Brain Diving
Can't Kamishibai Me Love

by Brian Ruh, Nov 16th 2010

I think that as humans we're conditioned to want to listen to stories. Sure, reading is great, and it gives you the chance to enjoy a story on your own and at your own pace, but having someone read a story to you is a completely different experience. As kids we almost all enjoyed being read to even when we could do so ourselves. Even now adults like being told stories – see the popularity of podcasts and audiobooks for a good example of this. Where reading is a solitary activity, storytelling is collaborative, involving give and take between the narrator and the audience.

You may be wondering what this has to do with anime or manga. In last week's column, I mentioned that before Shigeru Mizuki became an acclaimed manga artist, he worked as a painter of kamishibai pictures. I just kind of dropped that in there without bothering to mention what it means, so I thought I'd take the opportunity this week to talk about kamishibai and how it has affected manga and anime today.

To put it succinctly, kamishibai is a form of Japanese storytelling that involves imaginatively painted boards that illustrate a tale being performed by a live narrator. Kamishibai and its narrators sprang up in the 1930s and continued through the postwar period. However, as alternative forms of entertainment such as manga and television began to gain in popularity, kamishibai performances began to decline. But it's not like being a kamishibai narrator was a great way to eke out a living in the first place. The customary scene is usually that the kamishibai man (such narrators were mostly men, although there were a few women in the business) would seek out an area with plenty of children and bang a set of wooden clappers together, announcing that a show would begin soon. He would often tell three different stories: a comedic one, one intended for girls, and then one intended for boys. (We can see that even before the manga industry as we know if began, entertainment like this was being divided into shoujo and shounen categories.) These stories usually stretched across more than on telling, giving the kids plenty of cliffhangers to get excited over before the next installment. These stories were told for free, so in order to make money the kamishibai man would sell Japanese sweets to the kids in order to make his money. In other words, entertaining content was given away with the hope that the audience would buy something; in many ways, this is the same kind of model that television would assume as it developed.

There are almost no kamishibai men around these days. That doesn't mean that the art of live storytelling using illustrations has totally disappeared in Japan, though. Take the example of Rikimaru Toho, the subject of this week's Read This! In an article on the CNNGo website titled “Tokyo's Manga Man Makes You Sweat,” Roland Kelts writes about this man who combines contemporary manga with a kamishibai approach to telling a story. Unlike the old-time kamishibai men who were part of an organized system, Toho works by himself to present dramatic readings of manga to customers. Since Toho has carved out a niche for himself with this line of work, he has gotten a bit of fame since being featured on television and radio shows. But that doesn't seem to stop his weekly routine of setting up shop in front of train stations and in parks and giving performances to anyone who will stop by.

As I mentioned above, the fact that people are willing to sit and pay for renditions of manga stories that they probably already know by heart points to the importance of storytelling in human society. Frankly, I'm kind of surprised that there aren't more people who have rekindled this form of entertainment. To get a good idea of the kinds of reactions Toho has been getting, you might want to check out this article that translates a few firsthand accounts from people who have participated in one of his storytelling sessions. More than anything else, Toho seems like a man who loves manga and loves making connections with other people by bringing some of their favorite stories to life.

Although performers like Rikimaru Toho are a part of an oral storytelling tradition, he uses manga because it is more familiar to his audience and manga is more easily obtainable than kamishibai storyboards. These days we can get our hands on translations of manga that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable. (I'm thinking in particular of manga like Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Black Blizzard from 1956, which came out in English earlier this year.) However, getting to see real kamishibai storyboards has been much more difficult. However, the publication of the book Manga Kamishibai last year make this part of anime and manga history much more accessible to English-speaking audiences.

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


One of the reasons why kamishibai is so interesting is that it set the scene for the rise in popularity of manga following World War II. For example, Osamu Tezuka is often credited with popularizing a “cinematic” approach to manga. That is, he imagined that there is an invisible camera taking shots of the manga action and using cinematic layouts and techniques like close-ups. However, from looking at the examples of kamishibai storyboards in Nash's book, it becomes clear that Tezuka was not the first person to think of illustrating what someone might see through a camera. The storyboards in the book are filled with layouts that are nothing if not cinematic.

Stories about the sad working conditions of contemporary Japanese animators have been making the rounds of late. It's worth noting that, although their art may be looked back on fondly, kamishibai artists really didn't have it much better. Nash mentions that the payment to a writer for a single series could be less than the daily salary of a day laborer. However, the 1930 was a time of economic depression, not only in the United States but it places like Japan, too. Even though the pay wasn't good and the hours were long, it was at least a paying job. And it was one that some kamishibai artists were able to parley into a career in the manga industry. Such creators included Sanpei Shirato, Shigeru Mizuki, and Kazuo Koike. Nash even includes four panels from an early Mizuki kamishibai story, which doesn't look much like the style he would become known for and displays none of the youkai-focused themes that would make him famous.

Although kamishibai are often thought of as simple illustrated stories for young kids, Nash shows that they were not just for entertainment and not just for children. However, as with almost all new forms of entertainment, when kamishibai first came out and began becoming popular, there was a great deal of moral concern about their stories. Even though kamishibai narrators used the storyboards as points of reference, they could adjust the tone and details of their stories to best suit a mood or who was around, sometimes adding more lurid details if there weren't any authority figures present. Nash mentions that even before manga got a bad rap as a corruptor of the nation's youth, educators kept a close eye on the lurid stories being told in kamishibai tales. However, because of the popularity of such stories, concerned groups soon began creating their own explicitly religious and educational kamishibai stories. However, the form began to be seen as a legitimate form of communication during World War II. As Nash notes, kamishibai were used overseas to educate the children of Japanese-occupied lands, to entertain soldiers away from home, and reinterpreted within Japan to provide a source of news and a recruiting tool for the military. Some of the kamishibai storyboards Nash reproduces in the book, such as an explanation of how to properly construct an air raid shelter, would have been part of a public service announcements to civilians during the war. In spite of kamishibai's newfound utility, its fortunes began declining in the years after the war. It was around this time that manga started booming in popularity, and quite a few artists made the transition away from kamishibai. However, what Nash calls the “death knell” for kamishibai was the debut of the anime Tetsuwan Atomu on Japanese television on New Year's Day in 1963. He even quotes animator Yuusaku Sakamoto as saying that the limited animation techniques used in the series were like “electric kamishibai.”

Manga Kamishibai
is certainly a book where the images take center stage. Nash provides plenty of fantastic reproductions of kamishibai storyboards, which is something I can't remember seeing anywhere else. Sometimes he presents a single image from a story, but sometimes he is able to present what looks like a complete narrative. Based on the credits in the back of the book, it looks like most of the kamishibai images are from the Tama Library in Tokyo and the Osaka International Children's Library. I'm sure that Nash's choice of images was constrained by what he was able to find within the collections of the libraries. Still, I would have liked to have seen some additional works by artists like Mizuki and Shirato who went on to work in manga and who later developed a signature style.

In the captions for the images for the book, Nash tries to put the image in context. However, for some of the captions he seems to run out of useful things to say about the stories or images themselves and begins editorializing or drawing connections to more contemporary media. For example, in an early image that shows a ninja stealthily moving at night, Nash writes that the figure “skims the rooftops of what look like a Toho Studios backlot, in this nocturne evocative of the high-wire acrobatics in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon decades later.” Although this makes me wonder if he thinks Crouching Tiger was in fact a Japanese film, Nash is probably trying to come across as conversational and trying to make the reader better able to relate to this older form of entertainment. (Although other comments like “Golden Mask looks like Super Chicken on steroids” are obviously not trying to target the youth of today.) To me this kind of seemingly off-the-cuff editorializing seemed distracting. On the other hand, it's not often that I encounter words in English I'm not aware of, so I have to hand it to Nash for using some good ones like “tatterdemalion,” “architectonically,” and “boustrophedonically.”

There are some elements of Nash's analysis that I don't agree with as well. As one of his examples of how cartoons and children's culture intersected during World War II, he includes an example from a Japanese coloring book of Betty Boop wearing a kimono “decorated with rising-sum emblems and swastikas. The images would not necessarily have the same fascist impact at home because the swastika, manji, was an ancient symbol of good fortune that migrated to Japan by way of Buddhism from India.” It is true that the swastika was used in Japan long before it was appropriated by the Nazis and can still be found on Japanese maps denoting the locations of temples. However, Nash doesn't push the analysis that one step further that would make it really interesting. Not only is the Betty Boop character's kimono covered in Japanese flags and swastikas, but it also bears the flag of the Kingdom of Italy. This would seem to undermine Nash's claim that the image wasn't designed to have any kind of fascist impact in Japan at the time. But I think this makes the image even more interesting. Betty Boop was one of the primary artistic sources for the “big eyes” found in manga and anime and was created by Max Fleischer, who was an American but was born in Poland and was of Jewish descent. And here she is decked out in the flags of the Axis powers! Oh, the rich possibilities for analysis that such an image bears. I won't go into that at the moment, but suffice it to say that Nash's analyses of other potentially loaded images sometimes struck me as a bit shallow. (Another such example is when he accuses the Silent Service anime and Suehiro Maruo's manga Planet of the Jap for having what he calls “cryptofascist tendencies.”)

In the last chapter of the book, Nash tries to tie together a lot of disparate elements and connect kamishibai to elements contemporary manga and its popularity. It's such a brief overview, and he tried to cover so many topics that it ends up just being a muddle. This leads to assertions like “Dressing up like as [sic] erotic manga characters has caught on in cosplay—or costume wearing events, as comics conventions—where the customers are as well inked as the comics.” I'm not even sure what Nash is trying to get at with a sentence like this. That cosplay is only of erotic manga characters? That it only takes place at conventions? That cosplayers are often heavily tattooed? Although he has done quite a bit of research into kamishibai specifically, there are still errors or unclear statements throughout the book concerning anime, manga, and Japanese culture in general.

In spite of this, Manga Kamishibai is one of the few resources out there in English on the kamishibai form, so in this respect it's very valuable. It has some great reproductions of kamishibai storyboards, and provides excellent examples to see what this precursor to anime and manga was all about.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.


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