Manga Kamishibai – The Art Of Japanese Paper Theatre

Published On August 26, 2009 | By Richard Bruton | Books, Comics, Reviews

Manga Kamishibai – The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre

by Eric P. Nash

Abrams Comicarts


Imagine if Stan Lee & Jack Kirby had produced their comics as big splash pages on illustrated boards and sent them out to the streets of New York to be shown to children by specialist performers. Imagine being a child and watching the story being acted out in front of you, thrilling to the exploits of the Fantastic Four and having the entire thing played out before your eyes. Then imagine if these performance comics led to the creation of modern comics as we know it in the west. That’s essentially what happened in Japan before Manga Comics. The Kamishibai stories are the foundations of modern Manga and as such, incredibly important in the development of modern Japanese culture:

“If most Japanese pop culture, from videogaming to toy merchandising, is based in manga, manga has it’s roots in Kamishibai. Serious manga about adventure, action, and sex (called Gekiga to distinguish them from funny cartoons), can be traced directly to the Kamishibai stage.”

Kamishibai is street theatre using painted illustrations and the Kamishibai stories dominated Japanese culture for many years, entertaining millions of children with tales of heroism, of masked adventurers, ninjas, bizarre monsters and Peter Pan like children. All provided by the skills of the kamishibaiya, telling the stories from the back of his bicycle and presenting the artwork from a makeshift frame. The original works of art were produced by writers and artists and rented out to the storytellers for a small fee. Nothing was charged for the stories, the storyteller had to scrape by selling sweets to children. But so strong was the attraction of Kamishibai that it soon began to have a greater appeal – adults flocked to the stories to watch alongside the children – a mass medium had developed. In many ways this is the equivalent of the wandering storyteller from our own history. But Kamishibai storytellers were active right up until the televisual age and consequently we’re able to trace it’s influence throughout all Japanes culture far easier, something Manga Kamishibai sets out to do rather well.


(The skull-face, cross eyed Golden Bat; one of the first costumed superheroes, predating Lee Falk’s Phantom by 5 years with his debut in 1931. The most popular character of Kamishibai’s Golden Age.)

This book is a coffee table style history of Kamishibai, plentiful on the illustration but also detailed enough in it’s text pieces to make it a worthwhile and interesting read. It takes us from the earliest versions of paper theatre all the way through to it’s demise – ironically enough the moment Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy debuted on TV; New Year’s Day 1963 – marking both the moment Kamishibai died and Anime was born.

And along the way we look into the past – to the earliest examples of manga (12th century scrolls of Choju Gija (frolicking critters) featuring sumo-wrestling frogs battling bunny rabbits) and the golden age of Kamishibai during the depression years when Kamishibai became increasingly popular (and colourful) mimicking the rise of cheap pulps in the US. Perhaps the most interesting – certainly the most visually interesting are the chapters on the use of Kamishibai for propaganda purposes – both during and after WWII. Finally there is a wrap up section: TV Killed the Kamishibai Man detailing the end of the era.

kamishibai manga

(A simply stunning page from Prince Of Gamma And The Sea Monster. Imagine the Kamishibai storyteller vividly describing the moment when the ship rocks, screams of passengers filling the air.)

Throughout the book, the text pieces for each section are broken up with many, many examples of Kamishibai artwork – often with each art plate taking up a page or more. And it’s this work that is the real draw to the book. I found myself struggling at first with the book. My interest just wasn’t there, I had no real reason to read on. And then I got to the first art section and I was sold. The vivid imagery, the lush matt colours, the sheer drama of the art is so good, so strong that it made me interested. After that the whole thing was a joy.

For me, the finest and strongest sections are the two propaganda chapters. Kamishibai was such a social force in Japan that it was used by the Japanese during WWII and by the occupying US forces after the war. There’s something about propaganda art anyway that is so incredibly powerful to behold, no matter where it comes from and the pieces here are no exception:


(Incredibly powerful and stirring imagery of a sky swarming with Japanese Zeroes. The storyteller would tell his audience¬† “It’s time for us ten million Japanese to take up our weapons”. Incredibly effective propaganda.)


(After the battle; a brave, wounded soldier recounts his heroism – against a backdrop of a bamboo forest suggested with just a few brushstrokes.)


(And propaganda wasn’t just for adults: Kintaro the boy paratrooper leads his comrades in a victory banzai shout.)

And it’s not just light, crowd pleasing stories of daring-do and superheroism and propaganda images either. Post war Japan saw huge upheaval and all of it was reflected in the Kamishibai stories. It could be something so routine and sedate, yet powerfully fresh as a young girl rescuing a kitten and trying to keep it against the wishes of her father or something as emotive and powerful as the Kamishibai stories that dealt, quite beautifully in a strange way, with the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the plight of post WWII Japan. These Kamishibai were used as educational tools in a Japan devastated by the war but were only allowed once the censorship of the US occupation was lifted.


(Children of the Bomb – genbaku no ko – emerge from the devastation, irradiated, burned, bleeding and walking in a ghost-like haze.)

Manga Kamishibai is a beautifully put together hardcover, a real coffee table book. The design is good, with the art allowed to take over the book and the text taking a secondary position. The only problem, and it’s a minor one, is that there’s occasionally a preoccupation with overwhelming the senses – surely in a book full of fantastical images and sumptuous artwork there’s no need for ridiculously coloured and frankly distracting backgrounds. Simple layouts, solid colours – all very good. Floral print backgrounds that just distract from the photographs or the art – not so good. But thankfully it doesn’t happen all that often.

Initially I thought it would be something that would only appeal to those with some prior knowledge or interest in the subject, but I have to say I’m wrong. Certainly anyone with an interest in modern manga would do well to read this as they’ll find much to enjoy and inspire. But don’t treat it as a reference book with illustrations – I did that at first and found it heavy going. Take some time on first picking it up and look through – treat it as an art book with accompanying text. That way you’ll be as impressed as I was no matter what you’re prior knowledge or interest.

Richard Bruton.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.

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