Q & A With Helen McCarthy Kamishibai Expert

Posted on August 29, 2011

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It finally happened.  I found Helen McCarthy, Kamishibai expert in England. I bring her answers to my questions to you. Fascinating stuff!

Helen McCarthy ©Steve Kyte 2009 Kindly provided by Ms. McCarthy

Q: What is special about the kamishibai storytelling technique?
A: It mixes words and pictures in a unique way that prefigures the impact of television – so much so that, when TV began to spread across Japan in the 1950s, many people called it “denki (electric) kamishibai”. It’s a historic bridge between live performance art and video, and it can be enjoyed by everyone, from the youngest to the oldest.
Q: How popular is it among children and adults?
A: Sadly, nowadays the only place most people see kamishibai in Japan is in elementary school or at a cultural festival. It’s seen as a useful educational tool and a cultural property, but it’s gradually beginning to be appreciated again so maybe it will regain some of its lost popularity with the general public in Japan and beyond.
Q: What are the differences between these two kamishibais?
A: There is no real difference. Because it was a street art form and audiences were always going to be mixed – children, housewives, the unemployed, and the elderly – kamishibai men used a mix of stories in their work. The ongoing serials had to continue from week to week at the same site or audiences would have felt cheated, but they also had standalone comedies or shorts that could be slipped in to the routine to suit particular audiences.
Q: How different is kamishibai today from what it used to be in the 12th century?
A: Kamishibai didn’t exist in the 12th century. Although popular storytelling techniques using pictures have been around for centuries, the specific storytelling form we know as kamishibai sprang up sometime at the very end of the 1920s. It was very much an urban form, a street art for the masses. Now it’s a culturally sanctioned “heritage” artform, not an everyday occupation.
Q: How is kamishibai perceived and used in the western culture?
A: Quite a few schools are using it. In South America, where there are large Japanese immigrant groups, it is very popular in schools. The great artist and writer Satoshi Kitamura has given a number of kamishibai sessions in schools there. Derek Carpenter, aka Kamishibai Man, has done workshops in UK schools and even an online session with a school in India. I’ve used it in my work as a poet: “haiku kamishibai” is a writing/performance technique I’ve developed in conjunction with Mu Arts, using kamishibai both as a trigger for writing poetry and as a visual mode of poetic expression. So far, kamishibai in the West is confined to schools and arts events, but it could go much wider.

Vintage Kamishibai Production

Q: Has this technique been adopted by other industries? My research has shown that Toyota is using kamishibai in its manufacturing audits. Where else is kamishibai used and how?
A:The aerospace blog AerospaceLean.com talks about its use in that industry, and Cove Forums talks about its use for audits, but I’m not an industrial expert so you probably need to ask some companies! I can see its applications for teaching processes and checking understanding, especially among mixed language groups where a monoglot manual might not work perfectly for everyone.
Q: What are its benefits?
A: It’s visual so communication is simplified, its pacing can be varied to suit the audience, it allows the performer/tutor to be both responsive and creative, and it’s great fun. It’s also a very co-operative, social art form – the performer relies on the artist, the audience gets to do puzzles and quizzes, watchers can contribute to the process by interacting with the performer. The ability to control the timing and flow of the piece is especially useful in a teaching or demonstration context – the performer can ensure that the whole audience has understood what’s being communicated, and can vary the method of reinforcing and checking learning to suit individual needs.

Feature Image: Museum portrayal of Kamishibai production

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Posted in: Art, Asia, Culture