Japanese storyteller's mission to keep art of ‘kamishibai’ alive

‘I don’t remember the stories I heard but I remember being in a group with other children and excitedly waiting to hear the stories. Usually, adults wouldn’t have time to spend with children, but the kamishibai man would always have time for us,’ recalls Etsuko about her early memories tied to this traditional storytelling medium from Japan. Photo: Brigitte Rozario

She was five years old and playing on the street in front of her grandfather’s house in downtown Tokyo in the 1960s. Along came a kamishibai performer on a bicycle. He stopped nearby and was quickly surrounded by several small children, some came with coins to buy treats.

The kamishibai man took their money and handed out candy. While they ate it, he entertained them with kamishibai (Japanese paper theatre) storytelling. The little girl didn’t have any money to buy the candy. So, she had to sit at the back of the group as she watched the man slide picture boards through a butai (wooden mini stage) and share stories.

“I don’t remember the stories I heard but I remember being in a group with other children and excitedly waiting to hear the stories. Usually, adults wouldn’t have time to spend with children, but the kamishibai man would always have time for us,” says Etsuko Nozaka, who was in Malaysia recently to demonstrate kamishibai and talk about this unique form of Japanese storytelling.

The programme was part of the 38th International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) International Congress hosted by Malaysia Board on Books for Young People (MBBY) in Putrajaya early this month.

Street storytelling

Although Etsuko enjoyed the storytelling sessions, just like all the other people who grew up in that era and had become accustomed to street storytelling, she only fully appreciated the artform in her adult years.

A few decades later, she was engaged to work as an interpreter for a publishing house at a book fair in Tokyo. Doshinsha, the largest kamishibai publisher, was conducting kamishibai performances and needed someone to interpret the stories from Japanese into English.

The narrator told the story of Kasajizo about an old man who tried to sell his straw hat which was used even when it snowed. He had no choice but to do this because he needed to survive and he and his wife had nothing to eat. But nobody wanted to buy it. As he walked home in the snow, he saw a small Buddha statue. He placed the hat on it to protect it from the snow. One night, he and his wife heard some sounds. They woke up to find that Buddha had provided food for them.

“When the performer moved to the picture of the snow and made the sounds, ‘Chup, chup, chup, chup’, I just felt like it was snowing on us. That was when I realised kamishibai is totally different from picture books. It was my first real encounter with kamishibai,” explains Etsuko.

While many Japanese know kamishibai, their memory of it depends on age. Older ones remember it as street entertainment while those in their 20s and younger, remember it as being part of their kindergarten experience.

Shortly after the book fair, Doshinsha asked Etsuko to join a study group on kamishibai. The group turned into a kamishibai organisation with the formation of the International Kamishibai Association of Japan (IKAJA) in 2001. IKAJA didn’t just focus on keeping the traditional art alive within Japan’s 6,852 islands; it shared kamishibai with the world.

A storyteller using wooden clappers to attract attention before a ‘kamishibai’ session starts in Japan. Photo: The Star/FilepicA storyteller using wooden clappers to attract attention before a ‘kamishibai’ session starts in Japan. Photo: The Star/Filepic

“The association thought kamishibai should be international. Japanese people have an old notion of kamishibai because the older generation had only seen street kamishibai when they were young, but that is quite different from published kamishibai. IKAJA thought the stories were a bit trivial. But when they visited Vietnam in the 1990s, they realised that people in Vietnam viewed kamishibai differently. So, they thought a new perspective was necessary to refresh the notion of kamishibai in Japan. That’s when they asked me to be the international secretary,” says Etsuko.

Imagination and fun

What followed was two decades of travelling the world to talk about kamishibai and explain the art to new fans in libraries, book fairs and other events. Much time is also spent explaining the characteristics of kamishibai and how it stands out.

You can’t just take a picture book and use it for kamishibai, which has its origins around 1930. The way the illustration is done and how the story is told is different from normal storytelling using picture books.

“When I read a picture book, there are the pictures and the words. Everything is there on the pages. I have to face the book and the children have to face the book to come into the story. Then I have to turn the page. Picture books are better as an individual activity. You can take as much time as you like to read and understand the story.

“You can use your imagination. But kamishibai has no words and it’s something to be enjoyed by the group together. It doesn’t appeal to individuals. We exchange emotions and share feelings in the pictures. Kamishibai is enjoyed by sharing these feelings and expressing empathy. Some stories even require audience participation,” explains Etsuko.

While many of the kamishibai stories are folktales, there are also original stories. There are many on the environment and peace.

Typically, a kamishibai story has eight or 12 scenes. Stories are not too long because of the limitation of time and children’s short attention spans.

Etsuko admits being proud to see the good response from other continents and countries; people want to know more, learn how to do kamishibai and where to buy the butai (wooden mini stage) and stories.

Petite Bibliotheque Ronde Association, founded in 2007 by Genevieve Patte, has been a strong supporter. It has invited IKAJA to talk about kamishibai and conduct seminars and workshops on how to conduct kamishibai and how to make kamishibai.

When culture is shared

“Every country has a history of storytelling. When I went to Italy, they told me they have a kind of kamishibai but it’s not like a door or scenes that slide out. They just show the picture and tell the story. And in India, they have traditional storytelling which also involves showing pictures and telling a story. But none of them is the same as kamishibai.

“Kamishibai is unique because it has to do with Japanese culture. The doors slide, similar to the doors in traditional Japanese houses. Korean houses have it too. It’s not the doors that western culture is familiar with,” she shares.

In Malaysia, the kamishibai artform has found a dedicated local following, including storytellers, academics, researchers and more. Photo: The Star/FilepicIn Malaysia, the kamishibai artform has found a dedicated local following, including storytellers, academics, researchers and more. Photo: The Star/Filepic

Although it is possible to make your own stories for kamishibai, Etsuko informs it’s not that easy to develop a suitable story.

When she did kamishibai at the Raja Tun Uda Library in Shah Alam, many people were interested and they all loved it. However, unlike in Japan, there is a dearth of kamishibai stories here.

Importantly, Etsuko stresses that you should know the characteristics of kamishibai so that the butai and the picture boards are optimised for the best experience for children.

“It surprises me that people in many countries want to use kamishibai to tell stories. In Slovenia, they adopted it and started a movement. They even invited us to the Kamishibai Symposium in Ljubljana in 2018. We were very proud of that,” says Etsuko.

Today, kamishibai is performed in schools, kindergartens and libraries in Japan. Occasionally, there are sessions in old folks’ homes and community centres to cheer up the elderly and allow them to reminisce about their childhood.

With children’s hands attached to gadgets these days, is there room for kamishibai in the world?

Etsuko believes so.

“Nowadays everything is digital and on mobile phones. But the human voice and human interaction are important and necessary for the healthy growth of small children. While there are many types of entertainment, like picture books, videos and storytelling, I think kamishibai can be a part of it and it could be very good for children.

“If there is no kamishibai in the world, it will be the end of the world for me,” she quips, laughing nervously at the tragic idea.

Etsuko’s kamishibai performance in Malaysia was in conjunction with the IBBY congress. The four-day event saw French writer Marie-Aude Murail and South Korean picture book artist Suzy Lee receiving the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the highest international recognition given to an author and illustrator of children’s books.

There were several parallel sessions during the congress where speakers were invited to share their experiences. The audience in the seminar room listened with rapt attention as Etsuko told the story of Mother Of A War God (1942). Some stood up to take photos, others leaned over to get a better view.

Sadamu’s mother, Saku, worked hard to send her son to high school. Sadamu was always grateful for his mother’s sacrifices. After a few years, he graduated but his parents’ joy was shortlived. As soon as the war broke out, Sadamu joined the navy. In the attack on Pearl Harbour, he was killed in battle. In the village, Saku was still working hard, remembering her son who had become a war god.

The poignant story struck a chord with more than a few people in the room.

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