- Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan's Fifteen-Year War by Sharalyn Orbaugh
Kamishibai ("paper show" or "paper theatre") is a Japanese art and performance form that emerged in the 1920s and lasted (as a popular medium) into the 1960s. Presented to audiences of children, a kamishibai performer, known either as a kamishibaiya or kamishibai no ojisan ("uncle kamishibai," the term Orbaugh uses), would begin by selling candy or other treats and then deliver a story or series of stories which were also painted on illustrated cards, set in a frame and shifted as the tale unfolded. Stories ranged from simple fairy tales to melodramatic serials that went on for multiple installments. As an entertainment, kamishibai was inexpensive and accessible; moreover, its value was also seen as an educational tool in classrooms and other pedagogical venues (called kyōiku kamishibai). Although kamishibai as a viable entertainment option disappeared with television, its legacy continues in several ways; it is still used as an educational medium and, as it evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, some gaitō kamishibai (street-corner kamishibai, the popular medium) are now presented at museums and at tourist locations. (This author met a kamishibai no ojisan at Sensōji temple in Tokyo several years ago.)
Despite its popularity, kamishibai has not attracted much scholarly attention in the West. The reasons for this are manifold; one issue is the hybrid nature of kamishibai, as it can (and should) be approached as performance, as literature, and as visual art. In addition, kamishibai was seen as a popular and not as an artistic medium; in addition, kamishibai cards (with illustrations on one side and text on the other) were made from poor quality cardstock and relatively few intact kamishibai sets exist. Finally, the short time span of kamishibai's existence also led many to regard it a footnote in Japanese performance history.
Hence, little material in the West has been written on kamishibai. Happily, Sharalyn Orbaugh has rectified this absence with this new book. In addition to giving a broad overview that examines kamishibai and its audiences, character tropes, and themes, Orbaugh goes through the history of kamishibai during Japan's conflicts with China and the Allies from 1931 to 1945. The book is thoroughly researched, very well written, and contains an abundance of color plates illustrating the visual beauty and power of kamishibai. In addition, Orbaugh has translated seven whole kamishibai with color plates included. The result is that Propaganda Performed is an impressive text that belongs in the library of any Japanese performance scholar, art historian, or cultural critic. [End Page 261]
Orbaugh begins her book with an overview of the nature of propaganda (she cites Arendt's writings) and the extant scholarship (predominantly Japanese) on the topic. She then gives a history of the form in the first chapter and details kamishibai control under the militarists during the war. This chapter flows nicely into the next on how both street-corner and educational kamishibai was used for propaganda purposes. One of the highlights of this segment is Orbaugh's breakdown of propaganda tropes in kamishibai, which is useful not only for analysis of these plays but could be applied to other propaganda work as well.
Chapter 3 focuses of kamishibai plays aimed at children; of particular fascination in this section was the translation and visual story cards from Friendly Air Raid Shelter (Nakayoshi Bōkūgō) an instructional kamishibai for children as to how to behave in case of aerial attack. This chapter also discusses the differences between works aimed at young women and those aimed at boys and young men. While kamishibai is generally thought of as being aimed towards children, Orbaugh notes that 70 percent of wartime works were aimed at adults and these plays form the basis of her fourth chapter. Again, Orbaugh divides her section by audience, looking at kamishibai aimed at civilian men, women, and farmers. In her last chapter Orbaugh looks at the narrative tropes of the returned soldiers and the presence of the enemy (either Chinese, American, or British).