Kamishibai

Tagged: Theme

["Paper Theatre"] Although there has been a scroll-based story-telling tradition in Japan since the 12th century, for our purposes the kamishibai medium was a spin-off that flourished between the 1920s and the 1950s, spanning the Depression era, the peak of Japanese Imperialism, and the American postwar Occupation.

A kamishibai was a frame mounted on the back of a bicycle, coincidentally equivalent in dimensions to a modern flat-screen TV. The story-teller would ride to a spot in a park or street, summon the local children with a clapperboard, and tell a story using a sequence of a dozen single full-colour images, slotted in and out of the frame. Kamishibai events were "free", but only children who bought candy from the storyteller were permitted to sit at the front. Storytellers rented their images from a central art company, such as All Gagekikai ["The All Picture Theatre Company"] or Shinyūkai ["The New Friend Company"], leading to long-running serials encouraging return audiences – the non-genre comedy Hiro-chan ran to over 400 instalments.

Content was often reminiscent of Pulp magazines, with popular characters including the skull-faced Superhero Ōgon Bat ["Golden Bat"] (circa 1930), and Hakaba Kitarō ["Kitarō of the Graveyard"], a schoolboy ghost. The medium was put to use in propaganda during World War Two, offering such works as Gunyōken no Tegara ["Exploits of Military Dogs"] (circa 1942) and air-raid safety guides. Wartime bombings and the fragility of the original materials have led to many "lost" serials, although enough fragments survive to piece together some narratives, an enterprise meticulously undertaken by Eric P Nash in his groundbreaking Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater (2009).

During the US Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) a ban on "feudal" stories edged out previously popular tales of samurai derring-do, increasing the relative proportion of Children's SF and fantasy. Old heroes were repurposed with new enemies, most notably in the form of Ōgon Bat Nazo-hen "[Golden Bat Mystery Chapter"] (1950), in which the old children's favourite demonstrated his support of the new world order by becoming a Nazi hunter.

Among many genre tales worthy of note, Lion-ji ["Lion Boy"] (date unknown), produced by All Gagekisha, is heavily redolent of Tarzan, even to the extent of a simian sidekick called Cheetah. However, it also features an attack by Aliens, held off by a team comprising the eponymous hero, a kindly professor, and a Japanese damsel in perpetual distress. Credited to "Nambu" and distributed by Shinyūsha, Hoop Yōsei ["Hoop the Fairy"] (date unknown) draws on similar themes of alien Invasion and nascent Cold War Paranoia, with evil sprites from planet Hoop secretly converting humans into Fly-men and Fly-women. Particularly popular with post-war audiences were the adventures of the Prince of Gamma, a boy from Atlantis who disguises himself as a Tokyo street urchin (> Children in SF). In the dying days of the medium, there were even Lone Ranger and Batman kamishibai. Occupation censors noted the power of kamishibai as a popular medium, but also fretted about a perceived lean to the left in its stories. In particular, late-era kamishibai, devoid of samurai but in search of underclass heroes to oppose feudal order, focused on peasant assassins unmentioned in the Japanese history books: the infamous Pariah Elite known as ninja (> Wainscot Societies).

Despite its low-tech logistics, kamishibai was a genuine forerunner of both modern Anime and modern Manga, supplying several prominent artists and franchises to its successor media (> Shigeru {MIZUKI}). Moreover, while its reliance on a legion of several hundred itinerant storytellers and the public availability of idle juvenile audiences created a "vulnerable" medium, the centralized supply of narratives, the overlapping footprints of its practitioners and the possibility of multiple performances led to an estimated peak "audience" in the immediate post-war period of five million views per day. The rise of Television and Manga, coupled with the reconstruction of damaged cinemas, changed audiences and consumption patterns to such a degree that kamishibai lost much of its vibrancy and appeal. It was largely forgotten by the end of the 1950s, although some practitioners continue to keep it alive as a form of living museum. [JonC]

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