Miniatures-in-Miniature: Early Experimental Kamishibai in the Cotsen Children’s Library Collection

By Tara M. McGowan

Kamishibai (紙芝居), literally “paper theater,” is a form of street-performance art that was first invented in Japan in the late 1920s as a way to both entertain and sell treats to children. Hailed as a precursor of animé and manga, it has been receiving increasing attention worldwide, as artists, educators, and performers of all kinds, inspired by the candy peddlers of the 1930s, strap stages to bicycles or otherwise transport them to schools, streets, museums and parks to entertain audiences of all ages. There are now international kamishibai festivals from Mexico to Slovenia and kamishibai workshops and symposia being offered from Australia to France. A French organization D’Une Langue A L’Autre (DULALA) will be initiating an international Plurilingual Kamishibai competition this year to promote multilingualism through kamishibaiIn the city of Numazu (Shizuoka, Japan), the 7th Annual Street-Performance Kamishibai Competition will be held this July, and contestants will be traveling from Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Figure 1. Seventh Annual Street-Performance Kamishibai Contest in Numazu Promotional Poster

With so much global interest, it goes without saying that the history of kamishibai and how it developed, as a miniaturized version of the “big screen,” has become familiar to many (McGowan, 2010; 2015). When silent film first entered Japan, it was never really silent because movie narrators, known as benshi 弁士, or katsudō benshi 活動弁士, were almost invariably standing alongside, explaining the (often foreign) films to avid fans (Dym, 2003). In some cases, the movie narrators were more popular than the movie stars!  Street-performance kamishibai cards were designed so that the images could be animated through dramatic transitions from one card to the next, as the performer pulled the cards out of the stage while narrating the soundtrack alongside. When talkies came to Japan in the 1920s, it is said that many of these film narrators took to performing kamishibai in the streets to make a living (Orbaugh, 2015).

Figure 2. Kamishibai Man by Allen Say. Houghton Mifflin, 2005. (Cotsen 151969)

The typical image of a kamishibai street performer (Fig. 2), popularized by illustrator and author Allen Say in his picture book Kamishibai Man (2005), is of a man selling candy to children off the back of his bicycle and then telling stories to a captivated crowd. Figure 3. “Kamishibai,” poem by Saijo Yaso, illustrated by Hatsuyama Shigeru. In Kodomo no kuni, Vol. 11, No. 14 (December, 1932). (Cotsen 30591)

Another depiction (Fig. 3), which was published in 1932 in the popular Japanese children’s magazine Kodomo no kuni (Country of children), however, paints a rather different picture and suggests a diversity of performance styles in this early phase of kamishibai’s development. In illustrator Hatsuyama Shigeru’s (1897-1973) distinctive geometrical style, this kamishibai man is depicted with the stage strapped to his chest and a box of candy (あめ), hanging from his hip decorated with a Japanese flag. He beats his hyōshigi 拍子木 (wooden clappers) to gather the children about him, while, on the left-hand side, a mother reaches into her purse to find some change for her impatient child. Other children, already sucking their sweets, watch him performing the Chinese classic of The Monkey King (or Journey to the West).

The poem translates as follows:

Chakkin, chakkin, he beats the hyshigi, gathering the children “Now Kamishibai is about to begin!”  Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

The candy peddler’s “Lloyd glasses” shine in the evening light; He coughs a big, big cough. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

And now they appear: the Monkey King, Pigsy, and Tripitaka the monk, coming along, coming along, and coming along on their journey together, but then, here comes a monster! Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

Come here, little boys! Big boys, step back a little. Everyone must get along as you line up, line up, and line up kamishibai. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

Chakkin, chakkin, the ginkgo leaves fall at the street crossing. Sweet-tooth, eat your candy, eat, eat and eat kamishibai. Ha, chakkin, chakkin, chakkin na.

The sound of the wooden clappers reverberates throughout the poem, punctuating the kamishibai man’s narration and grabbing the children’s attention on the busy street corner. The poem captures the multisensory experience of street kamishibai, where the audio-visual performance was combined with the sweet taste of candy and the cramped space shared with others!

Although not actually shown in the illustration, the reference to the kamishibai man’s “Lloyd glasses,” named for the silent film actor Harold Lloyd (1893-1971), connects the kamishibai man to the big screen and also dates the poem to the 1930s when these glasses became all the rage. What is unclear from this depiction is how the performer actually pulled the cards out of the stage while holding and beating the hyōshigi clappers with both hands. His stage is a simple frame with what appear to be actual cloth curtains blowing in the wind.  Standard kamishibai stages today open on the left side (from the audience’s point-of-view, see Fig. 2), and the movement of the cards is from right to left, as they are pulled out of the stage. In the early 1930s, however, this does not appear to have been fixed. There are photographs of early stages where the cards were pulled out of either side of the stage or even up through the top, as is depicted here on a small promotional fan, produced by the Sasaya bookstore.

Figure 4. Promotional fan, front and verso (5 inches in diameter), Sasaya Honten, circa 1940. (Cotsen 71689374)

In this instance, the kamishibai man is wearing the Lloyd glasses referenced in the poem and, just like in the earlier example, he holds clappers, one in each hand, suggesting that clappers played an active role in telling the story, as they do in the poem above. In this case, however, his stage is on the back of a bicycle with no candy in sight, and he appears to be telling a war propaganda kamishibai story. As will be described in greater detail later, kamishibai was used extensively for purposes of propaganda during Japan’s fifteen-year war, the period between 1931 and 1945 (Orbaugh, 2015), and in this image, we see a bomb going off in the foreground nearly missing the battle ship to the right, as fighter planes and Zeppelin circle in the skies overhead. The children practically have their noses up against the stage, which is consistent with photographs of performances from the time. In this instance, however, it seems clear that the cards are being pulled up through the top of the stage and not from the side, as has become common practice today.

What is not visible in the romanticized (some might even say sanitized) images of the kamishibai men above, is any evidence of the heated controversy, which surrounded street-performance kamishibai almost immediately; namely, kamishibai’s potentially corrupting influence on children. By 1937, kamishibai was so widespread that one survey claimed there were two thousand storytellers in the city of Tokyo alone and that around 800,000 children were watching these performances on a daily basis (Uchiyama & Nomura, 1937). Complaints from educators and parents about the salacious content of the stories, the lurid colors used by the artists, and the unhygienic practices of the candy peddlers started to reach the ears of authorities, and by 1938, the plot of the stories had to be marked on the back of the cards so that content could be monitored.

Some educators and religious leaders, however, recognized that the mesmerizing power of kamishibai and its evident popularity with child audiences could be channeled for more elevated purposes. It is hardly surprising that purveyors of children’s culture—advertisers, children’s magazines, bookstores and toy companies—would also want to cash in on this mania. From the 1930s to 40s, toy versions of the format proliferated so that children could entertain themselves or family and friends at home. The Cotsen Children’s Library has several fascinating examples of these miniatures-in-miniature that encapsulate forgotten moments of kamishibai’s history and shed important light on kamishibai’s evolving place in Japanese popular imagination.

Figure 5. Kamishibai ehon by Miyashita Fumio, front and inside cover. [Japan] : Kokkadō, between 1930 and 1940. (Cotsen 100694)

The first example is titled “Kamishibai ehon” (Paper theater picture book) (Fig. 5, left). It presents itself as a picture book, when, in fact, the cover doubles as a miniature kamishibai stage. A rectangle for the stage opening is punched out of the back cover and then folded to create a pocket to hold the cards (Fig. 5, right).

Figure 6. Kamishibai ehon by Miyashita Fumio, back cover, constructed as a stage with dimensions 7.5 x 10.5 inches and with an opening of 4 x 6 inches. (Cotsen 100694)

In this case, the user has followed the instructions which are visible on the back of the stage pocket (Fig. 6). There are no openings on the sides of the pocket, so the cards would have been pulled up out of the stage, one at a time, just like in the image on the fan above. The red string, which was originally meant to hold the stage open, has since been re-attached, most likely because of the torn left corner.

In spite of rough treatment, the stage exudes elegance with its red frilly curtains and, at bottom, a gold and red sign, which reads “Children’s Theater” (子供座). The ornate style is well suited to the accompanying cards, which are an adaptation of the Victorian children’s classic Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first serialized in Japanese translation in a popular girls’ magazine between 1890 and 1892 by Wakamatsu Shizuko. The style of the illustrations, however, suggest that this kamishibai version may have been more closely based on the hugely popular 1921 silent film version of the story, starring Mary Pickford, or the 1936 sound version, starring Dolores Costello.

Figure 7. Card 1, front and verso, of Kanashiki shōkōshi (Sad little Lord Fauntleroy) by Miyashita Fumio. (Cotsen 100694)

The kamishibai follows much the same story as the films, beginning when the main character Cedric Errol (Cedie), the only son of a New York widow, suddenly finds out that he is the Earl of Dorincourt’s sole heir. Cedie leaves his mother in New York City to take up residence with his grandfather, the Earl, who plans to turn him into an aristocrat. An incident with a fortune-hunting impostor, who tries to push her own son into Cedie’s place, makes the grandfather realize the virtues of Cedie’s real mother, and son and mother are reunited in the end.

Figure 8. Card 12 of Kanashiki shōkōshi (Sad little Lord Fauntleroy) by Miyashita Fumio. (Cotsen 100694)

The adaptation of this worldwide classic to the kamishibai format, and even the presentation of it as a “picture book,” reveals the publisher’s evident desire to elevate the medium in the eyes of prospective consumers — middle-class parents, who might otherwise associate kamishibai with unclean street-entertainment for children of the lower socioeconomic orders.

Another example of adapting the classics to miniature kamishibai format for middle-class children is this extremely rare “Invisible Ink Fairytale Paper Theater” (Aburidashi otogi kamishibai) set. The box the cards come in doubles as the stage with the opening again at the top. The image on the back of the box illustrates both how the invisible ink would have been made to appear through a process of exposing it to heat and how a kamishibai man might perform the cards in a similar (but much larger) stage for an audience of children.

Figure 9. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Dimensions 4 X 6 inches. (cards 3.5 x 5.5 inches) (Cotsen)

Here, the performer could easily be a school teacher, rather than a street-performer, because the performance appears to be occurring in an interior space with the stage perched on a table, and the children, who are neatly dressed Western-style clothing, are watching in orderly rows. The kamishibai man’s stage is designed exactly like the box with its flap up, suggesting that, like the toy, these cards would have been pulled up through the top in performance.

Figure 10. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Front of stage with curtain card displayed. (Cotsen)

The stage is complete with a curtain card, depicting faces of the main characters from all the stories, and the words, otogi kamishibai (fairy-tale paper theater) at the bottom. The set contains five Japanese classic fairy (or folk) tales of six cards each, including Momotaro (The Peach Boy), Issunboshi (The One Inch Boy), Kachi kachi yama (The Burning Mountain), Hanasaka jiji (The Old Man who made the flowers bloom), and Saru kani kassen (The battle between monkey and crab).

Figure 11. Aburidashi otogi kamishibai. Cards of “Momotaro.” (Cotsen)

It is unlikely, however, that these cards were ever performed. There is no text on the backs, and the process of making the invisible ink appear by holding the cards over the brazier has left them brittle and even burned in places. The pleasure of the toy may have been in seeing the images emerge and recognizing the familiar scenes depicted. It is truly remarkable that these ephemeral objects still exist as an almost complete set!

The smallest of the mini-kamishibai stages in the Cotsen Collection (2 x 2.5 inches, when constructed) is part of a promotional gift package distributed by Takeda Chōbee Shōten in 1940. The package was designed as an advertisement for medicine and other health products, as well as a celebration of the 2600th year (1940) since the founding of the Japanese empire by the legendary Emperor Jimmu. The decorative banner is made to look like a string of lanterns, on one side of which is written the characters for the celebration of 2600th year, as well as the slogan, “Let’s become strong children and give our best for our country.” On the other side, the lanterns are decorated with the Japanese flag and several different medications and supplements manufactured by the Takeda company.

Figure 12. Omiyage (Gift). Takeda Chōbee Shōten, 1940. (Cotsen 71687659)

The gifts also include a matchbox-sized wooden interlocking block set, a balloon, a card with a moveable image of a fisherman, a set of origami papers, a coloring book, and two cards depicting a miniature kamishibai with stage to be cut and assembled. The twelve miniature kamishibai story cards depict the series of victorious battles and events, starting with the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and ending with the founding of the puppet regime, the so-called Reorganized National Government of the Republic of China (1940-1945). The promotional pamphlets educate customers about the importance of vitamin B1, the availability of hormones for women, and how to maintain health from autumn into winter. All the gifts contain advertisements for Takeda products.

Figure 13, “Heitaisan yo, arigatau” (Thank you to our troops) in Omiyage, 1940. (Cotsen 71687659)

Oddly, the words for each card are printed in tiny blue characters on the right-hand side of each card, making it impossible for the performer to read them until they are removed from the stage. The dominant use of Chinese characters and difficult historical details suggests that this mini-stage may not have been designed for a child audience, and it may also explain why it remains uncut after all these years. The stage (Fig. 14) is decorated with a Japanese flag and military trumpet and the words, “Thank you to our troops” (Heitai san yo arigatau). As the instructions indicate at the bottom left, this is the only miniature stage of those in the Cotsen collection that is designed with an opening on the right-hand side (standardized stages today open on the left).

Figure 14. “Heitaisan yo, arigatau” (Thank you to our troops). Illustration of stage, when constructed. (Cotsen 71687659)

All of the above examples indicate that kamishibai as a medium was still in a fluid form during the 1930s and 40s that allowed for all manner of experiments with the format. During the war years when kamishibai was used as a mass media for propaganda purposes, experimentation with hybrid formats seemed even more popular. One of the most intriguing examples is this pop-up “kamishibai talkie,” which would have come with a record of the performer’s voice (now missing).

Figure 15. Kodomo chokin butai (Children’s savings corps), Kōa Bunka Rokuon Kabushiki Kaisha, between 1942 and 1945. An updated edition with narrative text. (Cotsen 102950)

Unlike a typical kamishibai set, these cards were performed without a stage and are actually bound together with tape at the bottom (missing in Fig. 15). The audience would place the cards on a surface and pull them up, one at a time, to reveal the pop-up (tobidashi, literally “pop-out”) character connected to the next scene. On the original version from 1942, there is no text, so the audience would have relied on the accompanying record for the story.

Figure 16. Kodomo chokin butai (Children’s savings corps). Card 1 with pop-up character, conducting the troop. The slogan 一億一心 (Ichioku isshin) is on his backpack. Note that the pop-up in the foreground is connected to both the front of Card 1 and the back of the next card so the cards cannot be separated. Kōa Bunka Rokuon Kabushiki Kaisha, 1942. (Cotsen 68469)

At the center of the story is a group of children, who are working together to save money for the Japanese armed forces, inspired by the nationally unifying slogan–ichioku isshin (literally, “one billion, one spirit”). A wealthy boy in town refuses to join their group, selfishly spending money on toys. When he falls ill, the children’s savings corps visits his sick bed and offers him money for a speedy recovery. He is so moved by their generous spirit that he joins with them. The 1942 edition is labeled Shinan tokkyo: Kamishibai tōkī, meaning “A new initiative with special permission: Paper-theater talkie,” indicating that it is most likely the first of its kind to be sanctioned by the Japanese government. By 1942, the military government tightly controlled and censored publication in any medium, and it actively produced kamishibai cards to educate the civilian population about the divinity of the Imperial lineage and other aspects of the war effort, such as how to construct bomb shelters and how best to support the troops. This “new initiative” kamishibai talkie must have been deemed a success because Cotsen also has a later edition, which has been labeled with the words “Endorsed by the Ministry of Finance, Citizen Savings Division” (Fig. 15 and 17)

Figure 17. Later edition of Kodomo chokin butai published between 1942 and 1945 with narrative text, Card 8. (Cotsen 102950) As the credits on the final card (lower left) indicate, by this time, there was a whole series of stories created in this format.

The innovative formats and variety of performance styles illustrated by these few examples of early toy kamishibai from the Cotsen Children’s Library collection are of interest today, as kamishibai experiences a renaissance around the globe and questions about what “traditional” kamishibai should look like come to the fore. There are many published explanations available for how kamishibai should be created or performed, but the question arises: who gets to decide what is traditional? Even this small selection of objects complicates the notion of a single “tradition,” in a period when so many different groups in Japan—storytellers, educators, advertisers, government officials, and publishers—were all actively appropriating kamishibai for different purposes. Whether it was for profit, pedagogy, propaganda, or even just for fun, artists and illustrators were experimenting with the format from the very beginning and continue to do so today. Rather than searching for one right or wrong way to perform kamishibai, these intriguing glimpses into the range of early experiments with kamishibai invite and challenge kamishibai performers and artists around the world today to look for ever more interesting and engaging ways to bring this interactive and dramatic format to new audiences.

Further reading about kamishibai (in English):

Dym, J. (2003) Benshi, Japanese Silent Film Narrators, and Their Forgotten Narrative Art of Setsumei: A History of Japanese Silent Film Narration (Edwin Mellen Pr)

Friends of Silent Film Association (2001) The Benshi—Japanese Silent Film Narrators (Matsuda Film Productions)

McGowan, T. (2010) The Kamishibai Classroom: Engaging Multiple Literacies through the Art of ‘Paper Theater.’ (ABC-CLIO)

McGowan, T. (2015) Performing Kamishibai: An Emerging New Literacy for a Global Audience (Routledge)

Nash, E. (2009) Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater (Abrams Press)

Orbaugh, S. (2015) Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (Brill)

Say, A. (2005) Kamishibai Man [picture book] (Houghton Mifflin).

Tara M. McGowan catalogs the Japanese collection at the Cotsen Children’s Library.

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