Kamishibai: Japanese Paper Theater

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Manga and anime are everywhere these days, but did you know they originated in a non-comic art form called kamishibai, or paper theater?

From it’s appearance in 1931 to the arrival of television (1951-53), kamishibai was the most popular form of mass media entertainment in Japan.

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Kamishibaiya would stand on a street corner and call out that a show would begin soon. This sound would have had the same appeal as the jingle of the ice cream man in suburban America. And in similar fashion, since he did not charge for his performance, the kamishibaiya made all of his money from selling homemade candy to his audience!

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All the standard elements of Japanese popular fiction were present: giant monsters, giant robots (in the ’30s!), crafty teens who outwit adults, even super-powered heroes.

One of the most popular was a character named Golden Bat who had a red cape, great strength, flew, and who had a fortress in the snow high in the Japanese alps. (In fact, since Golden Bat appeared several years before The Phantom, he may count as the world’s first costumed super hero!)

The typical kamishibai performance was broken into three acts: a moral or educational tale, a story aimed primarily at girls, and a story aimed primarily at boys. (Manga comics tend to follow the same format even today.)

The kamishibaiya would narrate the dramatic action, and would use different voices to reflect the various characters.

The villain in one popular tale looks like an eerily prescient mix of both Batman and Joker.

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When television arrived, with its sound and moving pictures, paper theater quickly waned and disappeared. But the art, storytelling, and artists found new life in manga and anime. In fact, Kazuo Koike, who wrote the 8,000-page manga epic “Lone Wolf and Cub” started his career in kamishibai.

If you are interested in reading (and seeing) more, pick up “Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater” by Eric Nash.

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