Utsushi-e  写し絵

Japanese Traditional Magic Lantern Show


Magic lantern was very popular in 19th century.

People encountered images, stories or facts they had never seen or heard through magic lanterns.

They were tools for enjoying illusion as well as for practical communication. Imagine a world where you have magic lanterns instead of television, video, film, or YouTube.

Today we enjoy imaginary world created using digital technologies such as computer graphics or virtual reality. We know that special effects and animation technique made the basis of representation of fantasy through the history of film.

But it did not start with cinema.

Long time before the arrival of cinema, people enjoyed colorful moving images with narration at traveling magic lantern shows.

Large scale phantasmagoria shows could be as exciting as spectacles we encounter at theme parks today.

Optical entertainment such as peepshow boxes where one discovers a three dimensional landscape through lens, or various apparatus to see animated images or continuous photograph at home or at arcades, were also popular.

These apparatus prepared the invention of cinema.

In Japan as well, optical entertainment became popular in 19c.

Utsushi-e, which was also called Nishiki-kage-e in Kansai region (which includes Kyoto and Osaka), was the most high-tech visual entertainment of the time.

Magic lanterns were brought from Holland (Holland and China had trade with Japan even while it closed the border for more than 200 years) and developed into Utsusi-e, a Japanese original visual entertainment which is close to Phantasmagoria. Vivid color and dynamic animation technique accompanied with traditional music enchanted Japanese audience.

But cinema replaced Utsushi-e. Because it was just a popular entertainment for ordinary people, little record remained. Slides and wooden lanterns were mostly lost by the great earthquake(1923) and the war. Once so popular Utsushi-e quickly became forgotten.

It is a great pleasure to see Utsushi-e now being performed in its fully traditional style by Minwa-za.

It is also interesting to know that the rather small scale theatre company could restore old material by themselves with the aid of personal computers. Digital technology is behind the scene of an old form of entertainment.

Since the 100 years anniversary of cinema, awareness has risen to its pre- and post-history, from shadow theatre or magic lantern show to digital image or cyberspace.

It may be the right moment for Utsushi-e to find its place in the world history of moving images. Also, it might give another aspect to the history of Japanese visual culture.

I conceived and curated this web site hoping it will bring an attention to the precious heritage of Japanese pre-cinema history, which was luckily revived by the efforts of people who love our culture.


Machiko Kusahara  (Media Art Curator / Media Scholar, Waseda University)

This website was originally published in 1999 for Media Arts Plaza, the official website of Japan Media Arts Festival  ( http://plaza.bunka.go.jp/)

Since then utsushi-e has been exhibited and performed as a part of Japan Media Arts Festival.

(c) Machiko Kusahara  1999-2009


Magic lantern

Phantasmagoria that fascinated people in

19th century Japan