See the first post about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre) in the 1930s and the previous post about WWII kamishibai for more information and commentary about the origins and context of these images.
See the first post about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre) for more information and commentary about the origins and context of these images.
Here we move into the 1940s, WWII and the dodgy, overly-positive world of propaganda. Propaganda is almost by definition absurd and deceptive; if it wasn’t so cognitively dissonant and detached from observed reality then we’d just call it informative or documentarian. But there’s still something particularly disturbing about the hijacking of a medium intended mainly for children. The slides shown here are from How to Build a Home Air Raid Shelter and from Kintaro the Paratrooper. The latter is a militaristic rewrite of the traditional story about Momotoro the Peach Boy, who joined up with animal friends to defend Japan from invading demons. You can see what they did there, obviously.
This is the first of several posts about Japanese kamishibai (paper theatre), a popular form of storytelling that began in the 1930s, peaked in the post-war/American occupation period, and more or less died out with the rise of Japan as a modern, technologically developed country. The material is all from Eric P. Nash’s great book Manga Kamishibai. As usual, out of respect for the author and the publisher (and also to piss off the imbeciles who are always going on about printed books being dead trees and obsolete, everything’s online now, blah blah blah) I’ll hopefully be posting just enough to arouse your interest without coming anywhere close to making it pointless to buy or borrow the book.
Kamishibaiya (paper theatre storytellers) would roll up to a street corner on their bicycles, which also supported a butai– a miniature wooden theatre into which the illustrated boards for the stories could be slid in and out. These boards were about 14 inches by 10. Until WWII each story set and board were unique because they were inked and coloured by hand using watercolour and opaque tempera paints, then lacquered and waxed to protect them from the weather. The boards provided a low-tech form of slideshow animation, but of course what really brought the stories to life were the storytellers. At one point kamishibai was such a cultural touchstone that when television was introduced to Japan in 1953, it was sometimes referred to as denki kamishibai: electric paper theatre.
The examples shown here are from a 1930s series called Cry of the Andes. It’s a sort-of Western adventure, though obviously set in Peru and filtered through the distinctly Eastern perspective of a nation that had never seen (or been) cowboys.
Next time: paper theatre for children takes a weird and sinister turn during WWII. Cute boar soldiers bayonetting captives for the Emperor, and so forth.
Japan panic: the slit-mouthed woman
Stories of 口裂け女, the slit-mouthed woman, emerged from urban Japan in the late 1970s. At first they were particularly passed around between school children, then in the mass media. By the first half of 1979 Asahi Shinbun was highlighting kuchisake onna as a buzzword (hayari kotoba) of the year. In true, random Japanese style one of the others was “rabbit hutches”.
Occasionally Kuchisake onna was reported as a genuine physical threat, a criminal would-be kidnapper or murderer rather than a supernatural being. At times she was somehow both a real world abductor and a folkloric monster simultaneously. (See Hyaku-monogatari for the Edo origins of modern yōkai storytelling) Satoshi Kon’s extremely uneven but in places brilliant series 妄想代理人 Mōsō Dairinin [Paranoia Agent] is obviously heavily inspired by the mass hysteria over Kuchisake onna. A woman with long hair and a white mask– of the kind sold everywhere and very common in Japan to cover the mouth and nose when a person is ill, or against pollution– accosts you in the street and she asks something like “Watashi kirei?” (“Am I pretty?”) or “Atashi bijin ka?” (“Am I a beauty?”) If you agree that she is, she replies “Kore demo?” (“Even [like] this?”) as she tears off her mask to show that her mouth is slit open across the cheeks, from ear to ear. If you tell her she isn’t pretty, she becomes enraged and pursues you with a knife or scythe. The reason for her disfigurement and rage varies with the telling: sometimes it’s a plastic surgery disaster, sometimes a dreadful accident, sometimes self-inflicted. The same goes for the means of escaping her: repeating certain words, offering certain gifts, reaching a certain place before she catches you. Continue Reading
Edo horror stories
The hyaku-monogatari (“one hundred stories”) were told in Edo-era Japan when people came together to exchange kaidan, stories of ghosts, monsters, mysterious (fushigi) happenings, and frightening (osoroshiki) characters. This gatherings, hyaku-monogatari kaidan kai, can be conceived of as a kind of market for exchanging stories. These might be real (or claimed) personal experiences, stories people knew from elsewhere, or a story of their own devising. There may not always have been exactly one hundred stories; as in English, saying there are “a hundred” or “hundreds” of something can be deliberate hyperbole, just a way of saying there are more than you can easily count. Stories of mysterious and frightening things (mononoke) were and are indeed endless in number.
Wakan kaidan hyōrin, 1718:
“First light one hundred wicks with blue paper around them, and hide all weapons. Now, for each frightening tale, extinguish one wick… when all one hundred flames have been extinguished, a monster (bakemono) will most definitely appear.”
Hide all weapons! The theatricality of the slowly gathering darkness as the tellers vie with each other to tell the scariest story speaks for itself, I think. The ritualistic repetition also plays a part in creating an immersive experience in which we allow ourselves to be scared. Try it! In fact I already used the techniques of the hyaku-monogatari kaidan kai directly in my own live show about occult stories and supernatural folk beliefs in Tudor England, Magickal Realism.
The popularity of the (by definition ephemeral and oral) hyaku-monogatari also contributed to a publishing boom as the best stories began to be collected and made available in print, making an enthusiasm for monsters and supernatural beings (妖怪 yōkai) the national Japanese pastime that it remains today. As for the yōkai themselves, it’s a huge subject with no shortage of English-language resources available online.
Source: Pandemonium and Parade– Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai by Michael Dylan Foster.
PS Semi-related, daft and entertaining, Denki Groove– モノノケダンス (Mononoke Dance):
I’m writing a book set in the Nineteenth century, so I’m delving into lots of obscure stuff while researching it. Not that I don’t read obscure (and frankly sometimes stupid and ridiculous) books under normal circumstances, but sometimes a man in my current position just has to avoid actually writing anything because he’s wasting a lot of time finding out what those excessively huge candelabra in the middle of an upper class dinner table were called… it’s an epergne, by the way. You’re welcome.
And so at last to the point, via the houses: in Folkloristics: An Introduction (a textbook published by Indiana University Press, written by Robert A. Georges and Michael Owen Jones) the authors quote in turn Stith Thompson’s The Types of the Folk-Tale (2nd revision, Helsinki 1961) and provide a seemingly complete but not really complete taxonomy of traditional story categories. Now you know that when I say obscure I mean it.
I’m interested in taxonomies, whether they’re sensible and help our understanding of things, or completely nuts and actually make matters more confusing. I think the following list lies somewhere between the two in some kind of quasi-academic, Borgesian territory; that’s why I liked it. It starts sensibly and logically (“Fish”), veers off into the insanely specific (“Stupid Ogre”), then just gives up and shrugs with “2400-2499 Unclassified Tales.”
I note also that “Numskull Stories” is probably more of a thriving sub-genre than it’s ever been thanks to the proliferation of the media, paparazzi, scumbag phone-tapping so-called journalists, and the internet in general. What are Hello! magazine, tabloid gotchas and sites like Gawker or FAIL Tumblrs if not an endless torrent of Numskull Stories? In the case of Hello! and its ilk, however, the new and distinctively 21st century development is that we’re presumably meant to approve of the numskulls and aspire towards being numskulls ourselves… as many people quite evidently do. Continue Reading
[I’m discussing the narratives of video games here, in particular their third acts and conclusions: obviously this involves the dreaded “spoilers”. Read this for my full exegesis on the narcissistic stupidity of people who are obsessed with not being “spoiled”; but for now it suffices to say that you’ll want to jog on if knowing how a story ends is likely to make you scream, clutch your pearls and faint.] Continue Reading