01 August 2013

a medium evolves: electric kamishibai and the roots of anime

Despite its ‘reputation’ as ‘poor theatre,’ (which was a result of the economic times and the “necessity” of the storytellers to pursue such a ‘career’) kamishibai was also recognized as one of the few dedicated methods of children’s entertainment during the postwar period. At a time when even childhood literacy was declining, and books were themselves in short supply, the arrival of storytellers to spend time entertaining the youth could have been seen as a welcome change of pace during those darker days following the war. 

Of course, that did little to discourage critics at the time, who occasionally equated the kamishibai performers to little more than beggars, and questioned both their values and the quality of the “threatre” they practiced. While from a modern standpoint, kamishibai might be embraced as an alternative to traditional acting and storytelling, at the time it was condemned as ‘harmful’ to the same children who embraced and “ate up” the stories they were being told. Remember again, this was a different Japan than the Edo culture that thrived on alternative means of performance, and the Meiji that glorified “indigenous” methods of storytelling and a “return to Japanese cultural heritage” that allowed them to make their own identity in a global community. 

Postwar Japan was a radical departure, one that was overseen by the west, often at the cost of those same ethnic identities that the Meiji reformers worked so hard to cultivate and spread. With Japanese pride fading, it comes as little surprise that ‘hard-liners’ in the government would want nothing but the strongest, best representations of their own culture on display, ready to ‘springboard’ a new, modern Japan to the forefront they came so close to dominating only decades earlier. As Schodt would point out in The Astro Boy Essays, anything related to the feudal past, or indeed anything 'old,' was immediately distrusted and suspected.

Kamishibai was one of those representations- it was a ‘dead practice,’ descended from a religious 'ceremony,' performed by unemployed men who could not find ‘respectable work’ elsewhere, and in the minds of its critics, was poisonous to Japanese youth, who would need every advantage to return their country to greatness, not dabble and obsess in a ‘failed past.’  

It’s little surprise, then, that by the time television rolled around, the comparisons to kamishibai would arrive with it. 

According to Marc Steinberg (2012), the term "electric kamishibai" would be thrust onto television long before animation began borrowing some of those same elements for its own presentation. Many of the critics who decried the street theatre as “lowbrow” would levy those same criticisms on television programming in its early days, pointing out the limited quality of shows and their poor production standards. In fact, one critic, Ouya Souichi, went so far as to both equate and label both mediums in the infamous quote: “everyday on television there is an array of vulgar programming worse than storyboard shows. A campaign to turn us into a nation of a hundred million idiots through the advanced mass media of radio and television has developed.” 

I mean, I’ve heard television called the “idiot box” before, but this takes that to an entirely new level, not to mention context. 

Some of these comparisons were based on subject matter, some based on the size and shape of the screen, and still others based on the communal nature of watching televisions. Remember, we’re still in a declined Japan, with a depressed economy. Much like Americans during hard times would gather to watch television programs in department stores when they could not afford a set of their own, the Japanese would practice gaitou terebi, or street corner television, with many individuals crowding around a single set to watch a single event or program. As Steinberg points out, this is extremely similar to the crowd of children who would gather around a single “stage” to experience the kamishibai

Speaking of the children, they too appreciated this new medium, which would broadcast stories into their lives. Be it from personal sets or via shops and corners, children would become just as enamored with the television as adults were. Much like the kamishibai storytellers, the reliance on image and sound to tell a tale was hypnotic, and the practice of communal viewing enhanced the interaction and enjoyment derived from watching. 

Now how does all this reflection on kamishibai and the nature of television have any bearing on anime as we know it? Well, aside from said reliance on the merger of image and sound, one of the key components of kamishibai art would eventually have a strong impact on one of the founders of modern anime: Osamu Tezuka.

There have been plenty of books written on Tezuka’s career and influences on animation in Japan. I recommend anything by Fred Schodt, who was not only present while the medium was being imported, but wrote extensively on not just its impact in the US, but also in Japan as well. But the short-form of his story reads like this: Born in the pre-war period, Tezuka was encouraged to be creative and forward thinking from a young age. Despite a childhood decision to become a doctor, his love of theatre, music, and the arts (also strongly advocated by his parents) eventually led him to a career as a mangaka. (He would eventually complete medical school and earn a physician’s license, though would not practice medicine.) In particular, he was influenced by the films of Disney, through which he refined his craft and learned about storytelling, planning and art design. 

When he deigned to create his first animated series, Mighty Atom, based on his popular serialized manga story, Tezuka would incorporate many of the styles and themes found within kamishibai storytelling to the finished product. Limited frames, limited motion, static images and music all played a part in the final product, which was then beamed to television sets across Japan on January 1st, 1963. This was the start of the animation revolution in Japan, but requires a bit more explanation than what face value suggests. 

One of the major points that must be stressed when examining some of the roots of anime, is that animation in Japan came out of a decade following both restriction of their own culturally-charged media, and a saturation of previously-banned Western programming. One essay on the subject likened the Japanese experience to absorbing 20 years of Western entertainment in 10. Disney returned, as did other West-produced films, and joined with what the young Tezuka would label a “manga renaissance.” Given Japan’s ability to borrow from so many different sources when constructing their own narratives, it was perhaps inevitable that their own forms of animation would begin to mirror and absorb all these extraneous influences into a single product. 

Tezuka would go on to make one of the single most important contributions while working on Mighty Atom, one which drew from the media of the past, while constructing a new media for the future.

Up Next: Limited Frames/Unlimited Stories

Further Reading:
Marc Steinberg: Anime's Media Mix
Fred Schodt: The Astro Boy Essays

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