Kamishibai (Japanese Picture Book Story telling)  Started in Japan in Japan over  80 yrs ago.

Sweet sellers would Pedal their wares on the back of Bicycles from which they would also perform Kamishibai. They would do, depending on business, one or two shows usually stopping in the middle of the second show and saying “come back next week” if you want to see the next episode”. In the fifties it was reported that there were 3000 such story tellers around Japan. Now Just a handful. I attempt to explain the possible rise of Kamishibai in my story Two Brothers.

Kamishibai comes from a much older tradition of story telling and a deeper look into the roots of Kamishibai is provided by our resident Historian, Helen McCarthy.

Kamishibai grew out of three other popular art forms. Pictures had been used to educate and entertain for centuries, starting in Buddhist temples and developing into a full-scale print industry. Etoki, or picture storytellers, would use prints or original art to illustrate their narratives. The whole nation, rich and poor, had been listening to storytellers for centuries. Rakugo, a traditional form of storytelling, is still practiced today. When film first came to Japan in 1886, it gave birth to a new form of storyteller: the benshi narrator was the person who introduced and narrated silent film for the audience.

When silent film died, benshi moved into kamishibai. Their performance skills, honed over years of experiment with audiences and married to the skilful use of graphic imagery, made kamishibai a successful street entertainment. The simple box frame with pictures inside was brought to life by the performer’s voice, timing, and ability to read his audience.

It’s not surprising that when television first appeared in Japan it was known as “electric kamishibai”. After all, TV is just a wooden box displaying pictures brought to life by performance skills. Kamishibai was also using serial narratives to capture an audience and then sell them goods, long before TV advertising was invented.

Japan ’s first motion pictures were imported. A benshi would introduce them and explain the exotic places, clothes and customs the audience was about to see. These introductions were called maesetsu in Japanese. Many early movies were newsreels or documentaries, but as narrative film developed, the benshi also described characters and gave plot synopses in their introductions.

Gradually, different kinds of narrative summary developed as individual performers experimented and adopted the most successful, audience-pleasing styles. From the early 1920s onwards the plot and character summaries extended from the introduction into the film itself, and benshi would use different voices and perform each role, adding banter and description and giving the cinema experience a new dimension. The most popular benshi became stars in their own right.

If you’re interested in finding out more about benshi, media company Digital Meme offer several DVDs of early anime and silent film from the 1920s and 1930s, with benshi narration and multilingual translation, on their website:

When film acquired a synchronized soundtrack, benshi were no longer required. The release of The Jazz Singer in the USA in 1927 marked the beginning of the end for silent film throughout the world. In less than ten years, silent film had disappeared completely from cinema screens.

The late 1920s were a bad time to be in a collapsing industry. A global economic downturn had led to global depression. In 1929 the US stock market crashed, triggering a worldwide economic collapse. Markets kept on falling until 1933, and millions were thrown out of work. There was very little alternative employment for the benshi who lost their jobs with the collapse of silent film.

The first kamishibai performances are believed to have been in Tokyo ’s shitamachi, or working-class district, round Ueno station, but kamishibai soon spread throughout Japan .

Kamishibai gave redundant benshi a chance to use their existing skills, perform for audiences and earn a small but viable  income. The kamishibaya, or kamishibai performer, used the same methods as Buddhist monks and picture storytellers of old times, adapted for 20th century life through modern technology – the bicycle.

The kamishibai performer was a traveling salesman, offering sweets and snacks and using stories to entice customers to buy his wares. He would travel from village to village, or around the suburbs of big cities like Tokyo and Osaka , with a collapsible wooden frame on the back of his bike. At each stop – a street corner, a public square or park – he would knock two wooden clappers, or hyoshige, together as hard as he could, to announce his arrival.

As people gathered he would sell his snacks. The audience was mostly children, as men were out working and women had household duties. There was no obligation to buy anything, but those who did got the best positions, right in front of the stage, while those who didn’t had to stay at the back of the crowd.

When he had sold enough snacks, the storyteller would insert a set of boards for the first story into the stage. Withdrawing them one by one, revealing each image in time with his narration, he would tell several short tales – some complete, but usually ending with a serial and a cliffhanger to bring the audience back next time he visited.

An outline of the story could be written on the back of each card for the storyteller to refer to if he lost his place or was distracted, but kamishibai storytellers were seasoned professionals. Like star benshi narrators, the best performers would use humor and drama to make each story their own, developing their own style and varying the jokes and comments to reflect current events and popular children’s stories, or to suit the particular audience.

Over time, performers started to include questions or puzzles for the children to answer at the end of the show. Children who got the right answer would get an extra treat, or later, a cheap trinket or picture card.

The profit from the day’s snack sales had to cover costs, which included the hire of a bicycle and theatre frame as few performers owned one. Performers also had to hire new story cards to use each day.

The business infrastructure was run by middlemen – “bosses”, or kashimoto, who rented out bicycles, theatre frames and stories. Kamishibai performers would buy their snacks wholesale from the kashimoto, or get their wives to make them at home. The kashimoto would take payment from the performer’s takings at the end of the day, so an unemployed man without a penny to his name could start work right away as a kamishibai performer.

Most performers followed a regular route, so as to build up repeat custom and not to have to travel along unfamiliar routes . Their working days began and ended at the kashimoto’s premises, where they had to collect new stories every morning and return them with payment that evening, Performers would give several shows a day to 20 or more children, plus any adults with time to spare. After paying rent for the story cards, frame and bicycle, the average performer would usually be left with at least enough to keep his family fed, clothed and housed.

Bad weather was the only real threat to the kamishibai performer’s trade in the 1930s. Ordinary working families couldn’t afford many entertainments and treats, so the regular arrival of the storyteller with inexpensive snacks and exciting tales became a highlight of the week, just like a favorite TV show. Children all over Japan would listen eagerly for the sound of the wooden clappers that told them the kamishibai man had arrived in their street.

Because it could be set up anywhere, kamishibai was one of the few forms of public entertainment to keep going through the war. Kamishibai performers could take their bicycles into bomb shelters to calm frightened children, and into areas that had been firebombed flat to cheer up the civilian population.

After the war, people needed entertainment more than ever but they were still desperately poor. Despite the rebuilding that had started with American aid, many buildings needed repair or renewal, and entertainment had lower priority than homes, schools and hospitals. So cheap, portable, readily available kamishibai enjoyed huge popularity, hitting a peak in the 1950s. . The most conservative estimates suggest at least 10,000 performers nationwide, and some go as high as 25,000, with over 3,000 in Tokyo alone.

A typical kamishibai story was made up of 10-12 cards. Some stories were complete, some ran for several episodes. The most popular, like the dramatic tales of Ogon Bat, a masked fighter for justice and hero of popular novels, could have hundreds of episodes, but most serials averaged around 30 episodes so as to build a solid repeat audience.

The demand for new stories was huge. Performers could not repeat their stories too often – their customers came to hear something new. It might be possible to retell an old favorite every six months or so, or to present the same classic folktale every year at a festival, but too many repeat performances were bad for trade. So the kashimoto hired writers to create new stories, and artists to create new story cards.

Kashimoto built up huge libraries of stories that could be rented out again and again, giving the performers a wide choice of new material. Although several artists might work on versions of the same story, every card was a unique, hand painted work, so no two stories were ever the same.

An artist who was fast and skilled could produce the dozen paintings needed to make up a new episode in a day. Two or more artists working as a team, perhaps with one outlining the drawing and the other painting it, could produce more. Working fast and constantly meant that artists could earn a good salary, but they had to adapt to the particular needs of kamishibai performance.

The kamishibai theatre frame is built so that cards are pulled out from right to left. Pulling out a card partway reveals the card behind. The storyteller can use this in many ways – for example, to create dialogue, to allow a character to “come into” the scene and interrupt, or to chase a “departing” character on the previous board, or to build suspense.

Some kamishibai artists went on to become manga artists in their own right, the most famous being Shigeru Mizuki, creator of GeGeGe no Kitaro. The story of Kitaro originated as Hakaba no Kitaro, a spooky, scary kamishibai tale. Mizuki, with the agreement of his former colleagues, later adapted and revised it for his manga.

Many manga artists also watched kamishibai when they were children. Osamu Tezuka, the “God of Manga”, loved kamishibai and made his own stories. Fuku-chan Goes Fishing, a Tezuka childhood story based on one of his favorite comic characters, is still preserved in the Tezuka Manga Museum in Takarazuka, near Osaka.

A kamishibai performance would usually start with a light-hearted comedy about a child or animal. These were called manga – Manga Monkey is a typical example. The leading character, and their sidekick or friend, would often get into trouble through their own silliness, so there was a moral to the tale, but one well wrapped in laughter. An action tale with a daring boy hero who foiled criminals, traveled to exotic lands or other planets would also be on the agenda.

Horror stories were very popular. As well as contemporary spook tales like GeGeGe no Kitaro, historical horror abounded. A wronged ghost, usually female, comes back to haunt her tormentors and avenge her own death. There would also be a tragedy or melodrama, often starring an orphan girl who went through heartrending experiences in an uncaring world. These could be historical epics but were also set in the present or recent past, reflecting the reality of life for orphans in hard times. The roots of manga such as Candy Candy, Yumiko Igarashii’s tale of a sweet-natured orphan whose every joy is dogged by tragedy, can be traced back to these stories, which were also popular in girls’ magazines of the time.

Kamishibai was even used for preaching. A Japanese Christian woman named Yone Imai created many Christian kamishibai to use as preaching aids in the 1930s. Other Christians, and Buddhists, also used the technique to spread their beliefs.

The influence and power of kamishibai was spotted by the Japanese education authorities and it was soon being used in schools, both to teach morals and ethics and to make foreign literature easier to absorb. Tales from authors like Dickens, biographies of famous Japanese and stories of good conquering evil were all adapted for schools, providing another line of work for kamishibai artists. Street performers, however, were looked down on by the authorities, who found their action-packed cliffhanger serials vulgar.

Kamishibai was so popular that television was called “electric kamishibai” when it appeared in Japan in 1954. However, it would soon displace kamishibai in public affection. At first the Japanese were slow to take up TV – new technology is always expensive, and most people were still poor. But in 1959, when it was announced that the wedding of Crown Prince Akihito would be televised, television sales shot through the roof. Just as everyone in Britain who could possibly afford it bought a TV for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, two million Japanese households got TV sets so that they could see their future Emperor and his bride.

With this huge boost in TV audiences, programming became more varied and television gained popularity. Its biggest advantage over kamishibai was that it sat in the corner of the living room, so it could be watched in comfort at any time, regardless of the weather. Kamishibai performers did their best to adapt, some even fitting up their bicycles and theatre frames with lights, and adding music to their performance, but to no avail. Kamishibai became a dying art. But for its use in education, and the determination of a few performers who survived mainly by working at cultural festivals and nostalgia events in holiday resorts, it might have been lost forever.

One of the saddest effects of this decline was the loss of huge quantities of kamishibai art. With no performers hiring their cards, many kashimoto simply junked their picture libraries. Jeffrey A. Dym, Associate Professor of History at California State University and one of the few people to study kamishibai, estimates that only about 10-12 thousand postwar episodes and a handful of prewar episodes remain in the whole of Japan . When one considers, that at the height of kamishibai’s popularity, at least 10,000 performers were performing 3-4 different stories every day, it gives some idea of the scale of destruction.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Japan , reborn as a prosperous, progressive world power, began to look at its street arts and popular culture with new respect and to realize that there was much worth valuing and preserving in art forms such as kamishibai.

Kamishibai is still used as an educational tool by teachers in Japanese elementary schools, and seen at cultural festivals. It’s an ecologically friendly entertainment, needing only human energy.

There are still a few registered performers who were trained in the old tradition. Yuushi Yasuno, who works as Yassan and who can be seen elsewhere on this site, works with the Kyoto International Manga Museum , performing old and new stories. Visitors to the Museum can also see a display of original kamishibai boards dating from the 1930s onwards.

When he visited London in September 2008, Yassan told us there are only six or seven traditional kamishibai artists left in the Osaka region. Most kamishibai in Japan is now performed by schoolteachers. However, things are looking more hopeful. Yassan is training an appentice to carry on the tradition, and the worldwide interest in kamishibai will help to ensure the survival of this fusion of street art and storytelling.

Japanese-American author Allen Say wrote a beautiful illustrated book, Kamishibai Man, in which a retired kamishibai performer decides to return to his old rounds one last time. His wife makes sweets for him to sell, just as she used to, and he rides into a completely changed city, with huge buildings and traffic where there used to be old wooden houses and trees. But the people who live there remember him from childhood days, and when he opens up his wooden frame they gather round to reminisce.

Kamishibai is also spreading into the workplace. It has been adopted by some Japanese companies as a means of communication. Toyota uses kamishibai on the factory floor as part of its ongoing audit process, and for PR purposes. You can see an example of  Toyota ’s use of kamishibai on page 7 of the first section of this PR article on the company’s overseas initiatives, Accelerating Environmental Initiatives as Global Toyota:

Many companies, including Toyota , sponsor kamishibai in Japanese elementary schools and produce storyboards for use in education. One of Toyota ’s examples, Papin and Tirol Go Fishing, teaches traffic safety rules, using two little rabbits to help pre-schoolers understand how to cross the road safely. You can see some of the boards in Jon Miller’s article here:

Artists like Sanzo Wada (1885-1960) used kamishibai as inspiration for prints and drawings. Masaki Miyamae (1957-2000) also used kamishibai as an experimental medium, merging performance art with drawing. Three years before his death, Miyamae performed a piece called Kamishibai at the opening of his solo exhibition at Galleria Finarte, Tokyo , having developed it over about five years with performances in his studio and other spaces. In one of these experimental shows he made a group of narrative drawings and then shuffled them at random before performance, deconstructing the story. In another he asked on an onlooker to perform using his drawings.

Kamishibai is changing, using new media and merging with many art and narrative forms. It’s even going digital – American company Accursed Arts have been selling a computer kamishibai package for several years, and anime and manga fans are beginning to use kamishibai as a medium for fan fiction. At the same time, the traditional kamishibai format of illustration-enhanced storytelling is going from strength to strength. Adults and children alike respond to the immediacy, personal connection and fun of a kamishibai performance.

Having come so close to losing this 20th century street art form forever, it seems we’ve managed to preserve it for the children – and adults – of the new millennium.