Before the ubiquitous telephone-book-sized manga anthologies became popular reading material for Japanese kids, teens, and salarymen, there existed on the island nation another form of illustrated visual storytelling. Incorporating live performance with lush cartoon visuals, this art form, now essentially lost, is the subject of "Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre" by Eric P. Nash. The book is available now from Abrams ComicArts, and CBR News caught up with Nash to discuss the project and the peculiar rise and fall of kamishibai.
Kamishibai arose in Japan in the 1930s, mixing comic-style imagery with streetcorner theatre, as men would tote a collection of single-panel boards throughout the city by bicycle and perform the voices of the characters and sound effects for audiences of rapt children. The stories were free to view, with the kamishibai men making their money from the sale of handmade sweets.
"There's a lot of parallels that you can see with later popular Japanese media like manga and anime," Nash told CBR. "All of the tropes are there--giant robots, monsters with magical powers, costumed superheroes-probably the world's first costumed superhero, the Golden Bat in the 1930s, even preceding American pulp heroes like Doc Savage or American comic book heroes, like the Phantom."
Nash points to the "curious media history" of Japanese art going back to 11th-century Buddhist scrolls as a factor in kamishibai, which is unique to the Japanese culture. "More recently, their history with film is slightly different from ours," the author explained. "During the silent era, they had what were called benshi, actors who stood by the side of the screen and narrated the action and did all of the characters' voices. This lasted well into the sound period, because Japanese weren't familiar with English-language films anyway. So these benshi were treated like movie stars, people would go to specific theatres to see a specific actress or actor. And kamishibai kind of took over this role." Nash noted that, when television first appeared in Japan, it was dubbed "electronic kamishibai."