When I think of my childhood in Japan, I think of kamishibai. It means "paper theater." Every afternoon, the kamishibai man came on a bicycle that had a big wooden box mounted on the back seat. The box had drawers full of candies and a stage at the top. We bought candies and listened to the man’s stories.
So begins the foreword to Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Allen Say’s new children’s book "Kamishibai Man" (Houghton Mifflin, 2005). It is a poetically crafted tale that lovingly captures one of Japan’s most precious art forms, kamishibai (pronounced kah-mee-she-BYE). The book also has a direct connection to Princeton – it is dedicated to and the afterword written by Tara McGowan, a storyteller and Japanese folklore scholar at the Cotsen’s Children’s Library at Princeton University, who runs kamishibai workshops for children and has started a performance troupe called Kamishibai Kidz.
Allen Say will give a talk on and read from his book on Saturday, October 29, at Cotsen’s Children’s Library, which will be followed by a talk by McGowan and a Kamishibai Kidz performance.
I caught up with McGowan by phone last week to ask her how she came to be involved with Say’s book and to explain the renaissance of kamishibai in modern Japan. At a booksigning in New York several years ago, McGowan met Margaret Eisenstadt, who with Donna Tamaki founded a company called Kamishibai for Kids in New York. Eisenstadt, who has made documentaries on kamishibai, mentioned she was coming to Cotsen. After seeing Eisenstadt’s documentaries, McGowan was hooked.
Say, 63, lives in Washington State, but grew up in Japan. When he decided to write a book about his beloved kamishibai, he contacted both Margaret Eisenstadt and Bonnie Bernstein, outreach coordinator at Cotsen’s. Bernstein told him about McGowan’s work with kamishibai at the library. (McGowan had met Say last year in New York with Eisenstadt when Say was in town visiting his daughter.) "He does a lot of research for his books. He had a lot of questions, and we had conversations about what kamishibai is like now," says McGowan, adding that Eisenstadt also helped Say with many details, including what the kamishibai man’s bicycle would look like. (Say dedicated the book to McGowan, Eisenstadt, and Tamaki.) In the fall of 2004, Say E-mailed McGowan and asked her to write the afterword.
McGowan, who spent a year in Japan in both high school and college (she is a graduate of Princeton University, Class of 1990), and studied Japanese folklore for a year at Kyoto University, also completed the two-year teacher’s certificate program at Princeton. With her interest in kamishibai sparked, she spent the summer of 2003 in Japan, studying with kamishibai experts and witnessing with her own eyes the draw of this charming yet powerful form of storytelling. "What I didn’t know was that there is a whole revival of handmade kamishibai, with big conventions where people come from all over the country. That really inspired me."
McGowan says kamishibai started in 1929 and took off in the 1930s,heavily influenced by silent movies. "It was usually performed in a tent during the holidays in front of the temples. Once they started to make portable stages, they would travel around on bicycles. Since they no longer had a tent where they could charge a fee at the door, they sold candy before the performance." McGowan has read articles written in this country during World War II that describe how huge crowds of children would gather on the streets watching kamishibai, which was used by some to disseminate propaganda. She writes in her afterword: "During and after World War II kamishibai became an ever more integral part of the society as a form of entertainment that could be transported into bomb shelters and even devastated neighborhoods. At this time it was entertainment as much for adults as for children."
Typically the kamishibai story was a clever serial story, with each performance, consisting of about 10 illustrated cards, concluding with a cliffhanger – an expression that stems directly from kamishibai. Say writes in his foreword: "The stories were actually one never-ending tale, with each installment ending with the hero or heroine hanging off a cliff or getting pushed off it." "The concept of ‘to be continued’ started with kamishibai," says McGowan. "Some stories lasted for years."
One old man she met during her summer in Japan told her performing kamishibai was hard work. "He said you had to be good, that the different kamishibai storytellers were fixtures in the neighborhood and each had his own ‘beat.’ There was a lot of competition and they had to be good. If they got bored the kids would just go to another storyteller around the corner," says McGowan.
"Kamishibai Man" tells the story of an old man who used to entertain the children in his neighborhood with his lively tales but when television came along- originally called denki (electric) kamishibai – his audiences dwindled down to one lone boy and then no one at all.
McGowan says: "Even in Japan there is this sense that kamishibai was popular until TV and then died out, but now there is an increasing interest in storytelling and kamishibai. At the conventions I saw people from age 3 to 80 performing their illustrated stories. I think it comes from a sense of needing to interact with human beings and not just machines. We’ve lost this connection to each other."
McGowan says Say’s book couldn’t be more timely. When she showed the book to the director of an organization she’s involved with, Storytelling Arts Inc., which brings storytelling workshops into the schools, he said, "This isn’t just about kamishibai; it’s about the need for storytelling."
McGowan is working on a book combining how-to instructions with strategies for using kamishibai as a teaching tool. She says that at the kamishibai workshops she teaches, she has discovered that this genre of storytelling can open up whole worlds for kids. "My emphasis is on so many uses. In Japan it is used to preserve local history; it’s used in senior centers. It is an amazing teaching tool. Through Storytelling Arts Inc., I work in schools to help children to become motivated by storytelling. For kids who are resistant to reading and writing, sometimes through storytelling they can become free from the trappings, and they become interested." McGowan is currently doing a long-term kamishibai residencey in a Trenton public school, under the auspices of Storytelling Arts.
Kamishibai involves a lot of skills and McGowan has seen firsthand how this combination inspires kids. "Paper theater is called a comingled art form; it uses visual information and aural information. Combining visual and spoken narrative is something deeply rooted. I’ve had kids who were terrified to talk to me who are now performing storytelling. I’ve seen dyslexic children who never want to write a story become able to illustrate and tell a story, then at that point they’re confident enough to maybe write it. When you’re working on a kamishibai story, you’re not just done and you go on; you’ve developed it, illustrated it, and you have to perform it to bring it to life. It’s not a project where you’re done and you hang it on the wall. It’s living and evolving. It’s something that I think is really valuable."
In "Kamishibai Man" the old man decides to have one last go at it, even after he sees that television antennaes have started "to sprout from the rooftops like weeds in the springtime." He asks himself, "How can they like those blurry pictures better than my beautiful paintings?" His wife encourages him and even makes him candies.
Standing on a busy city street corner he begins and quickly a crowd gathers. He tells of the last boy who ever heard his stories, who requested the story "Little One Inch." "I was that boy," yells a man from the audience. Suddenly everyone is shouting out: "We grew up with your stories. Tell us ‘Little One Inch’ again! Look, he has all the same old sweets! Just like the old days!"
Later the old man comes home and tells his wife that he will be going out the next day and the day after that to tell his kamishibai stories, and that he will need twice the amount of candies. As they sit down to dinner, she says, "I’ll see if I have enough sugar," and she shuts the television off.
"Kamishibai Man," talk and booksigning by Allen Say, Saturday, October 29, 3 p.m., Cotsen’s Children’s Library, on the Princeton University Campus (in Firestone Library). Followed by a performance of Kamishibai Kidz. Free but registration required as space is limited. Call Cory Alperstein at 609-258-2697 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.