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Kamishibai – Storytelling Through Paper Theater

Date Published: Last Update:2015/05/22 Traditional Culture , ,

Kamishibai (紙芝居, literal meaning: “paper drama”) is a form of storytelling that originated in Japanese Buddhist temples in the 12th century, where monks used emakimono (picture scrolls) to convey stories with moral lessons to a mostly illiterate audience.

Kamishibai History

Kamishibai is said to have started in Japan in the late 1920s, but it is part of a long tradition of picture storytelling, beginning as early as the 9th or 10th centuries when priests used illustrated scrolls combined with narration to convey Buddhist doctrine to lay audiences. Later, etoki (picture-tellers) adopted these methods to tell more secular stories. Throughout the Edo period (1603-1867) and on into the Meiji period (1868-1912), a variety of street performance styles evolved, using pictures and narration.

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The kamishibai storyteller. (Photo from aki sato on Flickr)

The Storyteller

The gaito kamishibaiya, or kamishibai storyteller, rode from village to village on a bicycle equipped with a small stage. On arrival, the storyteller used two wooden clappers, called hyoshigi, to announce his arrival. The storyteller made a living by selling candy, and he could strap the small wooden stage onto his bicycle with the illustrated cards and his wares and carry them easily from town to town. Children who bought candy from the storyteller got the best seats in front of the stage. Once an audience assembled, the storyteller told several stories using a set of illustrated boards, inserted into the stage and withdrawn one by one as the story was told. Typically, the stories were told in serial fashion and were so suspenseful that audiences came repeatedly to buy candy and to hear the next episode of the story. New episodes were told on each visit to the village.

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The storyteller used two wooden clappers, called hyoshigi, to announce his arrival in the village. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Kamishibai is, if anything, poor-man’s theater, and it flourished during a time when Japan experienced extreme financial hardship. In the 1930s, Japan suffered from an economic depression that sent many people onto the streets looking for a way to live from one day to the next, and kamishibai offered an opportunity for artists and storytellers to make a meager living. During and after World War II, kamishibai became an ever more integral part of the society as a form of entertainment that could be transported easily even into bomb-shelters and devastated neighborhoods. At this time, it was entertainment as much for adults as for children.

Kamishibai Influences

Kamishibai is considered a precursor to modern manga and anime. They often featured art styles, including a wide-eyed look, similar to what would later characterize manga and anime. Some of the most famous kamishibai characters included Ōgon Bat (debuted 1930) and Prince of Gamma (debuted early 1930’s), considered as Japanese superheroes, appearing earlier than the later American comic book superheroes Superman (debuted 1938) and Batman (debuted 1939). The artists who had made their living with kamishibai turned to more lucrative pursuits, notably the creation of manga (comic books) and later anime, but they never entirely forgot their roots in kamishibai.

The art has never entirely died out. Kamishibai stories for educational purposes are still being published and can be found in schools and libraries throughout Japan and more recently, through the efforts of Kamishibai for Kids, in the United States and Canada. Wherever there are people who want to gather and share stories, kamishibai will always have a place.

What are your thoughts about kamishibai? Share it with us in the comments section below!

References:

1.  KAMISHIBAI – A BRIEF HISTORY. Kamishibai website.

2. Kamishibai. Wikipedia.

3. Featured Image from AC-Illust

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