Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater

Like Brigitte Koyama-Richard, Eric Nash is interested in anime before anime, namely the itinerant storytellers who would rent lurid image boards from central art suppliers, and then bike around Japan’s cities in the 1920s to present slideshows of princes from Atlantis, journeys into space and creepy horror stories for rapt audiences of children.

Killed off by TV in the 1950s, kamishibai (“paper theatre”) was a fascinating, vibrant medium in which many future manga artists cut their teeth. Kamishibai storytellers might sound like nothing more than Punch & Judy men, but at the high point of their trade they were estimated to entertain five million Tokyo residents a day – “viewing figures” considerably better than many modern anime. They also presided over the beginnings of many well-known stories, particularly the Skull Man and Spooky Ooky Kitaro tales that went on to find fame as anime and manga. Nash offers intriguing glimpses of this forgotten forerunner to anime, even including wartime propaganda such as Exploits of Military Dogs and an air-raid safety instructional manual. Truly amazing.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This review first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.

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