Kamishibai: Lessons in Visual Storytelling and Presentation from Japan
October 31, 2011
Kamishibai is a form of visual and participatory storytelling that combines the use of hand drawn visuals with the engaging narration of a live presenter. Kami (紙) means paper and shibai (芝居 ) means play/drama. The origins of kamishibai are not clear, but its roots can be taced back to various picture storytelling traditions in Japan such as etoki and emaki scrolls and other forms of visual storytelling which date back centuries. However, the form of Kamishibai that one thinks of today developed around 1929 and was quite popular in the 30s, and 40s, all but dying out with the introduction of television later in the 1950s. Typical kamishibai consists of a presenter who stands to the right of a small wooden box or stage that holds the 12-20 cards featuring the visuals that accompany each story. This miniature stage is attached to the storyteller’s bicycle. The presenter changes the card, varying the speed of the transition to match the flow of the story he is telling. The best Kamishibai presenters do not read the story, but instead keep eyes on the audience and occasionally on the current card in the frame. It’s difficult to appreciate kamishibai unless you see it in action. The clip below is of kamishibai performer Master Yassan. Even if you do not speak Japanese, this will help you get a sense for how the presenter uses visuals and narration to connect with the audience.
This clip on Youtube gives you a feel for kamishibai from 1959, a time when most gaito kamishibaiya (kamishibai storytellers) were decreasing in number as TV was becoming popular in the home.
Visual, simple, & clear
Although Kamishibai is a form of visual storytelling that originated more than eighty years ago, with roots that go back centuries in Japan, the lessons from this craft can be applied to modern multimedia presentations. Tara McGowan, who wrote The Kamishibai Classroom, says that Kamishibai visuals are more like the frames from a movie. “Kamishibai pictures are designed to be seen only for a few [moments], so extraneous details detract from the story and open up the possibilities of misinterpretation." It's important to design each card, she says, "...to focus the audiences attention on characters and scenery that are most important at any given moment." If your material includes a great deal of detail that can not be eliminated, then Kamishibai may not be a suitable method to tell your story, McGowan says. But if "clarity and economy of expression are the goals, it would be hard to find a more perfect medium." It’s easy to imagine how we can apply the same spirit of kamishibai to our modern-day presentations that include the use of multimedia and a screen.
Above: Note how the visual fills the entire card yet maintains a level of empty space. Even when text and graphics appear on the the same card, they are for the most part free of clutter. Elements often bleed off the edge which allows the element to appear larger. (Photo by Aki Saito.)
Lessons for today's online presentations from kamishibai
There are many lessons that we can apply to modern presentations given with the aid of multimedia. Here are just five things to keep in mind.
(1) Visuals should be big and bold.
Visuals in Kamishibai are big and bold and easy to see for an audience. Remember: "Design for the last row" is our mantra. This "big and bold" approach is different from picture books which have more detail since they are seen by an individual reader. In the same way, minute visual detail on screen is not appropriate for most presentation contexts as those details are too difficult to see. If you have loads of detail — and if it is crucial that people see it— a handout may be more appropriate.
(2) Visuals may bleed off the edge.
The Kamishibai visuals must not be cluttered. The entire card is used and yet much of the card may be empty which allows the positive elements on the canvas to pop out more. Elements also may bleed off the edge or appear hidden. Our brains will fill in the missing bits which fall off the edge. This makes the images appear larger and simpler than if all elements were crammed in to fit all inside the frame.
(3) Visuals may take an active role.
The visuals are not just an aid, they are a necessary part of the show. The storyteller decides when the focus will be on him and his narrative and when the focus is on the visual. It's a balance among the visual and the aural from the point of view of the audience, and a balance of telling and showing in a smooth harmonious flow of events from the point of view of the presenter.
(4) Aim to carefully trim back the details.
Kamishibai is different from picture books in the same way that a document is different from a live, visual presentation. The presentation by its very nature omits many visual details and includes only those details which are necessary to tell the story clearly. A kamishibai performance like, say, a TED-style presentation, uses visuals to amplify meaning through simplification.
(5) Make your presentation participatory.
Even though we are using visuals, human-to-human connections are still key. Kamishibai performers of old really got the kids involved in the performance. Kamishibai is not like TV, where you just sit there. A good kamishibai performer elicited responses and totally engaged his audience. Interestingly, some kamishibai masters from the 1950s noted that their young audiences became less engaged and were more passive as TV became popular. Kids became used to just sitting in front of content rather than engaging with it. Today, however, as much as possible, we must aim to make our presentations as participatory as the context allows. This is the real lesson from the Kamishibai masters. For online presentations or Zoom classes and so on, you can stop often to ask questions of the audience or give a short quiz or survey, etc.
• Kamishibai in the classroom (in America) video.
• Other books I recommend on visual communication.