Kamishibai (紙芝居) is an old Japanese form of entertainment in which a story is told by a narrator showing colored paper sheets while telling a story to an audience. It first started in temples in the 12th century where monks and nuns would use picture scrolls to tell religious stories to their local parish members. Later professional story tellers would travel around the country first on foot and later by bicycle with their wooden boxes and story cards. In the recession of the 1920s the tradition surged in popularity as it was a very easy business to get into and allowed unemployed men a chance to earn at least enough money not to starve to death.
The stories told by the Kamishibai narrators were often serialized so that each time they visited a place they could keep telling a story from the point where they stopped last time, like modern day TV drama or comic book! People would be eager to hear the latest chapter in their favorite characters and it was easy for the narrators to adapt to what audiences enjoyed, instant feedback that today’s TV producers can only dream of. One of the first nationwide stories was about one of (if not the first) real superheroes, “Ogon Bat” (or Golden Bat) which was introduced in 1930, quite a few years before Superman or Batman. Ogon Bat had all the things we associate with super heroes today: he fought evil, had a super villain arch enemy, a cape, dressed in tights and had a background story to explain his amazing powers and invulnerability and he has a secret super hero base in the mountains. When he is called upon by a woman in distress, he sets forth to battle evil where it occurs.
Ogon Bat was a God of Justice from the ancient island of Atlantis who was put in suspended animation by the ancient Egyptians when Atlantis was submerged, with the goal of awakening him in the future when his powers would be most needed. His sarcophagus and sleeping body is discovered by a Japanese egyptologists, Dr Yamatone and his assistant, his daughter Marie. In the tomb they are attacked by the evil Mazo and in the struggle the tears of Marie fall on the sleeping body of Ogon Bat, waking him up to once again fight for justice.
Originally Ogon Bat looked quite scary, with a white-golden skull shaped head, a flamboyant costume with a large cape and collar carrying a spanish rapier. His image was later made a little more kid-friendly though, and the rapier was changed into a scepter. Ogon Bat could fly, was invulnerable just like Superman and had his base in Japan, as he followed his friends the Yamatone family back to Japan from Egypt. Terrific story! Ogon Bat was later to become both regular manga, trading cards and even an animated series and a movie in the 1960s. As American entertainment industry has done so many times before in everything from Westerns to Star Wars to Godzilla, I think the time is ripe to dust off this great old superhero!
But back to the Kamishibai. To this day you can sometimes see modern Kamishibai performers at festivals and in parks, mostly on the weekends, entertaining kids and adults. They often sell candy and accept donations for their storytelling. I doubt there are any people living only on Kamishibai these days, but a little money always helps to keep these old traditions alive! I have blogged about Kamishibai before, in Yokohama. In the comments to that blog post there was a link to a photo of this man who narrates comic books from his portable library to anyone willing to listen. I mention this because I ran into the very same man in Shimokitazawa last Sunday in mid-story. If you don’t know what he is doing it is most likely you will mistake him for a lunatic but he is in fact very entertaining.
I saw this Kamishibai artist, one of the most famous in Tokyo at this year’s Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa back in May. Here he is telling the story of Ogon Bat (黄金バット)!
Kamishibai in Asakusa by Tokyobling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Every year I visit the huge Sanja matsuri, or festival, in Tokyo’s Asakusa area I am sure to catch at least one new animal participant! So far I have seen dogs, marmots, cats, pigs, parrots and even monkeys. This year I saw this wonderfully well dressed little dog, loving the attention and the treats he was getting from the crowds that formed around him.
The tiny paper fan tucked into his obi at the back is a perfect detail. Sorry for the poor picture quality though, the light had almost completely disappeared when I took these and the crowds of people were blocking out what little light came from shops and street lights. If you want to see more festival styled animals, please see this dog here or these cats here and here!
Sanjamatsuri, the biggest festival in Japan, that took place a month ago is naturally famous for its crowded streets and huge amounts of people (nearly two million visitors on the main two days). One of the peaks of the festival is when the neighborhood omikoshi are brought up to greet the big Sensoji temple. As close to the stairs as possible, where dozens of police officers work hard to maintain orders and hundreds of volunteers do their best to direct the over one hundred omikoshi to enter the temple grounds, receive their blessing and exit as quickly as possible. You can’t tell from these photos, but behind the temple there is a several hours long traffic jam as different omikoshi converge on their routes to the temple and the neighboring Asakusa shrine. I managed to get relatively close to the main action and got these photos of the a few omikoshi teams approaching the temple. Some of the omikoshi are special children’s omikoshi, staffed only by kids. There are even different omikoshi for different age groups and I caught one of the tiniest omikoshi in the entire festival in a couple of photos. Too cute for words!
This is how you build a homogenous, well functioning society based on shared experiences, shared values and above all, participation.
The last day of the massive Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo’s Asakusa district is when they bring out the big three omikoshi of the shrine itself. The different neighborhood groups take turns handling them and competition for the best spots get quite fierce. I am always surprised there aren’t more injuries when I see these portable shrines coming down the streets.
The original four omikoshi, dating back to the early 17th century were lost in the firebombings of the war, but three of them has since been replaced by more modern omikoshi about 60 years ago. The fourth omikoshi still hasn’t been replaced, and maybe it never will. This omikoshi is exactly 1000kg heavy but the others are slightly heavier still.
The police did their best in protecting both participants and tourists, but sometimes they were too busy saving themselves. Even viewed from a distance the ceremony is exciting as you are never quite sure where the omikoshi is heading. I am already looking forward to next year’s big festival!