The Japanese storytelling art form known as e-toki — literally, "picture-explaining" — goes back more than a 1000 years. Its performers, many of them itinerant Buddhist priests, used illustrated scrolls as the bases for spoken narratives that conveyed moral lessons. By the 20th century, e-toki had evolved into a form called kamishibai ("paper theater"), which drew from folktales and religious stories and, in turn, influenced everything from manga to film.
For his new book Birdsong: A Story in Pictures, White River Junction cartoonist James Sturm has drawn on kamishibai's rich history to create a unique hybrid work. Birdsong is partly a graphic novella, partly a children's book and partly a blueprint for performative interpretations of its own story.
Sturm is cofounder of White River Junction's Center for Cartoon Studies and an accomplished cartoonist whose books have won numerous comics-industry awards. He has written several books for children — another will be published later this year — but none of them is quite like Birdsong.
The story of Birdsong, about two children who mistreat a songbird and the remarkable consequences they face for their actions, is told entirely in illustrations. In eschewing words, Sturm taps into the history of kamishibai, which was often performed for illiterate audiences. The book's wordlessness encourages readers and performers to imbue it with their own styles. As Sturm writes in a postscript, "There is no correct way to perform this story, only your way."
Last month Toon Books, a press dedicated to using comics to encourage good reading habits in children, published Birdsong. The book has also taken, and continues to take, other artistic forms.
Over the past two years, Vermont artist, musician and cardboard-pinball-machine cocreator Ben T. Matchstick has used Birdsong as the basis for a half dozen words-and-music kamishibai performances. He will perform a new version of his work at CCS' 10th anniversary block party in downtown White River Junction on Saturday, May 7.
A second Vermont performer has spun Birdsong's story into a performance of another kind. Sonny Saul is the owner of Woodstock's Pleasant Street Books, as well as a musician, music teacher and composer. In March, at South Pomfret's ArtisTree Community Arts Center & Gallery, Saul performed his own composition on piano to accompany a "showing" of Birdsong. He'll perform it again in July at Bookstock, Woodstock's annual literary festival. Like the book itself, Saul's composition is wordless.
Saul, whose first-ever job was as a silent-film accompanist in Atlantic City, N.J., drew on both that movie-theater experience and his background in jazz and classical music. "To write music for a book," Saul said, "you have to turn the page. In a way, it encourages 'set pieces' a little bit more. So [for the book's 24 illustrations], I really did come up with 24 separate little [musical] things."
Matchstick planted Birdsong's first seed when, several years ago, he shared his love for kamishibai with Sturm. Matchstick had learned about the art while working as a programming coordinator for Montpelier's Kellogg-Hubbard Library. Young library patrons loved his performances. "I saw it as kind of the missing link between performance and comics," he said.
When he learned about kamishibai, Sturm became excited about the art form's possibilities. Writing a work for kamishibai allowed him to "get away from the book, and to see my work performed in a different context," he said. "Just doing 24 images and that's your whole story — it seemed like a little bit of a respite from the grind of the panels and pages of comics."
Sturm added, "It opened things up for me a little to have someone to collaborate with, and to construct a narrative that's specific enough that it feels deliberate, but also open-ended enough so that storytellers can interpret it in their own ways."
In a kamishibai performance, the narrator stands beside a small wooden proscenium, pulling aside each illustrated panel to reveal the one beneath. That setup encourages certain artistic approaches, Sturm said. "If you design it right, the performer has more options in terms of how he or she is performing the story," he explained. For instance, Birdsong's illustrations are carefully composed along the horizontal axis so as to create suspense and surprise.
Matchstick, too, appreciates the narrative power built into the book's deceptively simple images. He said that his role as a performer of the book is to "accelerate the tension that is already present and to add a little dramatic tension when needed."
Performing Birdsong, he uses a harmonica, a drum and the careful revelation of the images to create narrative rhythm. "It's very much a street performance," Matchstick said, "and I'm trying to place it into the tradition of kamishibai."
More than anything, Birdsong shows how the absence of words — the defining feature of most books — can turn a story into a multifaceted, pan-artistic experience. It may be intended for young readers, but by drawing on kamishibai, Birdsong generates an almost universal appeal.