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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #42 (October 18, 2005), page 11.
By Allen Say
Houghton Mifflin, 2005
Hardcover, 32 pages, $17.00
By Josephine Bridges
When I think of my childhood in Japan, I think of kamishibai. It means ‘paper theater,’" writes Allen Say in the foreword to yet another of his exquisitely illustrated, quietly profound books for young readers of all ages. "Every afternoon, the kamishibai man came on a bicycle that had a big wooden box mounted on the back seat. The box had drawers full of candies and a stage at the top. We bought candies and listened to the man’s stories."
Turn the page, and there is our kamishibai man, sitting on his stoop, his bicycle leaning against the side of the house under a woven screen. Say writes that although the protagonist and his wife never had any children, "they called each other Jiichan and Baachan. Jiichan is Grandpa, and Baachan is Grandma." Before the bottom of the first page, readers have learned that Jiichan misses his work as a travelling storyteller. Baachan offers to make candies. Right away we know that this is the best of both worlds, a universal yet personal story.
Allen Say’s watercolor illustrations give this sweet and simple narrative a wonderful depth and breadth. We follow the kamishibai man as he rides his bicycle across a bridge over a peaceful stream, then in front of a truck that almost fills a narrow alley in the city. Dwarfed by an elevated highway, the storyteller unwraps his wooden stage in a vacant lot, gazes with delight at the candies he calls "little jewels," and begins to clap two wooden blocks together to announce Story Time.
Suddenly, abruptly, the pictures change from Say’s usual sophisticated and highly realistic paintings to masterful yet primitive illustrations evocative of children’s storybooks back before Allen Say got his hands on them, and the reader enters a mysterious realm that seems to be both past and present. Unfortunately, due largely to the influence of television, this story doesn’t seem headed for a happy ending. But if you want to know for sure, you’ll have to read Kamishibai Man for yourself.
The stories told by kamishibai men "were actually one never-ending tale, with each installment ending with the hero or heroine hanging from a cliff or getting pushed off it," writes Allen Say, who also notes that when he came to America, nobody had to explain the word "cliffhanger" to him. It’s fitting that there’s a bit of a cliffhanger in Say’s tribute to the kamishibai men who entertained him and helped shape his formidable imagination.
* * *
Worth waiting for
By Josephine Bridges
Allen Say first thought about writing Kamishibai Man, to be published by Houghton Mifflin this month, more than three decades ago, but he thought he would have to do too much explaining. "A picture book is 32 pages," said the author, "composed like a complicated haiku." But as it turns out, kamishibai, or paper theater, is enjoying a resurgence of interest these days, and Say’s tale of one very special travelling storyteller comes at just the right time.
A recipient of numerous awards for his picture books, Portland resident Allen Say writes and illustrates books for children whose early years are profoundly different from his own. "My boyhood was a very strange thing, even to myself," Say explained. "I was a war child. Being bombed, having to keep running, colors your childhood in a way that’s incomprehensible." Say would rather write about his fascinating life than talk about it. He’ll drop a hint about how he lived alone when he was twelve years old, and then he’ll say that the best thing to do if you want to know about his childhood is to read his 1994 novel The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice.
Say was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1937, and grew up while kamishibai was flourishing, the result of an economic depression that drove many people to the streets in search of work. He moved to the United States when he was 16, and to his dismay, was enrolled in a military school. He wasn’t just the only nonwhite student at the Harding Military Academy in Glendora, California; he was half Japanese and half Korean, and this was the early 1950s. He was expelled after a year for the kind of infraction that might not even merit a scolding nowadays, and walked to Azusa, California, where he enrolled himself in high school and continued to study art.
Allen Say enrolled in the architecture program at the University of California at Berkeley, but when his student deferment was revoked in 1962 he was drafted into the Army. It was during the two years that Say was stationed in Germany that he got his start as a commercial photographer.
In 1972, Say’s first book, Dr. Smith’s Safari, was published, and over the next decade Say alternated between photography and writing and illustration. When Say went back to Japan in 1982 for a grammar school reunion, he was bewildered by all the changes that had taken place in his native country, obscuring, for all intents and purposes "any evidence of my childhood." With "a sense of irretrievable loss and uncertainty," the author and illustrator returned to California, where in 1988 he quit photography and focused exclusively on writing and illustrating books for children. Lucky for us.
Children living in the United States in 2005 do have at least one thing in common with the boy growing up in the shadow of war in Japan and its aftermath in the United States: They love kamishibai. "Librarians have tried kamishibai stages out on children, and the children went crazy over them," Allen Say notes. "It’s a revelation, a new discovery, a drama, and it all takes place within spitting distance."
Kamishibai Man is dedicated to three women who have been instrumental in what Allen Say calls "kamishibai mania," the recent resurgence of popularity of this traditional dramatic form.
Margaret Eisenstadt describes herself as a "kamishibai missionary" and Allen Say describes her as "the kindest person I have met in my adult life." Donna Tamaki, Margaret Eisenstadt’s partner in kamishibai, does translations of the cards used in paper theater performances. Tara McGowan, who wrote the afterword to Kamishibai Man, is a scholar of Japanese folklore and storyteller who also conducts do-it-yourself kamishibai seminars for children.
Television was at first called denki (electric) kamishibai in Japanese, but the author makes it clear in Kamishibai Man that he doesn’t see much similarity between TV and street theater. In fact, Allen Say believes that the current fascination with kamishibai is "a rebellion against high tech." Asked whether he thought the entire world would know about kamishibai eventually, Allen Say was, as usual, brief and to the point: "They’d better."
Allen Say will hold a free public talk and live presentation at the University of Washington in Seattle on October 19. For information, or to register for the workshop, call (206) 543-1921 or visit <depts.washington.edu/earc/workshops.shtml>.