26 February 2016

Manga Kamishibai:
The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Manga Kamishibai Golden Bat

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater, by Eric P. Nash, is the first book about the history of kamishibai, the Japanese illustrated performances that were a popular street entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s. The book includes an introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, author of Manga! Manga!, the first English-language study of Japanese comics.

Kamishibai consisted of a series of illustrated boards displayed consecutively in a wooden frame. Each board depicted the action of a particular scene, though there were no captions or speech bubbles: the story and dialogue were improvised by a kamishibaiya (similar to the benshi who narrated silent Japanese films).

Nash’s fascinating book features many rare and evocative reproductions of kamishibai boards. The illustrations were sometimes inspired by Hollywood, such as aliens resembling those from This Island Earth. Kamishibai was also used as a propaganda tool during World War II, and after the American occupation it even dealt with taboo subjects such as the Hiroshima bomb.

Kamishibai’s most famous character, Ogon Bat (Golden Bat), had a significant influence on subsequent American popular culture, as he was “one of the world’s first illustrated super heroes’. Golden Bat, created by Takeo Nagamatsu, wore a hero’s cape, though he had a skull for a head. The book’s jacket folds out into a poster of this caped hero fighting his arch enemy, an evil emperor: archetypes that have recurred throughout superhero comics and animation ever since.