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Comics - Comics Reviews - Review | by Pedrovmoura in Comics - Comics Reviews on 07/01/2010 - Comments (0)
 
 
 
Manga Kamishibai / The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre / Abrams ComicArts

A short review on Eric P. Nash's latest book "Manga Kamishibai - The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre" published by Abrams ComicArts,on one of the most magnificent yet ellusive (for us, Europeans) popular arts from Japan, the kamishibai, or "paper theater", one of the many roots of the modern and strong Japanese comics and animation production.

 
 

I do believe we are still a little far from where we can one day be in relation to the general knowledge one has of comics, animation and other associated arts. A more integrated view of these productions within the history of culture and the arts in general, with no excuses or limitations where genres, nationalities or so-called aesthetic qualities are concerned. An overall, ample view of the art itself that would help us then to procure a stronger perspective, and filter its true trumps. A definitive canon is unreachable, perhaps even unwanted (a true art is always open-ended, and continuously questioned in all its aspects), but we are far from even being sure of the ones proposed so far. This holds true particularly where its Japanese manifestations are concerned, which are still somewhat “foreign”, “strange”, or, worse still, “exotic”. Despite the many studies already available in Western languages about manga and anime (say, with Marco Pelleteri, Sharon Kinsella, Susan J. Napier, Thierry Groensteen, or Frederik L. Schodt, who wrote the introduction to this book), the journals, the translations and the widening markets, their history, development and reach make an ever-expanding territory.
Despite the fact that in Japanese the word manga is used for a territory wider than that which we, Westerners, call comics (or bande dessinée, fumetti, etc.), when we think of and use that word we are referring, more often than not, exclusively to “Japanese comics”. Many people tend to think about it, not without reason, as an almost entirely specific genre with little connection to its Western counterpart(s). Almost as an exclusive, autochthonous, Japanese tradition. But the fact is that this art has a very complicated history, part of which is actually and intimately related to the local culture, its traditions and particular artists (the 11th/12th century monk Toba Sojo is a recurrent name), but with other roots stretching from a direct dialog with comics from the West, namely North-American newspaper comics from the early 20th century. The way themes, techniques and even ontological principles bounce between comics and animation is yet another dimension of this convoluted field.
Eric P. Nash’s book is yet another contribution to this big puzzle. And a fun one at that. The New York Times writer has done some travelling and research in Japan in order to give us a wide, clear view of one of Japan’s particular arts, the kamishibai. Once in a while, this word appears in books about manga, but there is not that much elaboration. We also come across a reference to this tradition now and then when one reads translated manga, especially if the author is referring to his or her childhood, to years that despite of poverty and overwhelming struggle, are always tinted with the magic light of nostalgia (a good example is the latest Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s book in English, A Drifting Life, published by Drawn & Quarterly).
Briefly presented, this “paper theatre” tradition was developed in the 1920s, found its most glorious days in post-war, pre-television Japan and dwindled short after. Almost completely. And though it still exists, whether as an educational tool or as a nostalgia gimmick, or even in its international, imported forms, kamishibai is something whose main life was concentrated on a few decades of the last century. On the one hand, it has roots with older traditions of visual storytelling such as the emaki, the illustrated scrolls that go back to the 10th century, to the street performances in Edo-era Japan, and to both kibyoshi (a sort of illustrated book from 19th century Japan, their own sort of “yellow-backs”, studied by Adam L. Kern in Manga from the Floating World: Comicbook Culture and the Kibyoshi of Edo Japan) and akabon (post-war Japan’s own version of the cheap comic book) and, on the other, it relates to newer forms of visual narrative (such as comics and animation). Although Nash traces it to its oldest roots and newest inheritors, the author concentrates on the history of the paper theatre proper, throughout the mid-20th century, but this lavishly illustrated book is at the same time a portrait of Japan itself, and its popular cultures, through the lenses of the kamishibai.
The author does not shy away from more controversial or hurtful memories, such as the colonialist past of Japan, the warmongering and associated propaganda aimed at the entire population, regardless of age, gender or social class, and including also the peoples that became part of the growing Japanese Empire. The kamishibai was one of the tools used to this end. As of course, all the flow of History is not done within the confines of the country, but in the continuous relationships with other countries and cultures, especially – no surprise here, too – with the United States.
Following the trail of this relationships, the flux between these two countries, soon to become worldwide hubs in the production and exportation of popular culture, is exploited by Nash in a very savvy, quick-witted but at the same time intelligible approach. This is not a jargon-laden, note-ridden academic book. Not that I have anything against them, quite the contrary, but Manga Kamishibai is something closer to what one would call a “coffee table book”, filled with many large appetizing images, short, simples captions that digest some of the considerations done in the text, and a thematic arrangement that makes its chronological approach much more interesting and lively. Sometimes the author quotes “a veteran storyteller” or “one kamishibai man” without further reference, which seems a little weak (naming the men that upheld this art does not seem a disservice), but perhaps the point is to create a sort of mysterious aura of something that faded into memory as quickly as the theatres appeared on the corners of Japan. “Like the wind on a street corner”, is a particular strong metaphor that seems to sum up the whole ambient.
Then again, the author is able to pull at all stops in order to make sure we understand the aim, the scope, and the resonance of this particular form of art: he presents sociological ideas, an abridged history of some of the popular themes of Japanese culture, whether “high” or “low” (if that makes any sense), economic and political background, aesthetic and entrepreneurial considerations about particular works, authors or other more general dimensions of the kamishibai. The reading of the book, whether done leisurely or quickly, for both are possible, will enable us to have a pretty comprehensive view of this art, its origins and influences, its role and its enduring allure. It brings a sort of nostalgia for those who have not lived it, and it contributes with little things that make us reconsider the history of manga and anime in general, or some features of the associated popular culture, such as superheroes, mecha, the tools of contemporary shojo and shonen manga, or even the most special attributes of the Japanese strand of “cuteness”.
Some known authors of manga started their careers as writers and artists in the kamishibai business, such as Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima (both of Lone Wolf and Cub fame), Sanpei Shirato (Legend of Kamui) and Shigeru Mizuki (with many books on the folkloric ghost stories of his country), but it had also its own stars. Perhaps the names of the artists are a little obscure, but Nash wants to recuperate Sakura Goro, Gosei Yamamoto, Koji Kata, and Ichiro Suzuki and Takeo Nagamatsu (the creators of Golden Bat, perhaps the most successful character of kamishibai) to the limelight of fame and remembered history. The author not only discusses their works, but also their narrative and visual innovations, their particular expertise and output, and the way their particular kamishibai stories are imbued with personality. The generous inclusion of full episodes of key characters and stories from this tradition, such as the awkward, super-powered champions Golden Bat and Prince of Gamma, from Japan-flavoured hardboiled, cowboy and science fiction stories to the ubiquitous samurai tales, from the propaganda pieces of World War II to the pro-disarmament Children of the Bomb, and also the roots of what would later be known as shoju manga, makes the reading of Manga Kamishibai a very filled one.
As I mentioned before, this book is a great contribution to the big puzzle of the history of manga (and comics in general). We could put it on the shelf next to Kern’s book, or Helen McCarthy’s new book – and DVD – dedicated to Tezuka also published by Abrams (The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga), but its rightful place is perhaps the coffee table, to be perused by guests, eliciting questions and prompting a good conversation about the way the kamishibai, along with comics, animation and other arts, wiggles through the multitudinous layers of culture and, more importantly, our lives. And, as we take the fold out cover of this book and turn it into a collage kamishibai poster, filled with its many characters and imaginative landscapes, we are also reminded how easy it is to be in awe with such simple marvels.


© 2001, 2014 SuccoAcido - All Rights Reserved
Reg. Court of Palermo (Italy) n°21, 19.10.2001
All images, photographs and illustrations are copyright of respective authors.
Copyright in Italy and abroad is held by the publisher Edizioni De Dieux or by freelance contributors. Edizioni De Dieux does not necessarily share the views expressed from respective contributors.

Bibliography, links, notes:

Pen: Pedro Vieira de Moura

Note: A word of thanks to the publisher, for sending me a copy of the book. All images are taken from the book.

 
 
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K. performance - A kamishibai artist in action - 1930's
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Children of the Bomb - Children of the Bomb - Remembrance of pains past, way before Nakazawa
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Propaganda - Banzai! The power of visual stories in the war effort
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Golden Bat - Holy dumbfounded! Criminals are a quirky lot
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Eric p Nash - Manga Kamishibai - Cover
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Eric P Nash Manga Kamishibai foldout cover front
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Eric P Nash Manga Kamishibai foldout cover back
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