Storytelling the Kamishibai way

Kamishibai is a Japanese story theatre tradition (kami = paper, shibai = drama) that I encountered for the first time on my recent European study tour. Initially I saw it at Lernwerkstatt der Zurich Schule – a Learning Workshop/ Atelier at a school in Berlin

The Kamishibai – Narrative Theatre featured in this image is manufactured by Betzold. This abridged quote from their website describes the special kind of theatre as follows:

Slowly the doors of the Kamishibai narrative theatre open and the spectators are spellbound by the first picture. Now the story can begin. No matter whether you tell the stories, the pictures captivate the children’s attention…’Image-based storytelling’ turns younger children into zealous and concentrated listeners – even over longer storytelling phases. The children are always in view. You won’t miss any of their gestures or facial expressions. Conversely, you can keep an eye on your audience and close gaps in understanding as soon as you recognize them. With Kamishibai picture stories you also support the acquisition of a new language

In Brussels Belgium, I was delighted to see Kamishibai again at ABC House (Art Basics for Children). I visited this dynamic research centre focused on arts, culture and education with a group of artists/ art educators from Amsterdam. Conceived as an interactive and artistic laboratory for play, work, research, discovery and expression, anyone committed to arts education and cultural mediation is welcome at ABC House.

Wim De Graeve, our host for the day told us about Kamishibai and pointed us to their website for further information which I have reproduced here for the benefit of WaiPRU Blog readers.

Wim pictured with a mobile kamishibai – a story theatre cabinet for showing paper dramas

The Kamishibai is a story theatre cabinet into which large (A3) prints with the text on the back are slid as the narrator reads or tells a story. With every new episode, the narrator shifts a print from the box, and continues with the next one. A kamishibai story is a bit like a delayed animation film – image and language go together perfectly.

ABC House produces approximately 50 kamishibai theatres each year for sale to schools and centres, libraries and out-of-school care programmes. They also organise kamishibai stories on request.  Cultural centres, schools, libraries or festivals are ideal places for storytellers to perform on a kamishibai bicycle, or in a kamishibai corner or a nomad tent.

ABC has more than 200 narratives for kamishibai storytelling and the collection is constantly growing. They transform existing picture books or give assignments to draftspeople and authors. The range includes Japanese ‘traditionals’, and stories from contemporary authors / illustrators. All stories can be borrowed for free or copies can be purchased online.

The website describes Kamishibai as part of an age-old visual narrative tradition that originated in Buddhist temples in Japan during the 12th century. Monks used image roles to pass on moralizing stories to a predominantly illiterate audience. The kamishibai storytelling technique continued for centuries and had an unprecedented success between the two world wars. For thirty years, from 1920 to 1950, this narrative technique caused a furore in Japan as Kamishibai storytellers rode around on bicycles which had the small wooden theatre mounted on them (like in the image above). They installed themselves on street corners or in parks and at that time more than five million children and adults enjoyed the Kamishibai almost daily. With the rise of television, the mobile storytellers slowly disappeared from the streets. Apparently this unique story theatre has been making a worldwide comeback for several years

I am keen to find a local craftsperson to make a Kamishibai theatre for use with student teachers and possibly at Picturebook Club. Maybe we can also produce Kamishibai stories following the Aotearoa New Zealand tradition of ‘blown-up books’.

Janette Kelly-Ware

March 2020