As soon as the men would arrive on their big black bikes, children would cheer, set aside their toys and swarm around them even before they began sounding their wooden clappers. A signature large wooden box with openings and drawers was mounted on the back of their bicycles.
The clappers, gongs and bells signaled the imminent start of a performance of “kamishibai” (paper theater). The wooden box, when flipped open, became the frame for a series of colorful hand-painted scenes that were changed in succession as the men told a story.
Until the mid-1960s, kamishibai was a popular form of entertainment for kids, performed in parks and playgrounds throughout Japan. Today, supplanted by television and video games, traditional kamishibai performances are rare.
Kirara, a 37-year-old housewife, has long dreamed of bringing the warmth of kamishibai back to children.
Kirara, who uses only her stage name, writes and paints her own kamishibai tales. In 1992, she began performing kamishibai as a volunteer at schools and other public institutions, where she learned that modern families tend to have communication problems. As society geared itself to a pursuit of efficiency, parents seemed to take less and less time to express their love to their children, she said.
She felt that kamishibai, which involves face-to-face interaction with the audience, could be a tool to help restore family ties. In 1966, she established Tokyo Kirara-za, the first female kamishibai group.
Kamishibai is said to have originated in Tokyo sometime following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, becoming a common way for unemployed men to sell candies to children during the depression in the early Showa Era.
In exchange for a few coins, the kids received sticks of starch syrup that the performer twined around chopsticks. Children who could not afford the candies stood at a distance trying to catch a glimpse of the entertainment.
Records show that boards of education nationwide at that time were not happy with “the vulgar, uneducated men” who performed kamishibai.
They claimed that the unemployed men exaggerated the stories to boost candy sales, making them more suggestive, violent and unsuitable for children. Officials also said the candies they sold did not meet hygienic standards, as they were made at home to cut costs.
The authorities devised their own “educational” kamishibai and mass-printed and distributed them to schools. But most adults who experienced kamishibai as kids are said to have fonder memories of those played on the streets, as they are associated with memories of secret thrills.
During wartime, authorities used kamishibai as a propaganda tool. Stories glorifying war and self-sacrifice were distributed to keep the spirits high on the home front.
In her performances, Kirara wants to convey only good messages to children. “In our stories, there is, of course, no affirmation of violence and no one is hurt,” she said.
The group visits on average six institutions each month, including orphanages and schools for physically and mentally challenged children, in addition to nursery schools and kindergartens.
“If abused children are in the audience, scenes depicting fights are omitted. Likewise, if there are children whose mothers do not care for them, scenes with motherly love are not shown.”
The group’s eight members were recruited via newspaper, radio and magazine advertisements. Last year, around 177 women applied for one position, Kirara said.
“The selection process was difficult, as candidates not only need to have a voice and appearance that make children feel comfortable, but they must also be very dedicated,” Kirara said. “We perform as volunteers on our own time, but the standard expected by the audience is very high. We carry out extremely strict training to meet their expectations.
“But while our visits to orphanages and schools for the disabled appear to help the children, they are also helping us. Our staff can forget about their personal problems when they see the smiles on the children’s faces. It gives them a great sense of satisfaction and self-confidence.”
It is not just the children whom the group makes happy.
“When people in their 60s or 70s see us practice in parks, they are pleasantly surprised and say they never thought they would see a bike-mounted kamishibai in their life again,” she said.
To perform just like they did in the old days, one member of her group called artisans all over Japan to find one who could produce a traditional kamishibai box.
Toshio Kondo, a 66-year old craftsman from Odawara, Kanagawa Prefecture, agreed to build one free of charge, as he has fond memories of watching kamishibai as a child.
Kondo, who was the first person certified by the government in 1975 as a Hakone woodcraft expert, finished his replica of a bicycle-mounted kamishibai box two years ago, based on decades-old sketches. He also repaired and redecorated two extra-large A2-size boxes that the group uses for large events.
“My students at the community center’s craft school, where I teach as a volunteer, helped construct the box,” he said. “It was so nice and fun to create something together for a good cause — to make children happy.”
The stories performed by the group are all written and illustrated by Kirara, with the main focus on family love and the environment. One of her tales, titled “A Baby Harp Seal is Born,” deals with the love of a mother seal for her baby, while another piece, “The Gratitude of Wood Fairies,” is a fantasy based on the artisan Kondo.
The group currently performs exactly as it was done until the 1960s, using wooden clappers and handing kids candies whenever possible.
In a typical performance, one of the members interacts with the children beforehand, one handles sound effects and another reads the story. The others help transport and set up the box, which weighs about 30 kg.
“We are also planning to perform for children who are bedridden. All performances are free of charge, except for the cost of packing and transporting the box,” Kirara said, adding that though they receive many requests, they cannot go to Hokkaido or Kyushu, because they cannot afford the travel expenses.
The group welcomes any form of support, particularly transportation assistance, as well as paint and paper, practice space and cash donations.
“We wish to be given an opportunity to perform at embassies and foreign companies for a small fee,” Kirara said.
Kirara also said that a Japanese-speaking foreign female between age 16 and 22 is welcome to join the group. “It is a wonderful way to exchange culture and exhibit a traditional performing art.”
Those interested can see a kamishibai performance by Kirara-za on May 5 and 6 in the “buta koen” (pig park) area in Komazawa Olympic Park in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. The performances will be held daily at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. A Japanese-English interpreter is scheduled to be present to help foreigners. Performances will be canceled in case of heavy rain.
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