Gather round …
It’s time to begin our story…
Once upon a time, a form of storytelling called kamishibai (literally, “paper drama”) was very popular in Japan.
It was the Great Depression of the 1930s, and jobs were scarce. Unemployed performing artists started painting colorful pictures on poster boards and taking them to busy urban areas, where they would ask children if they wanted to hear an exciting story. If the children agreed to buy candy from them first, the storytellers would bring out their pictures and use them to illustrate tales of action and adventure.
The stories proved to be a big hit, so the artists created more posters and began renting them out to other storytellers — who became known as kamishibaiya. These storytellers started going out on bicycles fitted with large wooden boxes with picture frames on them, so they could perform to larger audiences at more than one park a day and, hopefully, sell more candy.
Some parents weren’t happy about the racy nature of the stories, though, and so they banned their children from going out whenever the distinctive sound of the kamishibaiya’s wooden clapper signaled the start of a performance.
The government also had reservations, but it was keen to harness the power and influence of this new form of entertainment. When Japan entered World War II, the government produced its own nationalistic kamishibai, featuring kamikaze pilots and other heroic depictions of sacrifice, to use as propaganda.
Ultimately, kamishibai survived the war and flourished in the years immediately after, but it could not compete with the new forms of entertainment that emerged in the 1950s and ’60s. As television sets became commonplace in households around Japan, kamishibaiya all but disappeared from the streets.
Is this where our story ends? Not quite.
Although few in number, a new generation of kamishibaiya is working to keep the tradition alive and spread the art form to a wider audience.
“The thing I like about kamishibai is that it’s live,” says Tora Mihashi, a 36-year-old who performs at kindergartens, nurseries, libraries, homes for the elderly, zoos, public spaces and other venues.
“You can see the audience’s reaction straight away and you can react to that yourself,” she says. “With theater, you can’t see the audience laughing when you’re on stage. With kamishibai, there’s no stage, so you have this interaction between the performer and the audience.”
Fertile breeding ground
Mihashi is one of only a handful of performers in Japan who are able to make their living solely from kamishibai. In summer, she performs as many as four or five times a week, although winter is much leaner, with usually only five or six appearances a month.
The money she makes from performing comes from appearance fees paid by organizers, rather than from selling candy to the audience. She performs for children, but says middle-aged adults are her most common audience.
Mihashi grew up in Arakawa Ward in Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown) area, which is known as the birthplace of kamishibai. The area’s reputation as the “garbage heap of Tokyo” in the 1930s made it a fertile breeding ground for storytellers. “Ogon Batto” (“Golden Bat”), one of the most popular kamishibai of the time and thought to be the world’s first comic superhero, was a local product.
Mihashi’s parents were both actors and she inherited their love of the stage, but her life growing up was not easy. Money was tight, her parents argued and eventually divorced, and her mother — who also performed as a kamishibaiya — resented her for having to give up her own acting career at a young age.
Mihashi wanted to become an actor, but she found it too difficult to earn a living from the stage so she eventually gave up on her dream. Then, one day in 2011, she dug out her mother’s old kamishibai equipment and decided to give it a try.
Mihashi began performing at kindergartens and nurseries as well as at Ueno Zoo, where she worked at the time. As her knowledge and understanding of kamishibai deepened over the years, so did her enjoyment. Now, she creates her own materials and teaches a kamishibai class as well as performing, dedicating herself to the craft full-time.
“If there are 100 people in the audience, I don’t think about making 100 people laugh,” Mihashi says. “I just concentrate on trying to give one person the strength to get up the next day. Life can be tough, but people might take strength from watching something they’ve enjoyed. I was on my own when I was a kid and I was poor. That’s the kind of person kamishibai for. It’s not for rich people. It’s for people who have to put up with the hard things in life.”
The types of stories that kamishibaiya tell vary greatly, and Mihashi says she has the full range of action, traditional, comedy, serious drama and fairy tales in her repertoire.
A kamishibaiya will clack wooden hyoshigi clappers together a few times to signal the start of a performance, then warm up the audience with a quiz before getting to the main stories.
A kamishibai story generally consists of between eight to 16 illustrated cards, which are slotted into the wooden proscenium frame mounted on the back of the kamishibaiya’s bicycle, then pulled out one by one as the story progresses. The storyteller reads from the text on the back of the cards, and uses a small hand drum to punctuate important points or reinforce the punchline of a joke.
A kamishibaiya will often ad-lib the story to add their own individual flavor and use their acting skills to captivate the audience.
“You have to play the parts,” Mihashi says. “People think you have to become a different person, but that’s not the case. You carry all the emotions from your past experiences around with you — all the times you’ve been angry or laughed or cried or been sad. It’s like you’ve got a filing cabinet in your heart with all those emotions at hand, and you need to apply them to the characters in the story. My kamishibai comes from the heart.”
Not everyone, however, believes that kamishibai should be such a dramatic medium.
Doshinsha, based in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, is one of the few publishing companies still producing kamishibai in large numbers. The company’s current output is skewed in favor of picture books, but it still brings out around 30 new kamishibai each year, most of which it sells to kindergartens, nurseries and libraries.
Doshinsha was founded in 1957, but grew out of a group that was formed 10 years earlier with the aim of rehabilitating kamishibai’s reputation after the war. Japan’s wartime use of kamishibai as propaganda had alienated it from a generation that felt brainwashed and betrayed, so Doshinsha vowed to create a wholesome new version that would have a positive educational influence on children.
The company’s products are aimed squarely at young children, and are usually performed indoors by kindergarten teachers or library workers. Doshinsha’s top-selling kamishibai, a simple, interactive story about animals and objects called “Okiku Okiku Okiku Nare” (“Grow Bigger and Bigger and Bigger”), was first released in 1983 and has now sold almost 170,000 copies, and has been translated into English and French.
“The generation that saw street kamishibai firsthand is dying out,” says Eijiro Hashiguchi, Doshinsha’s assistant editor-in-chief. “For a lot of people of that generation, street kamishibai was something bad, something they rejected. That generation is being replaced by a younger generation that never experienced street kamishibai and whose idea of what kamishibai is comes from these published products.
“The way kamishibai is viewed will continue to change,” Hashiguchi says. “I think the number of people who come to kamishibai with no preconceived notions will increase, and they will recognize the charm of it.”
Doshinsha is keen to distance itself not only from Japan’s wartime propaganda, but also from the street performers who popularized kamishibai before and after the war. Doshinsha President Masami Tanaka, who was born in 1952 and himself watched street kamishibai as a child, says the ribald nature of the stories, which often featured fantastic superheroes, supernatural beings and graphic violence, was designed solely to draw children in and offered nothing of real substance.
Doshinsha also frowns upon kamishibaiya ad-libbing the company’s stories, or adding any other personal touches that might detract from the intended message.
“Educational kamishibai is designed so that anyone can read the stories and the message will still come across to children,” Tanaka says. “The instructions on how to perform the stories are written on the back of the cards. With the old street kamishibai, performances would be completely different depending on who was performing the story. The performers used their individual personalities to attract an audience.”
The distinction between street kamishibai and educational kamishibai has become more pronounced in the decades since the war, and has produced something of a schism in today’s kamishibai community.
People who are interested in getting involved in street kamishibai say they have been discouraged by Doshinsha when they tell them what style they want to perform, while others consider educational kamishibai and street kamishibai to be two wholly incompatible worlds.
“I don’t do any educational kamishibai at all,” says Gucci Mitsuzawa, a part-time storyteller from Yokohama who performs at festivals and after-school events in the style of the old street performers.
“I don’t like having the word ‘educational’ with kamishibai,” he says. “It feels like it’s going to be a one-way street, with only me talking. It feels too much like study. What I do has nothing to do with that. It’s something that everyone can enjoy. The image of educational kamishibai is that you have to sit down, be quiet and watch. I prefer the old style of street kamishibai, where you enjoy things together with your audience and ad-lib what you say. There’s fun in that.”
Mihashi describes herself as “neutral” in the ideological battle for kamishibai’s soul, and thinks she may be the only kamishibaiya in Japan who performs both styles.
Kamishibai’s usage, however, is not just limited to education and entertainment. Some companies use it in place of PowerPoint when giving presentations or instructions, while others believe it can be an effective tool in some forms of health care.
At a February meeting of Mihashi’s class, where each of the six class members perform a story and ask the others to offer pointers on how to improve it, 45-year-old Kenichi Ozawa runs through his recital of “Yuri Obasan to Seinen Koken Seido” (“Old Lady Yuri and the Adult Guardian System”).
The story is about an elderly lady with dementia, and is intended to inform people with relatives suffering from the condition about the care options available. Ozawa, who works as a nurse at an intensive-care home for the elderly, says kamishibai can also be used to get through to people who would be otherwise unreachable.
“If you use kamishibai to tell a story to an elderly person, just seeing a kamishibai can take them back to their past,” Ozawa says. “It acts as a stimulus. They remember things and look back at the good things in their life. People who live in intensive-care homes for the elderly spend most of their time just sleeping and waking, but workers who use kamishibai with them say it can really bring them into sharp focus.”
The others in Mihashi’s class all have their own reasons for wanting to improve their kamishibai skills. Kinji Kato, a 72-year-old who makes traditional shamisen guitars, enjoys performing at small gatherings as a hobby, while Ahiru Hasegawa, a zoo worker who has brought in her own homemade kamishibai, likes to appear at street-performance events.
All are united in their enjoyment of the craft, and it’s a sentiment shared by everyone on both sides of the street/educational divide.
“Everyone can enjoy the story together, in the same place and at the same time,” says Doshinsha’s Hashiguchi. “Picture books are something you can react to any way you like, but kamishibai are made in a simple way, so you can read one to anybody and it will come across the same way. When you’ve finished reading a kamishibai story, everyone in the room will be feeling the same emotions.”
So what next for kamishibai? Doshinsha’s Tanaka says interest is growing in China and Europe, while Mihashi has been invited to Malaysia to perform in the past. The genre’s status as the forerunner of manga has also been recognized overseas, and books containing luscious reproductions of classic kamishibai artwork have been published in English.
As a form of entertainment that draws its strength from crowd interaction, however, there is no escaping the dark shadow that the global COVID-19 pandemic has cast over kamishibai. Mihashi’s bookings have all been canceled until the middle of May, and she is unsure when she will be able to perform live again.
That does not mean she is prepared to accept defeat, though. Mihashi has been busy creating informational kamishibai to post on her YouTube channel, and one clip of her explaining how to wash and reuse face masks had been watched more than 54,000 times by the start of last week.
In these times of uncertainty and reduced human contact, Mihashi believes the art form is more important than ever.
“It’s very important to encourage and reassure one another,” she says. “To give each other a laugh. Kamishibai isn’t something hard and serious, like the news, but it has its own way of getting through to people. We can send a message that, together, we can get through this.”