This Horror Anime Uses the Traditional Japanese Storytelling Kamishibai

  • After a festive Christmas celebration and an optimistic look to the new year, an anime that uses Japan’s traditional way of storytelling makes us feel like it’s Halloween all over again. Yamishibai (闇芝居): Japanese Ghost Stories returns for its fourth season this January 2017.

    Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories, also known as Yami Shibai and Theater of Darkness in Japan, is a 2013 horror animated series written by Hiromu Kumamoto (熊本浩武), produced by ILCA. The first season was directed by Tomoya Takashima (高嶋友也), the second season by Takashi Shimizu (清水崇) and Noboru Iguchi (井口昇), and the third season by Takashi Taniguchi (谷口崇) and Tomohisa Ishikawa (石川智久).

    The series is a collection of short stories based on Japanese myths and urban legends presented in a method mimicking the kamishibai.

    What is kamishibai?

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    Kamishibai, or “paper theater,” started as a Buddhist practice in Japan in the late 1920s. The illustrations on scrolls were used to spread their doctrine. Eventually, it evolved into more secular stories.

    The storyteller, usually a candy seller, uses his bicycle strapped with a small wooden stage at the back. He goes from town to town with the stage that carries illustrated cards. The narration usually remains unfinished to encourage customers to come back the next day to buy his candies and hear the rest of the story. This business somehow provided an opportunity to earn a meager amount during the financial hardship that the country experienced in the 1930s.

    Since this kind of entertainment was portable enough to reach bomb shelters and war-torn areas, kamishibai somehow became an intrinsic part of society during and after World War II. The stories have been further developed to be enjoyed not only by children but by adults as well.

    Due to the effectiveness of using illustrations to tell a story, kamishibai is often regarded as a forerunner of manga and anime.

    Yasuno Yuushi (安野 侑志)

    Kamishibai Master Yasuno Yuushi, also known as Yassan (ヤッサン), began his career in 1972. His goal was to introduce kamishibai as the origin and a great influence of manga. Master Yassan had this chance when Professor Makino Keiichi asked him to perform at the Kyoto International Manga Museum (京都国際マンガミュージアム) in 2006. Since Kyoto (京都) is a go-to city for most local and foreign travelers, he was able to entertain a lot of people by presenting his trademark countdown-style kamishibai.

    This unique experience is well received by the audience because it defies cultural and linguistic barriers. Non-Japanese speaking viewers can easily understand the illustrated storytelling. Master Yassan hopes that despite the fast innovation of technology, the art of kamishibai will not be forgotten and will continue to flourish in and out of Japan.

    Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories

    Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories pays homage to the kamishibai tradition with a narrator in the form of a mysterious masked man. At exactly 5 PM, he beats the drum and gathers the children at the playground to witness the “theater of darkness.”

    The first season of this supernatural horror anime premiered on TV Tokyo on July 14, 2013. It was then aired later on AT-X and was streamed in selected countries via Crunchyroll. The second season aired on July 6, 2014, and the third one aired on January 11, 2016. The fourth season is set to be released in January 2017.

    Why should you watch Yami Shibai?

    The art style of this anime and the idea of watching a horror series may be off-putting for some people, but here are a few good reasons why you should give Yami Shibai a try:

    1. Duration and plot

    The episodes run in 5 minutes and that includes its introduction and ending theme. Although they are relatively short, the stories are surprisingly compelling and even weird or shocking. The short running time allows the show to go directly to the point: to introduce its protagonist, present his/her plight, and find the resolution (or lack thereof). The episodes are often self-conclusive. At times, we do not even see what happens to the main character and this is what makes the show a good topic for debate and discussion among its viewers.

    2. Animation and sound

    Yami Shibai is often overlooked due to its old-fashioned looking art style that makes one think that it must have been made with a low budget. The colors are pale, the edges are rough, and the characters’ actions are kept to a minimum. But the characters get more polished and well drawn, and the colors become more vibrant in the subsequent seasons.

    The mostly silent scenes create an eerie mood but its perfectly cued music provides some jumpscare. The talented seiyuu (voice actors) also convincingly express their characters’ emotions so we get to enjoy the show as if we are watching a moving audio picture book.

    3. The supernatural elements

    The first season embraces the tropes that are famous in Japanese horror movies. These include long-haired ghosts, spirits, shadows, and crazy smiling faces. Season 2 involves urban legends about creatures and creepy dolls. It also introduces some traditional items from Japan just like the miniature sculptures called “netsuke (根付),” and pellet drums called “den-den daiko (でんでん太鼓).” Viewers become more familiar with these items and at the same time, discover the superstitions that are connected to them.

    The third season features some scary melted monsters, a spider with severed human heads, a humanoid rat, and a giant fish woman. The show does not begin with the opening scene of the masked storyteller that was used in the previous seasons. Instead, it opens with a boy sitting on a slide while sketching and singing a song. The mysterious boy turns out to be the main character for the final episode of the third season.

    Although the storytelling is traditional, the anime is set in modern Japan. Yami Shibai successfully depicts some real life struggles that ordinary people go through while incorporating legends and superstitions in its narrative. An example is the fifth episode from Season 1 entitled “The Next Floor.” It is the story of a man who is at the department store with his family when he suddenly receives a call from work. Instead of buying a gift for his son’s birthday, he wishes to be left alone and decides to get on the elevator. To his surprise, the elevator stops at the non-existent B4 and the zombie-like passengers get off and walk right into the dark floor. Then the elevator goes to B13 where he gets his wish for solitude granted. In Japan, 4 and 13 are both believed to be unlucky numbers associated with death.

    Just like fables, there are stories that leave some interesting moral questions: What happens when you break a promise? What happens when you complain too much? What happens when you claim another person’s work as your own?

    The short episodes are good for binge-watching alone, while the open endings are perfect for some late night marathons and discussions with family and friends. The surprising twist in the final episode of the third season reignited viewers’ interest and heightened anticipation for the upcoming fourth season. Not only does Yami Shibai familiarize its audience with stories and elements from the Japanese folklore, it also keeps the kamishibai tradition alive.

    Have you seen Yami Shibai? What can you say about kamishibai? Do you also have some creepy and scary tales to share?

    Yami Shibai Website *Japanese only

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