Photo/IllutrationThe third volume of Tadashi Sugiura’s latest paper card show, “Sento de Kagayaku Chikyu-kokka,” portrays a peaceful city in the future built with the cooperation of countries across the globe. (Akihiro Tanaka)

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OSAKA--Tadashi Sugiura is a practitioner of the dying art of staging “kamishibai” picture card shows for kids on street corners.

The tradition started in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) with street performances known as “kami-ningyo shibai” paper doll theater and took off across the country in the early Showa Era (1926-1989).

Tens of thousands of kamishibai storytellers flourished across Japan during its heyday after World War II.

For the past 40 years, Sugiura has offered dreams to children, riding his bicycle loaded with a wooden box containing illustrated boards and candies.

But the 88-year-old storyteller is now working on his final project to conclude his career with a new story told on an epic scale, aimed at adult audiences.

KIDS MESMERIZED BY SHOW

One late afternoon in early June, Sugiura was seen in a park in the city’s Kita Ward, banging his “hyoshigi” clapping sticks together to announce his arrival. More than 20 children swarmed him as he sold old-fashioned cheap snacks such as “mizuame” sticky liquid candy and sauce-flavored "senbei” rice crackers for 50 yen (46 cents) before giving a kamishibai performance.

Kamishibai involves a set of illustrated boards inserted into a small stage-like wooden frame and taken out one by one as a story is told.

Sugiura presented the first volume from his latest show, “Sento de Kagayaku Chikyu-kokka” (The Earth state that shines with capital relocations), for the kids. The cover illustration showed a horrific-looking, eight-branched giant snake called "Yamata no Orochi."

“The oldest history book in Japan is ‘Kojiki’ (Records of Ancient Matters) presented to the emperor about 1,300 years ago,” the storyteller said, opening the show with a mythical episode.

The second picture board featured the legend of “Ama no Iwato,” which involves the sun goddess Amaterasu-omikami, who holes up in a cave and deprives the land of light. It was followed by the introduction of the legendary Queen Himiko of Yamatai-koku from the late second century.

The story went on to describe the roles of Himiko and successive emperors, in addition to occasions of capital relocation in ancient Japan that saw the palace relocated each time a new emperor ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The children’s eyes were glued to the colorfully illustrated boards as they listened quietly to Sugiura’s narration. What the artist wanted to convey during the approximate 10-minute show using 11 picture cards was his belief that a peaceful country can be built if people use the wisdom learned from history even though modern society is faced with wars, terrorism, nuclear accidents, natural disasters and other crises.

Television and radio writer Shoji Kuwabara, 60, who has supported Sugiura in creating kamishibai works for the past 35 years, spent about five years working on the scenario. The illustrations were drawn by Jun Inoue, 38, a painter based in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture. The epic project spanning three volumes with 36 picture cards will be completed soon.

“When Sugiura told me about the project, I thought it would be on an epic scale like Osamu Tezuka’s ‘The Phoenix,’” Kuwabara said, referring to the legendary cartoonist’s life’s work. “I rewrote it five times to fit the story into three volumes, but I wanted to make Sugiura’s dream come true at any cost.”

Sugiura hails from Hakui, Ishikawa Prefecture. Soon after World War II, he arrived in Osaka at age 20 and landed a job at a dyeing company. But the company went bankrupt when he was 48.

Although Sugiura was worried about the future as he had two small boys to raise, he decided to try his hand at kamishibai.

He had become intrigued after seeing the narrative skills of a kamishibai artist in the bustling Shinsekai area of Osaka.

REFLECTING THE TIMES

One of the characteristics of Sugiura’s kamishibai shows is his new offerings with subject matters that reflect the times.

He has created at least 20 kamishibai stories whose themes included Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who helped save thousands of Jews during World War II and was referred to as “the Japanese Schindler”; Choji Murata, an ex-professional baseball pitcher; John Manjiro, one of the first Japanese to visit the United States and who served as a bridge between the two countries in the closing days of the feudal Edo Period (1603-1867); and the Hayabusa space probe, which brought back samples from an asteroid to Earth.

Soon after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, Sugiura also created a show about a project to restore forests in devastated areas by making use of debris.

Sugiura’s stories had been exclusively aimed at children, but he decided to offer his final project to adults.

“I want adults to also know the fun of stories,” he said.

TV, VIDEO GAMES NO MATCH

According to poet Keiichi Hatanaka, 87, who is well-versed in the history of kamishibai, the picture card show descended from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) street performances such as “kami-ningyo shibai” (paper doll theater).

“Sugiura might be the only professional kamishibai storyteller still active in the country today,” Kuwabara said.

The charm of kamishibai, Sugiura thinks, is to thrill children by devising unique ways to show picture cards in a dynamic manner--like slowly taking out a picture card from the frame or showing only half the picture--and keeping his narration in synch with the presentation of the cards. The live feeling of his performance is almost similar to that of outdoor theater.

The storyteller is adamant about performing on street corners because it naturally encourages communication among children from different age groups. They can also spontaneously learn social rules and cultivate their sensibilities.

“I believe television and video games are no match (for kamishibai). Culture has a warmth to it,” the artist said.

Sugiura suffered a heart attack about five years ago and had a pacemaker fitted. He used to perform kamishibai at 20 or so locations each week, but was forced to cut back for health reasons. He now stages five performances a week on average.

Sugiura has been rushing to finish his final project because he thinks he can stay active for two more years. But he is still short of the 1.5 million yen ($13,900) needed to cover drawing fees and the preservation treatment for the final project.