Shaler middle schoolers learn Japanese storytelling
Anime, a popular Japanese animation form — and manga Japanese comics — have roots in the country's street theater and storytelling method known as kamishibai, according to Katsuko Shellhammer, The Japan-America Society of Pennsylvania's educational outreach coordinator.
“Japan has always been a society with lots of visual elements,” she said during a Dec. 18 presentation on the art form to a Shaler Area Middle School Japanese course.
Kamishibai consists of a narrator moving boards with hand-drawn illustrations through a wooden stage-type device. The storyteller, meanwhile, reads and acts out a script printed on the back of each sheet. The street performers once affixed the stages to the backs of their bicycles, Shellhammer said. Kamishibai's heyday was from 1930 to 1950, with it losing popularity due to the advent of television.
She clapped sticks called hiyogoshi loudly together to demonstrate how the performers would alert children that it was story time.
“You guys go to the ice cream truck, right?” she said, before comparing the drum beats to the familiar tunes ice cream trucks play to attract customers.
Performers made money by selling homemade candy to audiences. She has memories of them visiting during her childhood spent in southern Japan near Fukuoka, she said following the presentation.
Stories consisted of folk tales, religious sermons and World War II propaganda, she said. Shows often ended with cliffhangers to keep audiences returning.
“This is really what people did before there was a television. They would learn different things and teach about different things (through kamishibai).”
Gracie Thom, 13, said that she loves “the fact that it encourages people to leave the technology behind and experience a new way to tell a story.”
Kamishibai is experiencing a revival, Shellhammer said, with Japanese kindergartens, libraries and folk museums giving performances. Police departments are utilizing the storytelling method to teach children bike safety.
“I think it would be really cool if someday I could go to Japan and watch a kamishibai performance and know what they are saying, hopefully,” said Jehnna Szelc, 13.
The Japan-America Society in Pennsylvania representative read the students “The Story of Tanabata: A Kamishibai Play from Japan” by Shin Kitada and Donna Tamaki. The ancient tale of a couple separated by the Milky Way and only allowed to meet on the seventh day of the seventh month is the basis for Japan's Tanabata or Star Festival.
Shaler Area students took turns performing the piece.
“It's like stage notes in your script; it tells you what to do and how to do it,” teacher Steven Baleno instructed.
The activity was practice for when the students will read “Hats for Jizos” adapted by Miyoko Matsutani in both English and Japanese from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Shaler North Hills Library.
“We hope that this activity is a good way to give back to the Shaler community and their support of our schools and the Japanese program here in our district,” he said.
Baleno said the lesson builds upon hiragana, “the first of three writing systems in the Japanese language.” The library event will help the students practice their reading ability and fluency.
“I think it will be good Japanese practice and a good bilingual storyline is very educational for young minds because it can broaden their perspectives,” said Caty Clark, 13.
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.