Picture Books are a treat throughout the world.  There are so many different kinds, designed for children and adults of all ages.  But Kamishibai are a special treat that I think are pretty unique to Japan.

Kamishibai is, literally, “paper drama” or “paper theater”.  It is a type of storytelling in Japan that started in Buddhist temples around the 12th Century.  In the modern era, kamishibai is much closer to vaudeville or some kinds of puppetry, in that the storytellers were often traveling entertainers and even minor hucksters, playing in and around carnivals and festivals throughout the countryside.   This was particularly true after the 1920s, when the Great Depression in the United States had an impact worldwide.  Although the protagonist in the long-running movie, Otoko wa Tsurai yo, Tora-san, never was a kamishibai storyteller, his character was a travelling salesman, who tells humorous and glorified stories to help boost the sales of his trinkets and wares.  This is precisely the kind of world in which the kamishibai storytellers thrived.

Kamishibai storytellerWhile travelling kamishibai storytellers have all but disappeared, there are a number who are trying to revive the old art.  This artist is part of a small group – I’ve seen him twice around Tokyo with a compadre – that tells an original story that is an adaptation of an oft-told historical tale.  His version is supposed to be a frightening one, but being told in the daytime and with his style of delivery, it becomes a comical horror story.

In this Creative Commons photograph from Wikipedia, you can see the storyteller carrying a pair of sticks hoyshigi, that he uses to announce his arrival and capture the audience’s attention.  The wooden case is a special stage that the storyteller uses to show the frames of his storybook.

The stage has an open rear, from which slides are changed, and with the story lines written on the back.  Because the frames are removed from the side facing the audience, the back side of the slide contains the text pertaining to the next slide.  When the slide that is just finished is removed and the slide replaced back into the frame furthest away from the audience, then the words on its back side are read to the audience.  Of course, street performers tend not to read from the slides, but perform ad lib while a compadre changes the slides.

In the past few decades, kamishibai have experienced a revival, due to their use in libraries, elementary schools, and kindergartens.  In many libraries there are special rooms, equipped with a kamishibai stage and filled with books.  There are now publishers that have divisions that focus on kamishibai books, such as Doshinsha (Japanese).  However, due to a growing popularity of kamishibai around the world, the company now publishes English and French translations of many of their books.  The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, California has a wonderful and beautiful kamishibai demonstration online in electronic format.

There is also a great site about kamishibai for kids.  Based in New York, the three people associated with the site, Margaret Eisenstadt, Donna Tamaki, and Eigoro Futamata, have created quite an amazing resource, including materials for schools and teachers and a range of publications that they have translated and illustrated for Doshinsha.  They also apparently conduct readings and other events in the United States.  I’ve also found kamishibai sites in German, Spanish, French, and other languages, showing that their appeal is cross cultural.

Watch this short video of a kamishibai master, Yassan, on YouTube – it’s in Japanese, but you might become a fan!

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