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Microid S: Kamishibai (Epoch, 1973)

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1. Title Card
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Added 4/13/2013
Updated 4/15/2013
Yanma: Look out! It’s a monster!

Yanma shields Ageha and Mamezō.


A large spider explodes.

Ageha: Thank you, Yanma.

Yanma: Hurry, GO SKY!

Wings sprout from the backs of the trio and they take off. Now we know for sure that these three teeny tiny people are the Microids.

This image shows a dramatic scene in which the three Microids are attacked by one of the insectoid robots designed by the hyperintelligent ant scientists of Gidoron, who are trying to seize control of Planet Earth from the foolish and ecologically destructive humans. It also nicely sums up the stereotypes on which it is based: Yanma [ヤンマ, or “Dragonfly”], the hunky male hero, his head fin extended as a cutting weapon, is using the zap ray ("Microid Beam") built into the helmet to blow up the devilish robot. Meanwhile the motherly Ageha [アゲハ, or Swallowtail Butterfly”] is pulling the frightened young boy Mamezō [マメゾウ, or “Bean Beetle”] out of harm’s way.

With its bold title, it clearly is intended to attract the audience’s attention and get the story started. The kamishibai storytelling form is based on the earlier use of scrolls or wall hangings used in oral storytelling, and focuses on a set of printed cards like this one. The presenter places them in a stack inside a butai, a little box with a front that resembled a stage (or, perhaps, a TV screen). The front of the cards held the images that dramatically illustrated the story, while the storyteller performed a script printed on the back of the cards.

As the narrator finished the script on one card, he would remove the card in front of the stack, revealing the next one in queue. The script for card #1 would be on the back of card #20. And then when card #1 was moved to the back of the stack, it would give the presenter the script for card #2, now visible to the audience, and so on until the end of the “theatre” presentation.

According to Wikipedia and other online sources, it was common in the 1930s and 1940s for a talented oral storyteller to travel from village to village on a bicycle, carrying the little stage box and a set of kamishibai cards. Setting up shop in a marketplace or on a street corner, the artist would attract a crowd of children and begin by selling candy or other treats. Children who purchased generously would get to sit in front when the performance began.

The stories featured characters drawn from folktales, early Western-style comic books, and movie serials, including flying superheroes with secret identities, mysterious criminal conspiracies, and giant hyper-technological robots. The genre in fact is credited for establishing the standard plots and visual style of manga. Eric P. Nash and Frederik L. Schodt have published an interesting history documenting this connection: Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater.. This documents how important mangaka like Shigeru Mizuki got their early experience designing paper theater series. It also republishes facsimiles of some of the classic serials from its heyday.

However, the art form fell into decline after the fall of Japan in 1945, as American occupiers cracked down on series that appeared to encourage or condone militarism. The arrival of TV and the emergence of manga/anime soon after appropriated the place of kamishibai in children’s culture. But small-scale creation and use of paper theater series continues to this day in some circles as a nostalgic revival or as an educational tool, even in English-speaking circles.

Evidently the older tradition hung on into the early 1970s, however. When this set of cards appeared for auction on Yahoo Japan, I initially couldn’t figure out what it was. Neither could Japanese collectors, as it had gone around at least once before. Once it arrived, I saw it was a very late example of kamishibai, adapting Toei’s anime version of Osamu Tezuka’s Microid S. The title card bears a copyright claim in the name of Tezuka, Toei Animation, and NET (Nihon Educational Television, the broadcasting network, now TV Asahi), and was produced by Epoch Co., Ltd, a Japanese toy-and-game company founded in 1958.

Epoch (later an innovative producer of console-based computer games) evidently experimented with reviving the kamishibai tradition with a new link to anime, as I found a few other mentions of card sets produced by Epoch, one based on the Space Cruiser Yamato series. In some cases, the cards came with an LP record, which you could use to accompany the cards.

Still, the scripts on the back make it clear that they were still intended to used by oral performers. The text on the back is often cast in the form of a mini-drama, with transitions told by a narrator but with many lines to be spoken in the voice of Yanma, Ageha, Mamezō, and the others. So the kamishibai performer was still expected to shift his voice to impersonate the characters, using a gruff tone for the bold male hero and a mincing falsetto for the more subordinate female role or for the young boy.

They also are very sparse, seemingly just an outline for the scene. So a talented presenter could expand on the script spontaneously and generate lots of impromptu byplay with the audience.

The translation is courtesy of my fellow curator KuroiTsubasa4. The thumbnails, here and elsewhere, give scans of the script on the back of the card.

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Curator: 60something-sensei
Gallery Created: 8/3/2002
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