19 June 2004

Kamishibai Shrinks but Spreads

Kamishibai--"the picture card show"--is a kind of storytelling that, as late as 1950, was still enormously popular in the Japanese countryside. It has been estimated that at that date there were yet active some 25,000 players. In spite of the poor documentation (as is the case, incidentally, with nearly all other types of folk arts in Japan and elsewhere until recently), the magnitude of their impact on society was tremendous. Satoshi Kako calls kamishibai a type of early-day television. With the advent of that modern electronic device, however, its primitive forerunner faded from the streets with amazing rapidity.

Kamishibai now is to be found, for the most part, only in primary school classrooms as a teaching device and devoid of its traditional associations. Very few Japanese under age forty whom I approached had ever heard of kamishibai as a form of street entertainment.

"Uncle Kamishibai" usually carried with him three sets of pictures for telling separate stories. Each set consisted of approximately ten thick paper sheets or light boards of illustrations. The sheets would be inserted one after another into a box with a large, fixed-frame aperture. The most important words that went along with a given scene would be written on the back of the sheet. The box, during this century, was most often attached to the back of a bicycle. The kamishibai player would ride about from neighborhood to neighborhood, striking his wooden clapper or beating on a small drum to attract the attention of children. When a crowd had gathered, he would sell them sweets or, more rarely, books, medals, and trinkets that even poor children could afford. Those who bought from him would be permitted to stand up front where they could see and hear clearly. This is how the kamishibai player earned his living. One is reminded of the old folk doctor of the American frontier. It is difficult to say which of his wares were more important--the remedies, potions, and appliances or the bombastic rhetoric and showmanship. In both cases, what was important is that a minor entertainment "event" took place that relieved the participants of the tedium of everyday life.

The origins of kamishibai are lost in obscurity but may, perhaps, be traced back to so-called "shadow-pictures" (kage-e). It has also been suggested that they may have been imported from Germany during the nineteenth century. Peep shows ... were indeed introduced to Japan from abroad and were known during the Meiji period (1868-1912) as nozoki karakuri ("peep gimmick") or karakuri-megane ("gimmicky glasses") (note that puppets and marionettes may be referred to as karakuri-ningyoo "gimmicky dolls"). It would seem, however, that the technique of kamishibai was derived from a combination of influences (etoki ['picture-explanations' at temples dating back to Heian times], kage-e, Middle Eastern and European picture boxes, etc.). Be that as it may, kamishibai clearly falls within the general development of Asian picture-storytelling.
SOURCE: Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and Its Indian Genesis by Victor H. Mair (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1988; now out-of-print), pp. 115-116. [Mair compares these traditions with Southeast Asian wayang 'shadow' plays, Indian bhopo, Chinese pien wen (Buddhist song-tales dating from Tang times), German bänkelsang, Italian cantastorie, and medieval European jongleur traditions.]

While kamishibai has shrunk down to a classroom technique in Japan, it has expanded to classrooms around the world. There is even a kamishibai version of Beowulf.

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