Japanese Paper Theater

by John Holbo on February 9, 2010

Here’s a handsome coffee table book I’ve been wanting for a while: Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater [amazon]. And you know what! I just ordered it, because for some reason Amazon has it for sale for $6.46, instead of $35. Go figure. I advise you to order your own copy before they come to their senses.

Let me quote the product description, by way of posing my question for the day:

Before giant robots, space ships, and masked super heroes filled the pages of Japanese comic books – known as manga – such characters were regularly seen on the streets of Japan in kamishibai stories. Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater tells the history of this fascinating and nearly vanished Japanese art form that paved the way for modern-day comic books, and is the missing link in the development of modern manga.

During the height of kamishibai in the 1930s, storytellers would travel to villages and set up their butais (miniature wooden prosceniums), through which illustrated boards were shown. The storytellers acted as entertainers and reporters, narrating tales that ranged from action-packed westerns, period pieces, traditional folk tales, and melodramas, to nightly news reporting on World War II. More than just explaining the pictures, a good storyteller would act out the parts of each character with different voices and facial expressions. Through extensive research and interviews, author Eric P. Nash pieces together the remarkable history of this art and its creators. With rare images reproduced for the first time from Japanese archives, including full-length kamishibai stories, combined with expert writing, this book is an essential guide to the origins of manga.

I’m a comics guy, so this is very interesting to me. Let’s think about it theoretically – in a McCloudish sequential visual art-ish way. Suppose you want to tell a story (tell anything) in pictures, and you want to get reasonable distribution. First, you can bring the people to you. Go monumental. Build something that lots of people can come and see on a regular basis. Paint the ceiling of your church, or carve your images into the walls of a public building/structure. This has been done at many times and in many places. It is a time-honored method for getting lots of people to see your sequential visual art. Second, you can make lots of copies that you distribute widely. This modern method works great as well. Third, you sort of split the difference. You make some copies, but not too many; and you make them large, but still portable. And you make the circuit with them, ‘performing’ for relatively small, paying audiences. Comics as traveling theater. Well, obviously the Japanese went that route for a time. Who else has? It seems odd to me that there aren’t more examples of this kind of thing. It’s seems a natural sort of middle ground to hit upon when you don’t have enough cash for a cathedral and no one has invented cheap enough printing yet (yes, I know there was cheap printing by the 30’s. I’m sure you get what I’m saying.) There’s puppet theater. Why not more of this ‘comics’ theater thing? Who did this before or besides the Japanese (or after)?

Obviously it doesn’t go just for sequential visual art. Any old picture that you wanted to share around might pose you this distribution dilemma. But the theater formula seems particularly winning, potentially. It also seems like the sort of thing that you could do even if you didn’t have, say, paper. Fabric. Wood. Lots of cultures have had access to basic materials that might have served, and that wouldn’t have been prohibitively expensive for small-time operators. So are there more examples of ‘comic’ theater, in the sequential visual art sense?

I’m still waiting for my copy, obviously. I don’t know much about the Japanese case yet. Maybe some of these larger questions are addressed in the book.



TheWesson 02.09.10 at 8:18 am

Movies? Or is that too obvious?

How about panorama paintings in 19th century America?

Paintings of “the entire Mississippi” see –


Linca 02.09.10 at 8:34 am

Sounds like magic lantern to me


John Holbo 02.09.10 at 8:52 am

Movies are too obvious. And a sign of something else on the rise.

I would have said that magic lanterns weren’t traveling theater affairs, but clicking the link, I learn that they were. So that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.


John Holbo 02.09.10 at 8:56 am

Paintings of the entire Mississippi that were so well-used, travelling around, that they wore out! that’s more like it! Thanks for that one!


Sam Dodsworth 02.09.10 at 9:25 am

I just started reading this yesterday, by an odd coincidence. I’m less than a quarter of the way in, but thus far it’s basically a coffee-table book,with lots of nice illustrations and very little context. But it’s still interesting.

I saw a kamishibai performance at the Barbican a year or two ago, and they had a Q&A afterwards. Apparently, the arrival of sound film in the 1930s meant there were no longer jobs for the professional narrators who used to accompany silent films, so kamishibai developed as a way they could still make money from their skills. (There may be more to it than this, of course. A lot of cultures have older picture-storytelling traditions, although I don’t know about Japan specifically.)

And as a clarification … The performances were actually sort-of free. Technically the money came from selling sweets before the performance, although I think it was normal not to begin the performance until you’d sold enough sweets and/or let children who had bought sweets stand closer to the show. And the cards themselves were rented, so there wasn’t a lot of profit-margin for the performer.


Chris 02.09.10 at 9:59 am

Cinema and magic lanterns are somewhat an answer, but comics works in a very different way, so I’m not sure it’s the right comparison here. Comics work on the possibility of simultaneity of images while time is non-linear.
Another example which fits what you are looking for are paintings in several frames, which tell stories like in church windows, but smaller and portable. They are both sequential and not, like comics. A nice example of those I saw is in a discussion on comics, cinema, and painting: http://www.pandalous.com/topic/literature_comics_film


sg 02.09.10 at 11:01 am

I recall many years ago when I went to see the bunraku puppets at the Adelaide Festival, there were some Balinese puppetteers. They did a kind of Balinese version of long, ranty historical poems, but apparently the style was one in which the audience could wander amongst the puppets while the play was going on. I wonder if this is the same sort of thing? I think there was another style of puppetry which involved shadow plays, possibly also Indonesian? So maybe Indonesia did this as well?

By the 30s Japan had a picture-storytelling industry, and its comic industry was already – what – 50 years old? So I imagine that this style of comic strip would have been a viable business entity even after the invention of movies.


Gareth Rees 02.09.10 at 11:15 am

There’s a travelling half-size copy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Moving Wall.


tomslee 02.09.10 at 11:59 am

Rolf Harris.


anon 02.09.10 at 12:32 pm

Tangentially related – “Peredvizhniki (Russian: Передви́жники; pronounced as Pear-rad-veezh-niki), often called The Wanderers or The Itinerants in English, were a group of Russian realist artists who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists’ cooperative which evolved into the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions in 1870.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peredvizhniki)


eric 02.09.10 at 12:43 pm

didn’t relics go on tours in medieval Europe?


Martin Wisse 02.09.10 at 2:36 pm

the Rolling Stones are old, but not that old.

Badaboom – tching.

Try the veal.


Henry (not the famous one) 02.09.10 at 2:49 pm

To Dodsworth, whoever you might be:

Kurosawa talks about the displacement of the narrators when talkies replaced silent films in his autobiography. His older brother was a benshi, organized a strike in response to the displacement of the craft, and later committed suicide.


Donald A. Coffin 02.09.10 at 3:23 pm

“You make some copies, but not too many; and you make them large, but still portable. And you make the circuit with them, ‘performing’ for relatively small, paying audiences. Comics as traveling theater.”

Isn’t this something like what troubadors did in medieval Europe? Perhaps without the visuals, but the songs were comon to many of them.


some guy 02.09.10 at 3:30 pm

Third, you sort of split the difference. You make some copies, but not too many; and you make them large, but still portable. And you make the circuit with them, ‘performing’ for relatively small, paying audiences. Comics as traveling theater. Well, obviously the Japanese went that route for a time. Who else has? It seems odd to me that there aren’t more examples of this kind of thing.

with some minor differences, this is how the Caricatural prints were disseminated in England and Ireland in the period 1730-1820. Print sellers would print up enough for the normal clientele, hand color some for the upper classes, and put up some (in color) in the windows of their shops. Other re-distributors would buy in bulk and travel to cities and towns outside the London/Glasgow/Dublin axis and set up stands to display, sometimes acting as middlemen to local shops, sometimes selling directly to the public.

In London you could buy the print, you could pay a fee to browse prints inside a shop, or you could rent a single or bundled set of prints for overnight enjoyment. The public viewing of prints was a continued narrative trope in many of the prints themselves. Gillray’s “Very Slippery Weather” is a good example of this kind of metadsicourse


novakant 02.09.10 at 3:34 pm

Well, actually the film industry started out exactly that way – as a fairground attraction.


kid bitzer 02.09.10 at 3:45 pm

that moving wall site is pretty astounding.

part of the pitch seems to be:
vietnam memorial = real america;
washington, d.c. = false, liberal america.

free the vietnam memorial! bring it outside the beltway, dammit!

still, if statisticians use moving windows….


Jared 02.09.10 at 4:02 pm

The AIDS quilt. And my impression is that popular 19C panoramas went on the road once in a while.

I’m not sure why Holbo wants to disqualify movies and focus only on the visual rather than the performative aspect. It’s rather arbitrary, since kamishibai seems to involve both. It seems very close to shadow puppetry, no?


smuhlberger 02.09.10 at 4:35 pm

The Gettysburg Cyclorama is a survivor of a huge number of such things, produced with great technical skill to make a lot of money as travelling attractions. Most burned “mysteriously” when movies got to the point of making cycloramas much less valuable than the insurance.

Even today it is quite impressive.



Ravi Padiyar 02.09.10 at 4:44 pm

Hi..This is Ravi Padiyar from MP…Ujjain
I think the Relics did go on tours in medieval Europe


Daniel 02.09.10 at 7:00 pm

I think there is a similar tradition in Turkish culture… Don’t remember what it was called though.


John Holbo 02.09.10 at 10:40 pm

“I’m not sure why Holbo wants to disqualify movies and focus only on the visual rather than the performative aspect. It’s rather arbitrary, since kamishibai seems to involve both.”

Yes. It is rather arbitrary. But I’m actually writing something in which I try to think about what makes ‘comics’ different from film and theater. So I’m sort of curious to hear about cases that are more on the comics side. I’m aware of lots of cases on the film and theater side.


lestin 02.10.10 at 7:10 am

Henry “Box” Brown’s “Mirror of Slavery” is another example of an American panorama show–although panorama shows might actually be movies, if we use McCloud’s distinction. Since the images were rolled along between two scrolls, they’d be juxtaposed more temporally than spatially.


Sam Dodsworth 02.10.10 at 10:29 am

One other thing I remember from the performance I saw is that the transition between cards makes it less like comics than you might think. It’s possible to slide cards out quickly or slowly for different pacing effects, or reveal only part of the next picture to show (say) the villain standing triumphant and then the hero appearing behind him. It’s not a giant revolution in narrative technique but it is arguably different from the way panel transitions work in comics.


Harold 02.10.10 at 2:55 pm

I have this book and agree that the text is a bit disappointing, though suggestive.

One with a lot more meat (and also copiously illustrated) is:

Painting and Performance: Chinese Picture Recitation and its Indian Genesis, by Victor Mair
Barnes & Noble Review:

In this extraordinary work of scholarship, Victor Mair traces the global development over a thousand years of a genre of popular Buddhist folk literature from China known as pien-wen, pointing out its origins in India as a form of oral storytelling using painting as an aid, and showing how that form has influenced performance and literary traditions in India, Indonesia, Japan, Central Asia, the near East, Italy, France, and Germany. Professor Mair’s research has important implications for students and scholars of literature, folklore, painting, religion, history, art, and theater and the performing arts, not to mention Chinese popular culture and Indian civilization.


roac 02.12.10 at 2:22 pm

I read no. 9 and said “Rolf Harris? As in ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport?’ Really?” I had no idea he went on existing after his 15 minutes of Stateside fame were up. A glaring example of US insularity for you.


Harold 02.13.10 at 12:01 am

Pien-wen used scrolls. Two people held the scroll, unrolling it slowly, as the narrator with a stick pointed to the illustration corresponding to his narration.

In Southern Italy as late as the 1950s, the storyteller used picture panels such as: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/EGUmcVK1qSk/0.jpg

in front of which he sang ballads, punctuated by spoken recitation, about the latest grisly murders. He also sold the pictures, I believe. Orazio Strano was one of the last practitioners of this art. In the following Youtube recording he sang about Salvatore “Turridu” Giuliano, the bandit, whom some say was in the pay of the American CIA.


A folk revival version:

and another: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZtQN9u0sGY

The early broadsides must have been something like this. They were peddled at fairs in Germany and France.


pipeau 02.14.10 at 9:37 am

have a look at:
http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image_d%27%C3%89pinal (if not working, type manually the not American characters: _d’épinal
Images d’Épinal are one of the precursors of the comics in France.


jholbo 02.15.10 at 6:51 am

Thanks for all the suggestions. This is good stuff!


Goldrush 02.15.10 at 9:45 pm

There’s also a Cyclorama in Atlanta’s Grant Park. It depicts the Battle of Atlanta.

Comments on this entry are closed.