This is a post I wrote over for World Moms Blog. I’ve added some images.
There is an old man who lives a couple of buildings down. He is in no way remarkable, really. I often see him walking his dog or riding his bike to and from the local supermarket.
On Sunday afternoon, though, he transforms.
He is the Kami Shibai, Paper Theater, man. He changes from his everyday clothes, drab blues and grays, into his yukata(informal kimono) and his geta(wooden sandals), and his newsy cap. He looks as if he walked right out of the Yokohama of the 1930s, the pre-war Japan of his childhood.
He makes the rounds of the supermarket, banging his hyoushigi(bamboo blocks,) that same echoing sound you hear at sumo matches or on winter’s evenings when the volunteers go around the neighborhood, reminding us of hi no yoijin, caution against fire.
He distributes tickets to the children. The Paper Theater starts at four. All good children will receive a present at the end, he says.
And come four o’clock, a gaggle of youngsters have gathered in the corner of the supermarket where he has spread a swatch of carpet. They take their shoes off, placing them just so, before sitting down, tickets in hand.
He gets out the bamboo blocks once more, striking them together slowly at first, then more rapidly until his hands move so fast they are barely more than a blur. He sits seiza, kneeling, then bows deeply to the children. “I am not a good storyteller,” he begins, with typical Japanese humility, “but I hope you enjoy the show.”
Before the children he spreads out four boxes, each containing a different story. These are all old stories. Some are about mythical creatures, others about one (or several) of the myriad Shinto gods that many mistake for folklore. There is even a story about a Buddhist saint. He asks for a show of hands, and allows the children to choose the story.
He rises from his knees, pressing his hand to his lower back. His legs seem weak from age. He inserts the stiff pages of the story into a dark wooden box that sits on a podium. Then he opens the cover to reveal a miniature stage. It is lit from the bottom.
He begins to read, with emphasis on sound effects. I don’t know if these are written into the story or not. The words are written on the back of the page, and he withdraws a finished page to reveal the next, colorful continuation of the tale.
The children sit, mesmerized. This is no small feat; some of them are very small, barely able to walk. I am amazed to see these children, who have grown up with digital TV and video games so graphic they make me feel sick, completely silent, enthralled by the ancient story and the seemingly ancient man who reads it to them.
When the story is finished the children put their shoes back on, line up, and receive their “present,” a lollipop courtesy of the old man.
He cleans up his corner, changes into his street clothes, and goes about his day.
If you saw him in the street you would not think, “Here is a man who is single-handedly preserving an art form for the next generation.”
But I know. He knows I know. We bow slightly to each other as we pass.