Book Review – Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Nash, Eric Peter.  Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater. New York: Abrams, 2009.

Shige CJ Suzuki

Given the increasing international scholarly interest in manga, anime, and other forms of popular culture in Japan, it is not surprising to observe renewed attention to what many regard as a crucial progenitor: Japanese kamishibai, often translated as “paper theater” or “paper drama.” A dominant mode of children’s entertainment in the early- and mid-twentieth-century, kamishibai is a form of storytelling with hand-drawn paintings frequently performed on the streets in urban areas. Eric Peter Nash’s Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater is a welcome English-language entry into this fantastic world. In the format of an art book, it offers an abundant collection of mesmerizingly beautiful kamishibai drawings from different historical periods, together with a concise history of this visual and oral storytelling tradition.

Written for a general readership, the book covers the development of kamishibai culture by describing the evolution of the industry, diversities of genre and style, popular characters and creators, and kamishibai’s relation to modern Japanese history. What is fascinating and enjoyable about this book is its rich compilation of high-quality reproductions of kamishibai drawings, including those of well-known popular stories such as Ōgon batto (Golden bat) and Prince of Gamma. The illustrations reprinted in the book provide a closer look into the art form’s diverse genres. Unlike traditional American comics centered on superheroes, kamishibai genres range from Western pulp fiction-inspired adventure stories, science fiction, and hero narratives to Japanese ninja and samurai stories, imperial propaganda, and war tragedy. Throughout the book, Nash makes the kamishibai tradition familiar to uninitiated Anglophone readers by comparing Japanese and American examples. For instance, to explain how Japanese audiences feel about Golden Bat, Nash writes that it “still resonates with a musty sense of nostalgia for both old and young Japanese, much the way the Lone Ranger or Flash Gordon does for Americans” (101-102).

As the title Manga Kamishibai suggests, the book underscores both the cultural continuity between kamishibai and the postwar burgeoning of manga culture. Nash highlights the stylistic and thematic similarities between postwar manga and kamishibai drawings. Studying the drawings in his book, one can appreciate how many postwar manga writers probably enjoyed and were influenced by kamishibai stories as children. Indeed, as Nash mentions, several key manga artists were former kamishibai painters, including Mizuki Shigeru, who is best known for his yōkai (preternatural creature) manga, Shirato Sanpei, the creator of the gekiga (dramatic picture) epic Kamui den (The legend of Kamui), and Kojima Gōseki, the illustrator of Kozure ōkami (Lone wolf and cub). Kamishibai played a decisive role in the development of manga and anime cultures during the postwar period.

And yet, Nash reminds us that unlike manga, kamishibai also inherits the Japanese oral and theatrical tradition of benshi, live performers who provided narration for silent films in early Japanese cinema. Like benshikamishibai narrators did not provide a narrative, but they often acted out the roles of different characters. As Nash states, “a good kamishibai man ran the gamut of voices and facial expressions for his paper plays, from mincing female tones to gruff samurai expostulations” (17). As a street performer, a kamishibai narrator also used Japanese drums and hyōshigi (clapping sticks) not only to lure a young audience from the street but also to add sound effects to the narrated story by signaling tension and climax in the plot. This performative element is crucial since, as the author writes, kamishibai is “an unusual interstitial medium between comics and theater, in that the pacing of the story is entirely under the control of the live narrator” (290).

Throughout the book, Nash juxtaposes visual images from kamishibai with the modern history of Japan, remarking that “[k]amishibai is a microcosm of twentieth-century Japanese history” (15). Indeed, the rise of the kamishibai industry in the 1930s, which Nash refers to as its “Golden Age,” is closely tied to socioeconomics. During the worldwide Great Depression of the 1930s, many unemployed workers flowed into the industry. According to Nash, in the early 1930s, “twenty-five hundred kamishibaiya (kamishibai performers) in Tokyo put on their thimble-size theater shows ten times a day for audiences of up to thirty children, reaching a daily total of one million kids” (18). In addition, the drawings Nash presents reveal broad historical and political shifts in Japan, including the influence of Western popular culture, imperial expansion, war propaganda, the promotion of democratic deals demanded by GHQ, the atomic bombing, and hopes for peace.

The penultimate section of Nash’s book describes the decline of the industry in the 1950s as kamishibai were gradually replaced by other forms of entertainment such as manga, television, and video games. Yet, Nash notes that in the early 1950s televisions themselves were called “denki kamishibai” (electric kamishibai) (259) and many were placed in public places to provide “a group experience, much like kamishibai” (259). This is a significant point; although there was a shift in media via technology, the style of consumption remained closely tied to enduring cultural forms.

Because Nash’s book is saturated with his appreciation of kamishibai art and tradition, it is regrettable to come across misspellings of Japanese names and terms, and errors in dates. Also, in light of increased transnational dialogue about manga, anime and other forms of Japanese popular culture by scholars and researchers, it might be beneficial to use macrons for Japanese terms to clarify pronunciations and meanings. It also seems somewhat problematic that the author uncritically follows the dominant explanation of manga in English-language scholarship, as when he traces the origin of kamishibai to premodern Japanese visual art forms such as Buddist emaki (illustrated scrolls, eleventh – sixteenth centuries), kibyōshi (yellow-covered books, eighteenth – nineteenth centuries), and Hokusai’s ukiyo-e woodblock prints (eighteenth – nineteenth centuries). This kind of claim is not impossible, considering that several postwar and contemporary manga artists such as Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru consciously cite premodern works of art as inspirational resources for their modern manga.[1] Nonetheless, it is still overly simplistic to assert continuity from premodern traditional art to kamishibai and modern-day manga. Recent manga criticism has been critical of this sort of culturalist assumption, emphasizing instead the transformative hybrid nature of the manga medium as a product of Japanese modernization.[2] Finally, in describing the stylistics of kamishibai characters’ faces, Nash again relies uncritically on the dominant English-language discourse on manga, stating that manga-like characters with large eyes are drawn “to make the characters appear more Caucasian” (67). The issue of ethnicity in relation to kamishibai’s faces deserves more careful treatment, as it is far from clear that Japanese audiences read typical postwar manga-style elements such as large eyes as “Caucasian.”

All in all, Nash’s book offers an insightful look into the still-underhistoricized field of Japanese visual culture. The strength of the book is to reveal the historical significance of this medium for the later development of postwar Japanese manga and other forms of popular culture. In contemporary Japan, although kamishibai might have become a “dying, if not dead, art form,” as Frederik Schodt writes in his introduction (6), kamishibai remains a popular medium close to the lives of Japanese people. Even today, in kindergarten and elementary school, kamishibai is frequently used to teach children Japanese folklore and other cultural traditions. As children, many people in Japan have had their imaginations stimulated and cultivated by this visual and oral medium. As Nash confirms, “[t]his rich tradition of storytelling is still a part of Japan” (297).

[1] For instance, Tezuka recycles images of ancient Japanese paintings in his masterpiece Phoenix series. Also, Mizuki’s contemporary yōkai depictions are largely taken from Edo period ukiyo-e artist Toriyama Sekien. On the genealogical link between Mizuki’s yōkai manga and premodern tradition, see Michael Dylan Foster, “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru,” Mechademia 3(2008):8-28.

[2] On this point see for instance Miyamoto Hirohito, “The Formation of an Impure Genre: On the Origins of Manga,” trans. Jennifer Prough, Review of Japanese Culture and Society 14 (December 2002): 39-48. See also Natsume Fusanosuke, Mangagaku e no chōsen (A challenge to manga-ology) (Tokyo: NTT Shuppan, 2004), 204-207. See also Berndt, Jaqueline, “Considering Manga Discourse: Location, Ambiguity, Historicity,” Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Ed. Mark W. Macwilliams (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2008), 305-309.