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.
Kamishibai, or 紙芝居 in Japanese is a very old Japanese kind of traditional storytelling involving pictures and a spoken story that was originally meant to teach buddhist principles and moral stories to illiterate people but these days it’s mostly funny or uplifting children’s stories. Kamishibai is one of the many amazing traditions that have survived over the centuries here in Japan, and the other week while walking in Yokohama’s famous Yamashita Park I saw this old man making the best of his electric wheel chair give a volunteer performance for both kids and adults. His voice had to be enhanced by a microphone but he still made full use of his dramatic voice and wooden clappers for special effects. Kamishibai as it looks today is most closely related to the way young men in the 20’s and 30’s would use this simple performance art to travel around the Japanese countryside and earn a small living during the hard economic times of the depression, and that is also when the storytelling turned from moral to entertaining. I can imagine local mothers were happy to have their unruly kids spend an hour or two listening quietly to the storytellers while they took care of the home! This man however, is a local volunteer and is proudly wearing the official Yokohama 150th anniversary t-shirt from 2009, cY150!