Story Times: Kamishibai, Manga, and More

StorytimeWhen my son (now 27) was a tot, library story time was an important part of our week. We both looked forward to that circle of eager kids, listening and watching as the librarian dramatically pointed out scenes in the picture books she read. Wisely, she encouraged youthful murmurs, gasps, and even shouted-out replies. I did not know then that our Mankato, Minnesota routine—a long-held custom in many places—echoed one of the forerunners of manga. These influential Japanese comics and graphic novels spring in part from the storytelling tradition of kamishibai—“paper theater.” Technology changed that Japanese tradition—and technology is now changing the ways we may read manga and other graphic literature. Hold onto your tablets as I time-travel here, visiting the Japanese past before journeying to the near-future, to spotlight another old tradition now reappearing in brand-new media.

Kamishibai ManPerhaps you already know about “paper theater” through award-winning author/illustrator Allen Say’s picture book Kamishibai Man (2005). In his Foreword to that nostalgic, moving story, Say explains how, as a child in 1930s Japan, he eagerly awaited the appearance of his neighborhood’s bicycle-riding storyteller. Such kamishibai men sold sweets before shuffling sturdy paper pictures through the frame of a portable wooden ‘stage.’ In her Afterword to this book, folklore scholar Tara McGowan gives further information about the origins and enormous popularity of kamishibai from the 1920s through early 1950s, when television replaced this street-performance art. Say cleverly uses two different styles of drawing to show the impact of this change on his character old Jiichan, who used to be a kamishibai man.

When Jiichan thinks about the past, with children flocked around him to hear his tales, Say uses bold, heavy lines to outline the younger Jiichan, his bicycle-supported paper theater, and those children. This style, along with the brighter, more saturated colors Say also uses here, was typical of kamishibai story cards, designed to be seen easily from a distance. When old Jiichan mourns his lost usefulness but then discovers that some adults still remember and want to experience his storytelling again, Say employs more delicate lines and generally muted colors. With gentle irony, Say’s final illustration for this story—showing old Jiichan at home, as he and wife Baachan now contentedly plan the coming day’s storytelling—features a 1950s-style TV in the background. Getting up to prepare some traditional storytelling sweets, Baachan aptly shuts off that television.

Manga KamishibaiWhile readers of all ages will enjoy Kamishibai Man, older readers already interested in manga or Japan will best appreciate Eric P. Nash’s gorgeously illustrated history book, Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater (2009). Nash details how kamishibai performances typically would have three tales in different genres, including comedy, daily life, and action-adventure. Long before Batman appeared in the United States, the adventures of costumed superhero Golden Bat were thrilling kamishibai audiences! Yet U.S. tales, comics, and cartoons themselves influenced some “paper theater,” which featured characters modeled on Tarzan and wide-eyed Betty Boop and heroic sheriffs as well as samurai warriors. Nash also explains how the kamishibai industry worked, with writers and artists selling their stories to businessmen, who then rented the completed story boards to storytellers like Allen Say’s Jiichan. As TV replaced kamishibai as popular entertainment, its writers and artists worked more on manga printed in newspapers and magazines. Well-known manga creators who got their start this way include Kazuo Koike (writer of the epic Lone Wolf and Cub series) and Shigeru Mizuki (author/illustrator of Kitaro). They brought other visual narrative techniques from kamishibai, such as cinematic close-ups, to manga.

Adults as well as kids responded to kamishibai. One fascinating, disturbing chapter in The Art of Japanese Paper Theater examines how this art form was used as propaganda during World War II. Much was aimed at adults, but some was also specifically designed for young audiences. Readers interested in this topic will also want to see a comprehensive slide compilation titled Die for Japan: Wartime Propaganda Kamishibai, put together by Professor Jeffrey Dym of California State University–Sacramento. Readers interested in the ways in which kamishibai continues today worldwide in some educational and community settings will find worthwhile information and links at Kamishibai for Kids. Its well-qualified, professional educators produce and sell kamishibai materials as well as give presentations.

The Green TurtleFrom the kamishibai Golden Bat to … the Green Turtle? That somewhat surprisingly-named superhero’s first comic book adventures, published in 1940s America, had him helping the Chinese in their real-life struggles against Japanese invaders, which began in the 1930s and continued throughout World War II.

Today’s award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang and lauded comic artist and illustrator Sonny Liew have teamed up to revive this little-known 1940s superhero. His creator Chu Hing probably meant the Green Turtle to be a Chinese-American, as Yang explains.

The Shadow HeroYang and Lieuw’s origin story for the Green Turtle, titled The Shadow Hero (2014), develops this idea. The Shadow Hero begins in China and follows immigrants to the U.S. as they meet, marry, and settle into a California Chinatown. It is their grown son, in that 1930s and ’40s Chinatown, who will—with conflicted emotions, including rueful humor at his strong-minded mother’s ambitions for him—become the Shadow Hero. I cannot tell you how this story reaches that conclusion, though, because I have only read the first chapter! Publisher First Second is debuting The Shadow Hero online in serial form, a chapter a month, before finally making the whole, six-chapter book available in July, 2014. First Second is, they say, “paying homage” to the suspenseful anticipation 1930s and ’40s readers experienced as they waited for new issues of that era’s serialized comics. Chapter One of The Shadow Hero debuted on February 18, 2014, available for downloadable purchase on Amazon Kindle, Apple ibooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook. If you wish, you can catch up and join in the suspenseful anticipation as Chapter Two becomes available this month on March 18 ….

Is this suspense worthwhile? Or is it better to wait and read the whole book all at once? After reading Chapter One of The Shadow Hero on my Android tablet, I definitely want to know what happens next to its nuanced, sometimes funny characters. Liew’s drawings harmonize so well with Yang’s pungent words in conveying tone, action, and setting. (In his blog, Liew shows how he developed illustrations based on Yang’s storylines and thumbnail sketches.) 

More than coping with the suspense of waiting, though, may factor into whether you want to wait for the whole book. I wish I could have easily seen more of the facial details and the chapter’s overall shading, slightly obscured in the download by the smaller-sized images on my tablet (and that device’s resolution capability) compared to those in a paper book. I also found myself at times straining my eyes to read the downloaded PDF’s dialogue. My current software permits me to enlarge individual panels, but this ‘quick fix’ interrupts the story’s visual and verbal flow. I am now researching Android ‘apps’ designed especially for reading comics, to see how they might solve these problems. Yet their descriptions and customer reviews suggest that even the best of these apps may still interrupt the narrative flow I enjoy in paperbound books. We shall see. For now, the further question remains: A number of fine graphic works have first appeared as works-in-progress, some as serialized webzines accessible only as pixels, not print, but if one has a choice of format linked to medium… what would you choose?

Does the future of graphic literature rest more on one medium than another? Or will graphic works thrive in both pixels and print? And I also wonder now about my nostalgic recollections of story time. What memories will today’s parents and young children share years from now about their library experiences? The other week, when I had the pleasure of introducing my visiting son to our local children’s librarian, she was sitting behind a computer monitor and he was carrying a laptop. We chatted about long-ago story times, in another city, but we never got around to discussing current and future ones.

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