What is Utsushi-e?

From Magic Lantern to Utsushi-e


Utsushi-e developed from magic lantern which was brought from Holland at that time. Besides modifying the hardware, more theatrical aspects were added in Japan.

Magic lanterns seem to be already known among certain people in Japan about 200 years ago. In a book published by a Japanese scientist in later 1760s to introduce occidental learning, magic lantern is described as an apparatus to show illusion under a dutch name and its translation into Japanese.

Toraku (Kameya Toraku the 1st) was a talented magic lantern fabricator/dealer and showman, who was originally a professional designer for expensive hand-painted lady’s kimono. Besides his skill in drawing and painting, he mastered the skill of comical story telling as a hobby through private lessons. After seeing magic lantern sideshow as a curiosity, he got an idea of a new style of magic lantern show combining his talents.

His first performance in 1803 was enthusiastically welcomed by the people of Edo (Edo was already the world's largest city) who were famous for the love of novelty.

Utsushi-e merged the tradition of story telling with image, accompanied by music.

Thus Utsushi-e started. Colorful figures painted on glass slides would dramatically move on the screen , as a traditional singer/story-teller (as in Kabuki or Bunraku) told stories of love and hate, or tragedy of noble samurai, with the supporting musician. Screens were made of thin, strong and half transparent Japanese paper which was ideal for rear projection. The audience could not see the trick, as in case of Phantasmagoria in the West.

"Why painted images can move? It must be a magic brought by Christian missionaries" they whispered, it is said.

Toraku's first performance is only a few years after that of Robertson's first Phantasmagoria show. It is difficult to say if it was an interesting parallel in the history of visual entertainment, or if there was a rumor brought by Dutch people about the amazing new entertainment.

An oldest type of widely used magic lantern for small scale projection. in early times these lanterns were used by traveling showmen, later at home. The model remained practically the same for centuries.

Lapierre, made in France.


Japanese Materials and Ideas

Toraku used light wood for lanterns instead of metal. It is possible that earlier magic lanterns made in Japan were also wooden, judging from existing illustrations. The difference is that he fully used the features of wooden lanterns in using them as MOBILE projectors, and invented real time animation for story telling.

Actually, not all magic lanterns were made of metal in the West. Oldest magic lanterns were often made of wood.  Wooden and brass magic lanterns were typically used in England until late.

Also, early magic lantern slides in the West almost always came with wooden frames. But either for lanterns or frames, usually mahogany was the material used - beautiful and robust, but extremely heavy wood. It would be practically impossible for a showman to carry such lantern in his arms and move around behind the screen even if he tried. This would explain the difference in the modes of manipulation in the West and in Japan.

Titles performed in Utsushi-e were mainly taken from other popular theatrical entertainments such as kabuki, bunraku, rakugo (comic one-man storytelling which is still popular in Japan today) or sekkyobushi (a form of storytelling by singing with an instruments which might be compared to minstrels). Sekkyobushi was combined with utushi-e show later. Ghost stories were the most popular programs for summer nights.

Besides such classic theatrical titles, sometimes local tales were told or local dances were performed on the screen especially in case of traveling shows.

One night program usually consisted of such theatrical pieces or local favorites and some short pieces to show the tricks. "Hana-mono" (flower piece) was a typical short piece to surprise the audience. Buds turn into flowers. A tree in winter without a leaf would suddenly bear gorgeous cherry blossom. Or a bonsai maple tree would changes its color from green to yellow and vivid red.  While “flowering” slide was a popular trick for Western magic lantern show, we don’t know if the idea was brought from Europe to Japan, or it was a parallel.

After Japan opened its border in Meiji Western magic lanterns were re-introduced. They were used for magic, entertainment, and more than anything else, for education and public lectures. While the “modern” magic lanterns were called “gento”, people soon started understanding it is the same thing as utsushi-e. The Western and Japanese traditions merged again.

By the end of 19th century magic lantern shows were wide spread.  Epics from the Chino-Japan(1894-95) and Russo-Japan (1904-05) wars were immediately performed at theatres, schools, temples, and also at home.

Utsushi-e, the Book 

Genjiro Kobayashi's "Utsushi-e"is practically the only book about Utsushi-e. The detailed, very useful book with many illustrations is published from the Chuo University Press in 1987. No English translation available.

Kobayashi was born in 1898 (Meiji 31) in Asakusa. Grown up in a craftsman's family in the heart of downtown,he came across Utsushi-e which was still around, guided by his uncle who was an artist.

After the war Kobayashi started making research on Utsushi-e on his own, as he realized such old entertainments had been quickly forgotten. He finally found the last Utsushi-e showmman, Tamagawa Bunraku, who had stopped performing years before. Tamagawa and his son helped Kobayashi and his daughter to make the detailed research which came out as the book. Without their efforts the history of Utsushi-e could have been totally lost.

Keiichi Yamamoto's "Edo no Kage-e Asobi" (Shadow Plays in Edo Period) covers Utsushi-e and Nishiki Kage-e briefly. This book gives an excellent overview of the shadow-related culture and entertainment of Edo period with many illustrations. Yamamoto helped Kobayashi in providing information on Nishiki Kage-e (means colorful shadow theatre) in the western part of Japan. Published from Soshi-sha in 1988. No English translation available.