Monday, January 11, 2010

Manga Kamishibai

In a trip to Chicago last weekend, while browsing in 'Unabridged Books,' one of my favorite bookstores, I purchased a book called "Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater" by Eric P. Nash, published by Abrams Comicarts. The book takes a fascinating look at an art form that I was largely unfamiliar with.  A forerunner of manga comics, Kamishibai was a type of pictorial street theater where a traveling kamishibaiya (kamishibai performer), usually on a bicycle, would stop in villages and entertain children and adults with various stories. The stories were told with the aid of illustrations that were attached to boards and then slid in and out of a box that was made to look like a miniature stage.

The stories were often adventures or folk tales, but there were even tales of super heroes and interpretations of classics like Cinderella and The Prince and the Pauper.  The character in the upper left is from a story called "Prince of Gamma and the Sea Monster."  According to the book, this story seems like a cross between "Superman" and "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea."  Even though he looks somewhat villainous with his skull like face, the character of "Golden Bat," (lower left) was an early example of a super hero, his appearance in 1931 predates Superman.

During WWII the medium was also used for propaganda (kokusaku kamishibai). The image on the right is from a tale warning soldiers about the dangers of being captured by the Americans.  In the book, this image has a caption describing the character as a "Red-faced Sadist."  Even though the movie was made after WWII, this image reminds me of the character Alec Guinness played in "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

After the war, and the end of the American occupation, some stories tackled the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the end of this story about a girl searching for her mother in the ruins of the bomb, the mother dies in her daughter's arms.

An interesting bit of trivia in the book states that Max Fleischer's Betty Boop, with her oversized eyes, was an influence on Ozamu Tezuka when he created "Astro Boy," considered to be the style-setter for later anime characters.

Below are some other images from the book showing illustrations used in kamishibai performances.

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