by Chris MaGee
Anime and manga. The two compliment each other and have both expanded and inspired so much live-action Japanese feature filmmaking, but what we recognize as modern manga today only became popularized in Japan with the influence of American comic books during the U.S. Occuaption following WW2. That's not at all to say that there weren't Japanese precedents before that, in fact one storytelling art form from the early 20th-century had a profound effect on both manga and anime and has recently been enjoying a modern day Renaissance.
Kamishibai, which translates to "paper drama" was a storytelling medium that flourished in Japan during the the 1920s and right up until the advent of television in the late 1950s. The mechanics of it was simple: a box was fixed to the back of a bicycle that could be ridden through cities and towns. The box had one open side with hinged doors and inside it contained a series of painted cards or boards, with each board showing consecutive scenes in a story. Like a teacher reading a picture book to their class and turning the pages as they go along the gaito kamishibaiya or kamishibai storyteller would set up his bike on a street corner, open the doors of his box and dramatically narrate the story to his audience, which was normally made up of children, pulling out each board with a flourish after he was ready to move onto the next scene. To think of kamishibai as strictly a narrative art form, though, would be a mistake. There was more in that box than just a good story. Like a modern day ice cream truck the kamishibai would announce his presence by using a pair of wooden clappers, selling snacks and sweets to the neighbourhood children. This was a business. It was only once the kids had all bought their treats would the kamishibai storyteller get down to telling his story.
It's estimated that there were upwards of 25,000 gaito kamishibaiya in Japan between 1920 and 1950. After WW2 it was a popular profession for returning soldiers who often had trouble finding work. One of these soldiers you might have heard of. "Gegege no Kitaro" creator Shigeru Mizuki painted his own kamishibai boards and then went onto a hugely successful career as one of the respected artists in manga history.
Sadly, though, this boom in the popularity of kamishibai would come to a crashing end during the early 1960s and the advent of television. Kids no longer needed to have a man narrate a story for them when they had their own "electric kamishibai" in their own living rooms. Like Mizuki many kamishibai storytellers migrated into the world of manga, but a few kept the tradition alive, sewing the seeds for a new appreciation for what would have otherwise become a dead narrative form.
Today a number of contemporary storytellers use the traditional kamishibai box, in fact one, Yuushi Yasuno, fused manga and anime at a performance at London's Barbican Centre in the fall of 2008 by presenting popular stories by Osamu Tezuka using a kamishibai box.
You can check out an example of traditional kamishibai in the video below shot at Kyoto University last year. Unfortunately it doesn't come with subtitles.