Cartoon Alley: Reviews and commentary #11… Tim Bollinger

‘Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater’

By Eric P. Nash (Abrams ComicArts, NY 2009)
Reviewed by Tim Bollinger

Before television, there was kamishibai. A forerunner to modern Japanese manga and anime, kamishibai were comic strip-like picture stories that street peddlers displayed through the window of a box-like booth resembling a TV, to entertain large groups of children, while the storyteller narrated and sold home-made sweets.

Eric Nash’s book documents the history of this ‘forgotten’ art form, which in its heyday of the 1930s and 1950s, saw hundreds of stories being produced for kamishibai publishing companies who supplied urban Japanese street vendors with new adventures daily.

The development of kamishibai is traced from early picture scrolls sometimes cited as the first ‘manga’, through the war years as a portable propaganda and education tool, to its discussion of social issues like the bombing of Horishima in the post-occupation era.

Much of the ‘high-action’ imagery of modern manga is apparently derived from the kamishibai form, as is the stillness used to characterise ‘movement’ in some Japanese TV animation. The stylistic influence of this low-tech form of populist cartoon story-telling is evident in both fields. Like manga, kamishibai encompassed many genres including ‘gekiga’-style adventure to girls’ stories or ‘shoujo’ manga.

The book records some of the kamishibai artists of the ‘classic’ era, who included ninja manga master Sanpei Shirato (founder of ‘Garo’ magazine in the 1960s, see: It reproduces extensive excerpts from some of the best picture stories of this early era of early Japanese ‘pulp’ (see selection below).

To read more about kamishibai and Eric Nash’s excellent book, see: