moving pictures before television

From the 1920s through the 1950s, many persons earned a living performing stories (“kamishibai”) for free on the streets of Japan.  The kamishibai performers moved image cards through a wooden picture frame to provide a visual complement to their verbal narratives.  They sought to build a regular audience by performing stories that continued across days.  As street performers who traveled around by bicycle, they could not charge admission to their performances.  They earned money by selling candy to the children they attracted.  According to knowledgeable sources, kamishibai in 1950s Japan attracted far more viewers than theaters, movies, and newspapers.  The number of licensed kamishibai performers reached 50,000.[1]

The spread of television destroyed the kamishibai industry.  Kamishibai seems to have thrived as cheap, conveniently accessible, audio-visual entertainment.  Television, which was first known in Japan as “denki kamishibai” (electric kamishibai), also offered free, conveniently accessible audio-visual entertainment.  Television, however, had huge ecomonies of scale.  Kamishibai was largely a constant-cost business. Kamishibai influenced the growth of manga and anime.  But as a business in itself, kamishibai was finished after the 1950s.

Kamishibai master Yassan (Yasuno Yuushi) has kept alive the art of kamishibai.  In a recent performance at the Sackler Gallery, he displayed theatrical expressiveness in voice and face.[2]  In addition, he manipulated the image cards quite artistically. Just as with other art, the direction of text also provides direction for kamishibai images.  The image cards are pulled out from the viewer’s left so that the image is revealed from right to left, the horizontal direction of Japanese text.  The timing and speed of the card-pulling shapes the kamishibai performances.  Yassan also exploited possibilities for presenting two cards at once.  The image organization of television is much more rigid than that of kamishibai. Without a doubt, television lacks some of the art of kamishibai.

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[1] See Jeffrey A. Dym, “Kamishibai, What is it?  Some Preliminary Findings,” esp. p. 11 (popularity relative to theaters, movies, and newspapers); and “Story-telling will never die,” interview with Yassan (Yasuno Yuushi) in the Times of India, Jan. 2, 2008 (50,000 kamishibai performers).  Here’s a video that shows a kamishibai performer from 1959.

[2] Yassan is an artist in residence at the Kyoto International Manga Museum and performs regularly there.  His daughter, Yumi Yasuno, is also a talented kamishibai performer.  They not only preserve the historical art of kamishibai, but also actively seek to develop it further.  Their artistic vitality was evident in a workshop they conducted along with their performance.

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