I made my debut in Kamishibai last week. Literally, it’s kami (paper) shibai (drama) where the performer flips through a series of pictures while telling a story, written on the back of the cards. Kamishibai is a form of Japanese street theater and storytelling that was popular during the Depression of the 1930s and the post-war period in Japan until the advent of television nearly eliminated it. Today it survives mostly through its successors, manga and anime.
My mother still recalls nostalgically the sound of the sticks clapping when the kamishibai performer came to her Tokyo neighborhood. He would unload the portable stage he was carrying on the back of his bicycle and perform right in the street. Children would come not only for the entertainment but for the candy they could suck on while watching the play.
Kamishibai is so simple. I was afraid that the audience would find it boring and take out their cell phones. These days people’s attention is brief and addiction to electronic devices rampant. I wondered how people would find kamishibai at all interesting.
But I discovered that like the tea ceremony, its simplicity is captivating and brings a peaceful interlude to our busy lives. The word Ma in Japanese is the beautiful space between things. If we allow ourselves to slow down, create a space, things enter. Simple activities like kamishibai can help us to be here now, living with attention and awareness in the present moment. This gives us the essence of ichi-go, ichi-e, appreciation for the once in a lifetime opportunity to be alive at this time.
I also realized that I practice a form of kamishibai all the time. My use of power point in presentations is a computerized version, just like television was once called electrical kamishibai. I show pictures with a few words or no words at all and tell a story.
The stories of Kamishibai are often folk tales with heroic adventures and moral lessons. I told two favorites, Momotaro and Urashima, but any story can be told on a wide range of themes. Schools in some countries have adopted it and the story of a child who suffered from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was performed at the United Nations in New York at the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The kamishibai I did was for a documentary on Japanese American elderly, with the stories illustrating different themes of their life experiences. I did it thinking it would be my first and last performance. But now I wonder, maybe it’s just the beginning of a new adventure. It seems a fitting way to tell a story in today’s busy world.