8 Japanese words to better understand the Kamishibai Universe
Where in the Kamishibai Universe are you? Are you at the beginning or have you already been traveling through it for a while? Wherever you are, remembering these 8 Japanese words will bring you even closer to the best version of the storyteller that lies within you.
You may have already had a hard time pronouncing "Kamishibai". Perhaps it has even been a titanic task to remember its meaning in Japanese ("paper drama"). Well, we don't want to overwhelm you any further, but today we bring you no more and no less than 8 Japanese words that we consider basic to deepen your knowledge of this fascinating technique. Let's learn them!
Butai (舞台) means "stage." In Kamishibai technique, it is that three-door wooden stand shaped like a briefcase. We also call it "Kamishibai Theater". It is the great facilitator of one of the most fascinating powers of Kamishibai: bonding through socialization.
When its doors are closed, its effect is very similar to that of a theater curtain. What will be in there? When will the show start? What is the name of the story I am about to listen to?
As the doors open, curiosity and enthusiasm multiply: we are fully immersed in the universe of the story we are about to be told.
Your butai is and will be your most faithful companion in the Kamishibai Universe. It is also one of the basic elements of this technique, so we recommend that your butai:
- Has 3 doors.
- Is made of wood.
- Is as clear as possible (without ornaments, drawings or distracting letters).
- Is stable enough to allow sliding the story cards comfortably.
- Is open at the back side so that you can read and see the text of the story card being displayed on front side.
Is it possible to perform Kamishibai without a butai? Well, maybe... But holding the story cards with your bare hands often has the opposite effect: it's distracting, messy and, most importantly, it doesn't separate fact from fiction. Also, keep in mind that in Kamishibai, everything you do is likely to have a meaning on its own. So, take care of all the details of your session!
During the middle of the last century, the streets and towns of Japan were filled with gaitō kamishibaiya (紙芝居屋). We could roughly translate it as "Kamishibai storytellers from street corners." We usually refer to them simply as "gaitos".
The gaitos of the time were not very interested in the artistic and pedagogical merits of the technique. Nor were they concerned with educating the little ones, or enhancing their social or plastic skills. What they were interested in was selling candy. For them, it was a matter of survival: it was their particular system of selling tickets.
The thing is that in order to sell candy in a sustained way through their Kamishibai performances, they had to be able to keep the attention of their small audience as long as possible and in the most effective way. Otherwise, they were at risk of having them move on to a more dynamic and interesting gaito. So you can imagine how much they cared about their audience's opinion: they indulged their tastes and behaviors in body, mind and soul. Something like Netflix's algorithm but in a big way.
Today's gaito, us, usually doesn't have that economic need and prioritizes pedagogical and artistic content. But, if we totally ignore the more theatrical side of the technique, our sessions will be very educational, yes, but also cold, robotic and anachronistic. Everyone will be eager for it to be over soon to get back to their iPads.
Last century's gaitos used to announce their Kamishibai sessions with the hyōshigi (拍子木). They are a percussion instrument, two pieces of good wood joined by a string.
They would strike them slowly at first, progressively increasing the rhythm until they reached the limit of their possibilities. At that point, they would come to a complete stop and listen to the silence that was created around them. They had already captured the full attention of their audience!
We like hyōshigi more as a concept than as an instrument itself. They are a fantastic reminder that we can't just start our Kamishibai session any old way: we must create an opening sequence prior to the story, a sort of "opening ceremony" of the doors of our butai. And the more unique, surprising and appropriate to the particularities of each gaitō, the better.
A tokonoma (床の間) in Japan is a small elevated alcove decorated very carefully with hanging objects and bonsai or ikebana type plants. It looks almost like a sacred rather than decorative space, as no one is allowed to step into it. The host should always have his back to it as a sign of modesty.
In kamishibai, a tokonoma is the space where our session and its scenography take place. As such, we should treat it almost as something sacred.
Thus, the tokonoma can only be stepped on by the gaito. It is, if possible, elevated a few centimeters off the ground. Its sight to the eyes of the spectator is harmony, balance and simplicity. It is well lit, but has no window or view to the outside. It is the space with the best acoustics in the room. And we should feel very comfortable in it.
We can also suit it to the theme of the story or stories we are going to tell, but always from a minimalist point of view: it is not about decorating "because it looks cool", but about adding meaning to the story.
A hachimaki (鉢巻) is a kind of bandana that was traditionally worn not on a daily basis, but only on special occasions. Wearing it conferred some kind of special "power": from spiritual unity to improving one's mood.
We try to wear a hachimaki in kamishibai performances. It expresses our willingness to become the best version of the Kamishibai storyteller in us, abandoning our everyday selves and getting better at it every time we use it.
It all starts before we introduce ourselves to our audience: putting the hachimaki on our head is a small ritual that, done in a simple but conscious way, makes it easier to connect with the extra-daily task we are going to carry out.
It is best to have it personalized with our gaitō name in Japanese and keep it in a nice box. And only use it in Kamishibai performances, taking it off immediately and ceremoniously at the end of each session. In fact, we recommend you hardly even look at yourself in the mirror with it on more than the first few times to see how it fits you and how to put it on in the best way.
With this ritual, its "power" is multiplied: it not only shows a respect for the Kamishibai technique, but at the same time it reminds us that we have an "alter ego" in the form of a gaitō, which grows more and more each time we perform a new Kamishibai session.
Kyōkan (共感) could be translated as "empathy," but we like to bring it closer to the Greek catharsis and think of it as meaning "feeling one."
Three elements (gaitō, audience and story) felt as a whole at a given moment.
It is very complicated to express it in words, but it is very easy to identify when it happens in a Kamishibai session. It seems like pure magic, and, after feeling it, it is as if we breathe better, as if we think better, as if we have grown a little bit as human beings, both individually and socially.
We do have indicators that can help us to assess that it has taken place. It can be an "aha!" moment, where surprise leads us to reveal a piece of knowledge that causes the vast majority of the audience to feel the same emotion at the same time.
For example, in the kamishibai story "The Sun Cat," when, after evaluating all sorts of names for Cat, we unveil that the best name for Cat is indeed "Cat," kyōkan usually occurs.
The kyōkan itself should not become our goal as gaitos, but rather should be a consequence of all our work.
That work can begin by analyzing the story we have decided to tell with this question in mind, "Where would the most potent "Aha!" moment take place in this story?" This will always be our theoretical opinion, which we will have to verify when we expose the story to different audiences.
But if we already start to detect that we usually get the same response from the audience (both emotionally and intellectually), then the story we have in our hands has a very good kyōkan. Store it lovingly and carefully in your story bag!
Gaitōdō would mean something like "the way of the gaitō". Actually, it's a word we only use at Kamishibai® Academy to remind us that Kamishibai is a long journey that requires perseverance, imagination, creativity and hard work.
It also helps us to have a growth mindset: no one is born gaitō, no matter how talented they may seem to us. Being a gaitō is something that is learned, and is within the reach of anyone who works on the necessary qualities to complete the journey. And well, it is also important to know which is the best path.
We divide this path into ten stages, rewarding ourselves each time we manage to overcome one of them. In short, they would be:
- What is my name?
- Who is my butai?
- I handle my butai like a nihon-buyō dancer.
- My opening (and closing) ceremony.
- I slide the story cards like a conjuror would.
- My Kamishibai story is not a story.
- I analyze my tale as if I were its playwright.
- Where is my tokonoma?
- My costume also tells the story.
- Decide and rule.
Soon you will find more information about the Gaitōdō here at Kamishibai® Academy.
Kurieitā (クリエイター) is a creator, so "kurieitādō", another word we only use here, would be "the way of the creator".
To start this path with kamishibai is to open up a whole new universe of DIY possibilities. You can become an illustrator, an author, an adaptor.... Maybe this path overwhelms you, but you can start walking down it in a simple way: changing the ending of a story, giving color to some illustration or creating a dramaturgy based on some already finished illustrations.
8 words that will help you to go deeper into the Kamishibai technique:
Butai: the wooden theater, or the best way to separate fact from fiction.
Gaitō Kamishibaiya: we never forget the streetside part of Kamishibai, that is, making it fun, entertaining and appropriate for the audience in front of us.
Hyōshigi: the importance of a good "opening ceremony" for our Kamishibai performance.
Tokonoma: first as a "radar" to find the best possible space for our storytelling, second as a "sacred" place that only gaitos use.
Hachimaki: an element that we only use in our kamishibai performances and that goes with us throughout our technique learning.
Kyōkan: the stories we choose should have a cathartic moment where the gaito, the audience and the story feel as a whole.
Gaitodō: the path we choose to become the best version of the storyteller in us.
Kurieitādō: the path of the kamishibai creator, also known as the DIY path.
And so much for our humble contribution to the Kamishibai Universe. Don't forget to like it or share it on your favorite social network if you found something of value in it!
See you in our next "lesson"! :P
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