince of Gamma, another superhero from Atlantis who disguised himself a street urchin in Japan, samurai and ninja stories, school drama for girls, and Cry of the Andes, a tale of Japanese immigrants in South America terrorized by a bandit chief named The Bat, years before Batman would debut in 1939.

During World War II, kamishibai went to war, much like American comic book superheroes fought the Axis at the same time. Kamishibai stories were made depicting Japanese soldiers as cute animals, besting British and American troops with ease, shouting out a “Banzai” victory cheer in the final slide. Many other kamishibai were much more serious, depicting the hardships endured by Japanese soldiers at the front, but also useful instructions like how to build an air-raid shelter.

This YouTube video – Die for Japan: Wartime Propaganda Kamishibai – is a good overview of wartime kamishibai.

Kintaro the Paratrooper - a wartime kamishibai

After the war, kamishibai remained popular, since television was virtually nonexistent in Japan. Eventually though, the combined efforts of TV and the budding manga industry killed the kamishibai industry. However, when television first appeared, so popular was this paper theater that the Japanese called it denki kamishibai – electric kamishibai.

The book is a good overview, depicting many full slides of this bygone medium. However, I would like to have a complete volume of just kamishibai works with their accompanying text. Maybe one day.