The new season of Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories has just started, bringing with it some more spooky tales to keep you up at night.

But what are the origins of this format?

You may have noticed that the opening sequence features an elderly man just before sundown calling on the children in the neighborhood to gather and come to listen to his story. The children then sit down in front of his wooden contraption and he proceeds to gesture toward it as it reveals a series of images.

This is the basic concept of “kamishibai,” an antiquated method of street performance, which Yamishibai is a wordplay of. Kamishibai itself literally means “paper performance” and the idea is fairly simple–the performer would point at the box, whose frame displayed an illustration to the audience, and narrate (and often also act out) the action in that particular scene. As the story progressed, the scene would change. When it did so, he would indicate this by sliding the front illustration out of the frame to the back, revealing a newer one behind it. He would then proceed to continue telling the story. Thus, this frame acted as a “screen” of sorts, and the box was basically a pre-electricity television set, from our retrospective viewpoint.

It is interesting to note that kamishibai at many times in history phased in and out of popularity. Performances involving illustrations technically go back centuries, but most would agree that kamishibai had its heyday in the decade before the Second World War, and it again had a renewed lease of life right after the 1947 postwar constitution.

Kamishibai is now mostly gone, however, thanks to the rise of television. Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, a living legend among TV stars in Japan, mentions this in her book Honmono ni wa ai ga: Minna issho (『本物には愛が。: みんな一緒』) that the early days of NHK broadcasts were mired in disapproval for the new medium. Many people thought that it was embarrassing for actors to appear on TV. Early anime, namely Tetsuwan Atom/Astroboy and the works of the legendary animator Yasuo Ōtsuka, were sometimes even called “electric kamishibai.

Of course, as with any performing art, part of the charm of kamishibai was surely the concept of interactivity–something that the television could not fully replicate.

The kamishibai performer would round up the kids and sit them down to listen to the story, all the while conversing with them similar to a British pantomime style, with “What do you think happened next?” prompts, et cetera. At the end, the performer would ask them to buy some candy, which is how he would make his profit. What’s more, the performances often drew to a close on a cliffhanger, with the continuing adventures of classic kamishibai characters such as Golden Bat left to be concluded another day–all but guaranteeing that the kids come back the for the next installment (and buy more sweets!). It is impossible to chronicle all the stories that were told this way, and the loose copyright laws meant that there were few “canon” stories; thus, Golden Bat and the like had innumerable incarnations.

The idea of the friendly old man in the park handing out sweets to kids telling old tales has in recent years become less familiar, and instead, it is sadly perhaps more realistic–especially for parents–to expect something sinister from such a scenario.

In this end, this modern fear and anxiety brilliantly sets the stage for Yamishibai. It takes the format of the kamishibai tradition and by infusing it with the darkness of the timeless Japanese penchant for ghost stories, it gives a renewed, fresh approach to “limited animation”–giving the dying performing art one more chance at the spotlight as the same time.

Image source: 株式会社イルカ on Twitter

Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories is available to stream on Crunchyroll.

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