Kamishibai, the tales that came from the land of the rising sun

Education  · 

Kamishibai, the tales that came from the land of the rising sun

By Ana Domínguez Vizcay

It has the same hypnotic effect as a puppet-show, but it is not the same. Kamishibai, which when translated from Japanese means “paper theater”, has its own codes, its own particular narrative world and staging.

butaiA group of children, fairly young, sit down and expectantly watch the person who is guarding what appears to be a wooden box. What secret does it hold? The story slowly begins as each of the three doors to the little theatre – called a butai – open, and these are the key to a magical stage. The narrator relies on his tone and pauses to set the tempo, but he should always be in the background, just like the supporting cast of a good movie. All of the audience’s gazes are fixed on the illustrated boards which are inserted into the stage and which the performer slides across while reading the text on the back of the board. When the story finishes with the final board, the butai is closed just as gently and we await the reaction of the young audience. The spell has been cast and applause is guaranteed.

kamishibai manKamishibai is part of Japan’s cultural heritage. In its current form, it emerged in the nineteen twenties, in Tokyo’s densely populated districts. Job insecurity in the 30s forced thousands of unemployed people to get on their bikes and ride around the streets with their portable little theaters, while they sold candy to kids. There is a lovely book, Kamishibai Man which precisely recreates the origins of this narrative technique.

At the same time, a movement emerged that understood its educational possibilities, which it began to develop in the classroom. It is now completely ingrained in infant and primary schools and in public libraries and other institutions, such as the The International Kamishibai Association of Japan. And it is now catching on as an educational resource in some European countries, including Spain.

Simplicity in form and substance

It is obviously captivating. The children interact without losing their concentration, they share feelings and participate, amused by what is happening inside the little theater, which somehow separates the story’s world from the real world. Kamishibai is known for its simplicity. The words are clear and direct, simple stories created with short sentences. There are few descriptions, with powerful images and dialogues in their place, skillfully expressing the feelings and personality of the characters – of which there are few – which may be people or animals.

The illustrations have to be a perfect fit for the words. The drawings on the cards are big, with clear strokes so that they can be seen from a distance. The scenes have to be striking but simple and the characters have to stand out, so you have to work with the colors and make good use of the different scenes.

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Perhaps the key to making magic lies with the performer. In the world of Kamishibai, they and their role as the presenter of the story are so important to the quality of the play, that they stand right behind the little theater, facing the audience. Through their voice and body language, they must give the story its drama, but without hogging the limelight, because everyone’s attention should be on the story that the author wants to tell.

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It is this perfect combination of its oral narrative and its visual appearance that makes Kamishibai a perfect way to recover the tradition of telling stories to children. More and more schools are holding specific workshops where primary school students become the narrators, writers and illustrators, making up their own stories.

Some useful resources

If you want to dig a little deeper into this narrative world, it is worth taking a look at the website of the “Friends of Kamishibai Association”, an initiative in Pamplona by a group of people who love this technique. At San Juan de la Cadena School they have been working on this in the classroom for ten years and they use this website to share a huge amount of resources, experiences and materials for holding workshops. It is especially useful for teachers and families.

como representar kamishibaiOne exceptional book that you should also take a look at is Cómo representar Kamishibai (How to perform Kamishibai), by the Japanese author Noriko Matsui.

The biggest publisher of Kamishibai is Doshinsha, from Japan, which has several in English and French too. Other companies that are currently publishing them in Europe are Sieteleguas (Spain), Artebambini (Italy), and Lirabelle and Callicéphale (France), but what they offer are more like adaptations of illustrated books. You can also find some examples on the websites www.kamishibai.com and www.storycardtheater.com.

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Keywords in this post: Children’s education, learning strategies, children’s stories

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