On Wednesday 30th October 2013, I was lucky enough to be present at the London Premiere of Nishiki Kag-E, a Japanese magic lantern performance based on a reconstruction of how the work would have been presented during the Edo period (1603-1867). These ghost stories were put on by the Japan Foundation to celebrate Hallowe’en.
In the European tradition, magic lantern projectors were large, unwieldy and held in a static position although a little movement could be introduced to the images through manipulating and swapping the slides (and in some instances a form of dolly was used to zoom the images in and out). In Japan, however, a different tradition evolved whereby a number of performers held and manipulated mobile wooden projectors behind a paper screen. The performers wear straps to attach the projectors to their bodies. I was fascinated to see this, since in a piece of work I made at the Centre for Drawing in Wimbledon in 2009 with the artists group formerly known as Drawn Together, I made myself a similar contraption so that I could walk around the room with a moving projection of animation that echoed the process of drawing being carried out by the other artists.
The Fantasmaglia Japonica Ikeda-Gumi group from Osaka, Japan use a much more comfortable and ergonomic system than I used myself. Professor Mitsue Ikeda from Osaka University of the Arts has researched and reconstructed projectors from the Edo period.
The wood that the ‘furo’ projectors are made of is light and heat resistant so the performers don’t burn their hands with the heat of the light source. Through back projection onto a paper screen, each performer manipulates a separate character or element in the story. They can also swap and flip slides from the ‘taneita’ (slide carrier). Through the actions of their bodies and switching between different character poses on slide, a great range of expression is possible including distortion effects when the slide is projected at an extreme angle.
The performance that I saw was a ghost story Sakura-shiranami hyoito-bukuro (Cherry Blossoms, Foaming Waves, Flicking Bag). The plot concerned a burglar who was extremely disturbed to discover that objects he tried to steal had become ghouls behind this back. A live narrator recounted the story and made sound effects behind the screen. As we were seeing the show in London, we benefitted from digitally projected subtitles in English at the top of the screen.
The roots of the stories that were performed in Nishiki Kag-E came from traditional bunraku and kabuki theatre. This work is considered to be hugely influential on the development of Japanese animation as the performer is creating the animation of a hand painted character in a live scenario. Professor Ikeda informed us that this form of entertainment became popular after the first magic lanterns were imported from Holland during the Edo period. They were hugely popular until cinema began to replace them at the turn of the Showa Era (1926-1989).