I have been aware of kamishibai for a long time, but actually known very little about it. I mainly knew that my favorite manga artist, Mizuki Shigeru, got his start as a kamishibai artist before transitioning over to the new manga market. I knew that much of the visual language of kamishibai got its start in kamishibai. But not much more. Eric Nash's "Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Paper Theater," I found that the gaps in my knowledge were even greater than I could have imagined.
I had no idea that Japan had an active and popular superhero genre years before Superman burst from the pages of Action Comics in 1938. I had no idea that the concept of a cape-wearing, flying, super-strong and invulnerable hero was actually a Japanese creation, not an American one. I had no idea that kamishibai was so popular in Japan that when television first appeared it was known as "electric kamishibai" and that post-WWII MacArthur enlisted kamishibai men to teach Japan in simple terms about things like Democracy and Land Reform.
Nash has done a game job gathering and researching old kamishibai paintings, and telling their story. He starts with the history of emaki illustrated scrolls, and follows the kamishibai art form through transitional periods such as the Depression years, the War years when kamishibai was enlisted for political propaganda for a pro-militarized Japan, then the post-War era when it was used again for politics from the opposite side. He covers Mizuki Shigeru and his emergence in the artform, as well as a few other famous creators and creations.
Of course, "Manga Kamishibai" is first and foremost an art book, and Nash includes several complete adventures, all bright and beautiful. Included are he superhero story "Prince of Gamma and the Sea Monster," the supernatural "Metamorphosis of the White Fox," the ninja adventure "Ninja by Night," the Samurai fable "Tange Sazen," the political post-Hiroshima "Prayer for Peace," the Twilight Zone-esque "Mystery Train," and many more. All of the complete adventures are annotated to give the flow of the story.
The only real problem I had with "Manga Kamishibai" was Nash's attempts to link kamishibai to modern and unrelated pop culture phenomenon. A ninja jumping off a roof is "evocative of the high-wire acrobatics in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"" even thought that is a Chinese film, not Japanese. The samurai Tange Sazen, with his missing eye, is "Popeye-like." A scene from "The Prince of Gamma" has "the wistful crepuscular quality that characterized Steve Ditko's end panels of Spider-Man." There is almost nothing that Nash can't draw a line back to some familiar modern character, no matter how fuzzy or illogical.
It comes off like Nash is an expert in American, and not Japanese, pop culture, so he tries to associate the unfamiliar images with something he can recognize that makes sense to him. This also means that less time is spent on some of the topics a more Japan-focused book would be interested in, like original panels of Mizuki Shigeru's famous "Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro" instead of other Mizuki work. Or even a short section on kamishibai collectors. Do they exist? How many of these works of art have survived?
I am grateful for this book. It was a huge eye opener and I enjoyed it very much. Some of the text could have been better, and some of the focus could have been better, but having an imperfect book on the subject is much better than none at all.