Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater – A Review

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater
Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is a beautiful book about the art of Manga Kamishibai, a precursor to manga, and a phenomenon that lasted for only about 30 years in Japan before succumbing to the powers of television. Manga Kamishibai is the art of story telling using a series of pre-drawn comic panels of about 12 x 12 inches to entertain and later educate. The Kamishibai men would set up in a park or public space in Tokyo or other big city and entice the local children to come see the show. They would sell the kids candy, which is how they made their money, and then would narrate the adventure described on the cards. The men would use different voices and act out the stories, keeping the children entertained with a hybrid of theater and comics. It was a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that disappeared with the coming of TV and after school study sessions that left children with little free time.

The art runs the gamut from western movie inspired work, to more traditionally Japanese styles. However, they all have a comic sensibility with broad strokes instead of fine detail which made it easier for the audience to see the drawings. The stories were a mix of super heros, such as the Golden Bat who looks more like Superman with a skull for a head, and samurai tales. The stories will last about 20-40 stills and each week, and like the Saturday serials in the US the stories would change rapidly to insure the kids would continue to come. At its height before the WWII, there  were 100’s of Kamishibai men and near 40 studios producing the slides.

The book also has a chapter on Kamishibai during WWII when it was converted into propaganda. The charactures of the evil Americans is somewhat funny. They all look like Alex Guiness in Bridge on the River Kwai. The focus of the propaganda was to tell the Japanese that the Americans were brutal savages who took no prisoners. At the beginning of the war, the Kamishibai told of Japan’s great victories, but as the war began to go badly the Kamishibai switched to an educational focus and explained how to fight fires and other civil defense matters, most of which were useless against fire bombing. Unfortunately, during the fire bombing many of the Kamishibai publishers were destroyed along with the art work. After the war, the US used the Kamishibai men to spread the new changes that were coming to Japan.

Eric Nash’s text makes for interesting reading and Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is more than just a pictures of comics, but a cultural history of a little know element of Japanese culture.