Before Pokémon and Yo-kai Watch: A Window onto One of the Earliest Unique Forms of Japanese Animé at the Cotsen Children’s Library

By Tara McGowan

Popular visual culture from Japan in the form of manga, animé, and video games has attracted global attention in the last couple of decades, and, along with this interest, has come a preoccupation with origins. One frequently cited source for the origins of manga is the 12th to 13th century scrolls of animals frolicking, known as Chōchū giga 鳥獣戯画, and some scholars and Japanese popular culture enthusiasts go even further back to cite Heian-period (794-1195) narrative picture-scrolls (emaki 絵巻).

Fig. 1. Segment of Chōchū giga 鳥獣戯画, 12th-13th centuries.

Although there is little doubt that visual storytelling forms have a long history in Japan, focusing primarily on origins can sometimes overshadow the many important developments in the intervening centuries that arguably relate more directly to the emergence of the Japanese animated visual culture of today. A recent acquisition in the Cotsen Children’s Library of a “play print” (omocha-e玩具絵), entitled “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e志ん板うつしゑ), published in 1884 by Tsunashima Kamekichi綱島亀吉, sheds fascinating light on a lesser known precursor of animé and also the largely forgotten global exchange of cinematic technologies that led up to it.

Fig. 2. “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e), Tsunashima Kamekichi, 1884. (Cotsen collection)

Omocha-e play-prints were, until recently, a largely overlooked genre of ukiyo-e 浮世絵, or Japanese wood-block prints. Designed ostensibly for children, but probably enjoyed by people of all ages, omocha-e were considered inferior to the beautiful ladies (bijinga美人画) or kabuki歌舞伎 actors by Utamaro喜多川歌麿 or landscapes by Hiroshige歌川広重 that inspired modern artistic movements in Europe in the 19th century and ignited a Japonism craze in the West. Unlike the prints for adults that were meant primarily for viewing, omocha-e were even more ephemeral. Most were designed to be played with, and even, as in this case, cut up and assembled, and it is rare to find one in such pristine condition. There is renewed interest in omocha-e today, however, as historians recognize them as invaluable resources for understanding early popular cultural trends in fashion, lifestyle changes, and knowledge, especially among the socioeconomically disadvantaged classes that are less well represented in historical literature. Many omocha-e, like the one above, claim to be “the latest” (shinpan) on the given topic, and in this case, the topic is magic lantern shows.

Magic lanterns were an early form of slide projector invented in Europe in the 17th century. In Japan, this would have corresponded to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), when the Tokugawa Shogun was pursuing a policy of seclusion from the outside world. How strictly the government was able to enforce this policy continues to be a subject of debate. What we do know is that there was, nonetheless, avid interest among the general public in Japan during this period to learn about new technologies from outside, and consequently a surprising number of foreign books, ideas, and objects found their way into the country. Some were smuggled in, while others entered the mainland through more acceptable channels, such as Dejima, an island off the coast of Nagasaki where Japanese merchants were allowed to carry on a limited trade with the Dutch. Most likely, at some point in the mid to late 1700s, a magic lantern made its way from Holland via Dejima onto the Japanese mainland because, by 1801, a distinctly Japanese version of a magic lantern called utsushi-e 写し絵 (literally, projected pictures) appears in chronicles of Edo-period entertainments.

Japanese-style magic lanterns were unique in that they were small, portable, and, remarkably enough, made of wood. The projector was a box with a hole at the top (closed off in the example below) so that the glass chimney of the burning oil or kerosene lamp inside could poke out and smoke could vent. This light source projected images painted on glass slides through a lens onto a curtain or screen. Unlike the later projectors made of metal that were introduced in the 19th century when Japan finally opened its doors to the West, early utushi-e shows were projected from behind the screen, out of sight of the audience. Seeming to appear out of nowhere, this method of hidden projection made them appear even more magical.

Fig. 3. Example of a performer and slide (illustrations by Tara McGowan).

Typically, several performers were involved. Animation was achieved, not only by the swift movement of the slides in front of the light source, somewhat like a flip-book, but also by the performers moving around the space, carrying their lanterns with them and projecting characters from different places onto the scene. Several lanterns with different slides would be used and animated at one time, causing audiences in the western (kansai) region of Japan to refer to these colorful performances as “brocade shadow plays” (nishiki kage e錦影絵). “Brocade pictures” (nishiki-e), it should be noted, was the term used for colorful Edo-period ukiyo-e prints, and there was considerable cross-over in styles and themes between the two media.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan had a vibrant theater culture, which encompassed not only the well-known kabuki and bunraku (joruri 浄瑠璃) puppet forms, but also all manner of street performance styles and spectacles performed in less formal venues. One such popular performance venue was called yose 寄席. Although today yose has become almost synonymous with a genre of comic oral storytelling known as rakugo 落語, during the Edo period, it was much more eclectic, similar to vaudeville music halls in the West, featuring a wide variety of dramatic arts, spectacular feats, magic tricks, and street performance genres. From the outset, yose theaters became the home of utsushi-e magic-lantern performances, and the glass slides developed for this venue were inspired by the stock characters and themes with which yose audiences were familiar.

In fact, the image at the bottom of the magic-lantern play-print in the Cotsen collection is designed to look like the entryway into a yose theater with the stock character of Fukusuke–who typically served as a narrator between acts—bowing his head low and inviting the audience in. Fuku 福 means “good fortune,” and Fukusuke dolls are still frequently found in Japanese shops and establishments because they are believed to promote business. The characters (大入) above his head are read ōire, which means “a full house.” Hidden among the cherry blossoms above the stage is the phrase “a new cast of characters by popular demand” (shinrenchu hiiki).

Fig. 4. The yose stage at the bottom of the play print, “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e) (1884).

To the left and right of the stage, we see the trunks of the cherry trees with messages from the publisher to the manager and patron (apparently, a fish merchant) on the right and to the child audience on the left with the promise of “plenty of diversion” (tesusabi takusan).

The owner of this print would have known that the stage was to be cut from the bottom of the print and (had they done it) would probably have reinforced it with wood or heavy cardboard. They would also have cut out the two white circles on either side of Fukusuke, so that they could move the magic-lantern slides—also reinforced on the back with cardboard or wood–across the back of the stage to simulate a magic lantern performance. Just like the characters on the print, the slides would have been read from right to left and from top to bottom.

Panorama at the top: the Itsukushima Shrine厳島神社 in Miyajima宮島町

The slide at the top of the print is a long panorama of the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, famous for having been built over the water. The torii gate, famous even today in the tourist guides, can be seen on the left with the tide coming in and sailboats floating nearby. Long glass slides, such as these, were often used for scenery in magic lantern shows, alongside the more typical sequential slides depicting action. The shrine also suggests that this magic lantern show is being performed, as some were, in the precincts of the shrine for an auspicious festival day (ennichi 縁日). The cherry trees and blossoms around the stage also suggest an impromptu tent set up for the performance, possibly during the cherry-blossom viewing season around April.

(first row)

The slide directly underneath the panorama also relates to the theme of auspicious festival days, and appears to be set within the shrine complex. Moving from right to left, we have the pine branches that would signal a sacred Noh drama. Note that the stage above has two circles, set apart by the character of Fukusuke, so the audience would first see the pine branches in the right-hand circular window at the same time that it would see the Shinto offering at center on the left.

By moving the slide over one image, the audience would next see the stock dancing figure of Sanbansō, balancing on one foot and holding a fan in one hand and bells in another. Sanbansō typically appears as comic relief (kyōgen) during Noh drama. Along with Sanbansō, audiences would see what appears to be a female shrine attendant, who may have just arranged the Shinto offering at center.

When the slide is moved once more to the right, the audience would see the Shinto offering again and a scroll (kakejiku) at the far left. The characters in calligraphy on the scroll are written in a cursive style that is not easy to decipher, but a likely reading is “tama zoroi” (玉揃). Tama can mean “jewels”, and zoroi means “a whole assortment,” but tama can also mean “circle,” and the verb soroeru can also mean to “match up.” Since the user of this print would be “matching up the circles” in order to perform the images in the stage, the writing on the scroll may be providing some hidden instruction for the user.

Typical of an eclectic yose performance with the stock figure of Fukusuke, acting as master-of-ceremonies in between acts, in the next series of slides, we transition to another genre common in magic lantern shows of the time, flowers and bonsai of the four seasons.

(second row)

In this slide, we have a better example of how the quick movement of the slides behind the stage could create the illusion of movement or animation. Again, moving from right to left, the audience would first see Fukusuke (at center), this time looking up at the audience. No doubt, he is introducing the peonies, just in bud, on the far right.

With a quick move of the slide one over to the left, it would appear that the flowers suddenly bloom into a vibrant bouquet, and, on the left, like magic, an arrangement of plum blossoms and chrysanthemums also appears.

With another swift move of the slide, the audience would see the plums and chrysanthemums transform into a wizened bonsai arrangement (far left), and Fukusuke would reappear, on the right this time.

The magic animation of the slides, when performed swiftly and smoothly, would have been similar to a bouquet of flowers appearing suddenly out of a magician’s hat or from under a handkerchief.

Magic lantern shows often referred to themes from popular bunraku or kabuki theater plays, and the magical transformation made possible by the swift movement of the slides, made ghost stories particularly effective in this format. The next level of this play print takes us into what would have been the familiar territory for a child audience—folk and fairy tales.

(third row)

The first two images to appear would be the man on the right, spooked by a spectral fireball (hi no tama). To the left, even the narrator Fukusuke is startled, falling backwards and crying out in fear.

By pulling the slide one image over, the fire ball turns into a three-eyed monster (ōnyūdo), while in the left-hand opening would appear the rabbit, brandishing something over its head and holding a cup of salt. Children would immediately have recognized this as the well-known folktale, Kachi kachi yama, a truly gruesome story, in which a tanuki 狸 (sometimes translated, “racoon dog”) trickster fools an old man into eating his own wife! The rabbit avenges the old man in the story by setting fire to the tanuki and cruelly offering him salt to cure the wounds, only causing him even greater agonies. Note that the three-eyed monster is facing to the right, indicating that he is taking part in the drama on the right hand-side, whereas the rabbit is facing the left, in the direction of a new, unfolding scene.

One more pull of the slide, and we see Fukusuke again on the right, responding to the three-eyed monster, while the tanuki with his back on fire is fleeing the rabbit.

At the end of the folktale, the rabbit convinces the tanuki to board a boat that he has cleverly constructed out of mud, and no sooner does the tanuki set off in the river, than his boat dissolves and he drowns. The brief reference to the story at one of its most grisly moments would no doubt have been enough to resurrect the entire tale in the minds of the audience.

(fourth row)

As we move further down the print to the last level of slides, we enter into an even more ghostly realm. This time, the audience would first see the female ghost (yūrei 幽霊) suddenly appear on the far right, coupled with the man, falling down in shock and fear with the ghostly fire-ball at center.

Moving one image over, the audience would then see two brave samurai, ready to battle the apparitions. Note again, that one warrior faces to the right, where we last saw the female ghost, whereas the other warrior faces left, in anticipation of some new drama about to unfold.

Moving one more image over, we see what is known as a tsukumogami 付喪神, or a spirit made up of a collection of discarded objects, including a Japanese lantern, that have come to life. No doubt, slides could also be moved back and forth, as well, to add further drama and animation to the scene.

As this print demonstrates, the various types of stock shape-shifters (obake), ghosts (yūrei), and monsters (yōkai 妖怪) that have become popularized in recent years through animé movies, manga, and video games, such as “Yokai Watch,” were already well developed by the time this print was published in 1884 and were arguably a product of the fascination with the animated transformations made possible by early magic-lantern technology of the Edo period. Omocha-e prints, which helped to spread these new ideas and early cinematic technologies beyond the urban centers of Edo or Osaka to remote provinces throughout Japan, also played a major role in paving the way for the widespread fascination with shapeshifters and monsters that continues in Japan to this day and that has, more recently, spread around the globe.

The unique Japanese form of magic-lantern performance, utushi-e, was all but forgotten in the push for rapid Westernization, once Japan did open its doors to the West in 1853. Ironically, by the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western-style metal magic lantern projectors were introduced to Japan as a new, foreign technology. In a direct translation of the words “magic lantern,” these new machines were called gentō 幻灯 and were used primarily in upper-class homes and educational settings. Although their popularity waned with the introduction of silent film and later television, utsushi-e continued to be performed sporadically until the mid-20th century. Recently, utsushi-e has been rediscovered in Japan, and there have been significant efforts made to collect and preserve these delicate glass artifacts, particularly at Waseda University’s Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, which has created a digital archive. Reenactments of Edo-period slide shows based on the Waseda collection can now be enjoyed on Youtube, courtesy of the theater troupe Minwaza.


See more visual depictions of Japanese magic lantern shows at “江户の写し絵”