Kamishibai (紙芝居) is a form of Japanese street entertainment and theatrical performance. The name Kamishibai literally means “paper drama” (紙 kami, meaning “paper”, and 芝居 shibai meaning “play” or “drama”). The performers tell a dramatic story while showing drawings or paintings at the crowd. This type of show now is mostly oriented towards children. It was very popular during the early 20th century and until the 1950s.
Kamishibai is believed to have roots up to the 12th in Japan’s etoki (絵解き) tradition, where monks and priests told tales to pilgrims and worshipers that came to the temples using emaki scrolls (絵巻).
But as of more recent origins, Kamishibai seems to be a derivation of other street performances such as Nozokikarakuri (のぞきからくり) or Utsushi-e (写し絵) or even shadow puppetry (影絵, kage-e).
Nozokikarakuri was imported from the Netherlands during the Edo period and consists of a box of about 1.8 meters long on which hole are carved on the front to allow people to peek inside the box (nozoki, meaning “peeking”). Inside the holes are lenses, magnifying drawings of landscapes and scenery making the visitor believe that it’s “life sized”.
Utsushi-e was conceptualized around 200 years ago. It consists of placing an oil lamp inside a small box and lit up an drawing real close to it. The image would then be projected to a washi (和紙, japanese paper) screen.
Both of these entertainments have in common with Kamishibai the fact that they narrate and tell tales while showing drawings.
Entering the Meiji era (明治時代 1868 – 1912), the first form of Kamishibai appeared, called Tachi-e (立絵) literally meaning “standing drawings”. They were paper marionettes attached to a stick and used to tell stories. Kind of like today’s puppet shows. But that kind of Kamishibai didn’t last, and quickly disappeared.
Then, at the start of the Shōwa period (昭和時代, 1926 – 1989), just like today’s Kamishibai, a form of “paper tale” appeared called Hirae (平絵) where drawings were created on sheets of paper and unfolded one by one, following the story told. This was finally know as Kamishibai. In general context, Kamishibai refers directly to Hirae.
The drawings are made on cardboard planks (originally paper) of about 37 by 27.5 centimeters and are placed inside a mini wooden theater with 2 or 3 doors, this mini theater is called Butai (舞台) which means scene. The images are placed at the center :
The 50s are considered to be Kamishibai’s golden age: around 3 000 Kamishibaiya (紙芝居屋, kamishibai narrator) were performing in the streets of Tokyo, and around 50 000 in the whole country!
The narrators would mount the Kamishibai butai on the luggage carrier of their bicycles and go perform on the streets. They would look at the crowd while telling the story illustrated by the unfolding drawings. The fact that the narrators would directly look at the crowd allowed for a mutual understanding of emotions and communication was made throughout the story between the performer and the audience.
Although Kamishibai was initially enjoyed by the people as a street performance, it did not stop there.
At the start of the Shōwa period (昭和時代, 1926 – 1989), a Christian adherent named 今井よね (Imai Yone, 1897-1968) is said to be a pioneer of educational Kamishibai.
Imai Yone went to study theology in the United States and came back to Japan just as Kamishibai started piercing and was becoming popular.
As she came back to Japan, she started teaching at Sunday school in a church in Tokyo.
Even though lots of children used to gather everyday, there were only 5 or 6 that came on Sundays. While looking for an explanation she was asked:
“Sensei! A Kamishibai is coming. I’d like to see it. Can I go?”.
So she went with the children to watch the Kamishibai and realized how fascinated the kids were with the stories and decided to do the same at church. She then started to use Kamishibai to teach the kids, and more and more children started attending Sunday school. She even took it to the streets near the church herself and started performing Kamishibai to teach children.
In 1933 was published the first printed Gospel Kamishibai by Imai Yone called the Christmas story (クリスマス物語, kurisumasu monogatari):
Encouraged by Imai Yone, Takahashi Gozan (高橋五山, real name Takahashi Shōtarō 高橋昇太郎) decided to take Kamishibai to education. Realizing that kids were so amazed by the narrators story that they would sneak behind their parents or teacher’s backs in order to go listen to the stories, it was obvious that an art form like that would help kids’ learning and education.
Takahashi Gozan created a series of 10 volumes of kindergarten Kamishibai, but in the process of going to the schools to introduced them, he was often confused with the street performers and thus refused. But Takahashi Gozan persevered and kept the business going.
And around 1933 and 1934 schools started using Kamishibai to teach the children. And around 1936 it even became so that the teachers created their own picture shows for school use.
The business was later passed on to Kawasaki Taiji (川崎大治) who also created great works.
The first Kamishibai created for kids wasThe Golden Bat (Ōgon Bat 黄金バット), in 1923.
Sadly, towards the late 1950s, due to the spreading of TV, the tradition of street performed Kamishibai quickly disappeared.
Did you ever hear about Kamishibai before?