Kamishibai is a powerful, non-digital medium of communication that was invented in Japan. It combines aspects of Japanese theatrical and storytelling traditions with early cinematic media techniques from abroad. The first kamishibai was invented in the early 19th century and involved paper puppets, known as tachi-e, that could be flipped suddenly to look like they had moved.  The animation of tachi-e puppets was inspired by early cinematic techniques of magic lanterns, which used a light source to project images of still or moveable glass slides onto a wall or screen. Magic lantern shows became popular around the globe and were precursors of reel-to-reel film. (For more information on Japanese magic lantern shows, or utushi-e, see Downloads and Links below.)

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Figure 1– A typical tachi-e puppet  (The Kamishibai Classroom, p. 11)

This form of “kamishibai” (later called tachi-e, or “standing pictures”) became popular during the 19th century and was designed as a miniature version of the kabuki or bunraku theater. Many of the stories performed with these puppets were based on dramas audiences knew from these larger theater productions.

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Figure 2–19th century kamishibai-ya (The Kamishibai Classroom, p. 4)

In 1929, three kamishibai (tachi-e) street performers got together and invented a new kind of kamishibai, inspired by the latest global medium, silent film. This kamishibai (called hira-e or “flat pictures”) is the card format that most people know as kamishibai today.

Silent films had entered Japan around 1910, but they were rarely silent because they almost always had a performer alongside, providing entertaining dialogue and cultural background in the case of foreign films (Dym, 2003). These movie narrators (called benshi) became celebrities, and the kamishibai street performers of the 1930s emulated their vocal styles, while the kamishibai artists copied the visual techniques of popular films, as well as the story lines.  The new kamishibai was to film what the old kamishibai had been to popular forms of traditional theater.

Street performers (called gaitō kamishibaiya) typically traveled from one urban neighborhood to the next with stages strapped to the backs of their bicycles. They sold candy and other treats to audiences of children before the performances, and this was how they made their living. Kamishibai artists would create stories in episodes, and the performers would rent out a new episode each day. Some of the famous series, such as Ogon batto (the “Golden Bat”) continued for hundreds of episodes and was later adapted for television.

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Figure 3–Street kamishibai in the 20th century (The Kamishibai Classroom, p. 6)

From the 1930s until the 1950s, kamishibai was the most popular form of entertainment for children, so much so that when television came to Japan in the 1950s, it was referred to as “denki kamishibai” (electric kamishibai).

Although street-performance kamishibai is the most frequently mentioned aspect of kamishibai history, from the early 1930s and onward educators and missionaries, who had already noticed the power of kamishibai to attract and hold children’s attention, began publishing educational and religious kamishibai. During World War II, kamishibai became as important as film, radio, and other mass media for spreading the militaristic government’s agenda and convincing people of all ages of the divinity of the Imperial lineage (Orbaugh, 2014). These “national policy,” or propaganda, kamishibai were designed for audiences of all ages and in all the languages of the occupied territories. Kamishibai was considered superior to film and radio in that it could be carried into even remote areas where electricity and airwaves might not reach.

An important lesson to take from this brief history of kamishibai is that kamishibai is not a genre of literature, even though in recent years in Japan folklore has become a particularly popular genre for published kamishibai. Kamishibai is a format for performance that can be adapted to any genre or content matter and for any audience or age group. In Japan today, one of the favorite genres of “handcrafted” (tezukuri) kamishibai is to tell personal stories and local histories. There are yearly kamishibai storytelling festivals held in Japan, where people of all ages gather to tell their own handcrafted kamishibai. Storytellers also frequently work with the elderly in senior centers to develop their memories into kamishibai stories to teach younger generations about the histories of their families and communities. There are currently efforts underway to make kamishibai of the experiences of survivors of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 2011 in order to help rebuild and heal those communities through the sharing of stories.

There are really no limitations on the ways that kamishibai can be used in schools and communities, so I hope that teachers will feel free to experiment and to use these suggestions as jumping off points to begin their own creative journeys, across the curriculum, with this exciting, performance format!

Source: Tara McGowan