Manga Kamishibai – Book Review

Ryan Hudson
ART 335
Book Review

Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater. By Eric P. Nash. (New York Abrams Comicarts, 2009 304.).

Americans are, for the most part, aware of the expansive world of comics and animation. Especially in recent years, comics have had a rebirth in American culture- some could argue larger than in the 1930s. Theaters are becoming over-saturated with masked vigilantes and villains. While most Americans know the origin of Superman and the tragic tale of Batman’s past, people in Japan are more familiar with other names such as Golden Bat. What may be surprising is Golden Bat even predates Superman. Eric P. Nash’s book, Manga Kamishibai, dwells into the underground Japanese artistry of story and image, unbeknownst to most  Americans.

Manga Kamishibai tells the story of 19th century Japan through the history of a lost medium known as, Kamishibai (a way of telling stories through panels of image and improvisation.). Nash tells this history in an unconventional, yet effective, way. Instead of a clean consecutive timeline, he travels back and forth through the past. He finds a point in time- one story leads to another until the chapter ends and time reverts back to its original point. Nash backs up his arguments through the claims of actual Japanese artists and their stories. For this reason, the chapters tend to focus on a Kamishibaiya (kamishibai storyteller) or the artist. He follows that person’s story through time until the next person’s story begins. The people he brings forward are travelers through time and direct connections to history. This allows for multiple viewpoints of Japan and the different goals of Kamishibai.

At some parts in the book, Nash tends to make assumptions that seem far-fetched, but this is also the greatest strength of his writing. While the book does give factual information that the Japanese fictional hero, Golden Bat, was conceived before superman, he goes as far to say that Golden Bat may very well have been the “first” superhero. It is self-evident that Nash has a love (bias) towards Japanese culture and history. To be the first of anything is a bold statement. A superhero can mean different things to different people- most stories are never brought out of thin air, they are simply manipulations of past stories and events. To say something was the “first” is to ignore the influences before it. Though his points can be argued, there is no denying that his writings are no less as exciting as his passion. He is aware of his audience and their understanding, or lack of, of the topic. When reading his book there is a strong sense of empathy- neither the people, stories, or audience is left out. A sense of bias comes out from his book because of his love for the topic. He truly understands the Japanese and leaves no room for the reader to fall short of empathy towards the subject.

There is an irony to the story of kamishibai. Influences can be interpreted as homages to past works- where the intention is hardly to replace, but to carry on. “TV Killed the Kamishibai Man,” this was the second to last chapter of Nash’s book and the metaphor suits it well. It is obvious that television drew influence from kamishibai, stories told through image- the difference is that television was not saluting kamishibai, but replacing it. In most writings the last chapter is left to talk about the future. Nash transitions to this in a way that evokes feelings of loss towards the medium. What the future holds for kamishibai is… Death. However, he turns back to the artists and what their future holds. He talks of kamishibai men evolving to a new medium, manga, Japanese graphic novels. Manga was the next big thing for the artists. They could still tell stories through images, only instead of a voice there were words. Manga would later find its way into the spotlight of young children just as its predecessor had. And although, the golden days of Kamishibai may had come to an end, the book was never about the single medium. It was about the artists.

After reading Eric P. Nash’s book, Manga Kamishibai, nothing is lost. There is a gain in knowledge that steps out of the confounds of one’s borders. He has been on the same journey as his readers. The realization that America is not the father of animation, but merely a brother of a nation who found their own path to the same medium. The evolution is captivating- the reader can clearly visualize the unknown life of an artist in Japan during the early to mid 20th century. It is the stories of the people in Japan and the obvious love for the subject that convinces readers to believe a history that is not a part of their own.

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