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The superheroes of Japan who predated Superman and Batman

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Hero Complex contributor Liesl Bradner offers an intriguing look back at a forgotten age of heroics in Japan...

Five years before Lee Falk’s masked-man adventures with “The Phantom” began in newspapers, a hero called Golden Bat was saving damsels in distress in the streets of Depression-era Japan. He was first seen in 1931 (seven years before Superman first took flight and eight before that Gotham City fellow who dressed like a bat) and his exploits were told in kamishibai, which was street theater that used painted illustrations.

Author Eric P. Nash examines the little-known art form and predecessor to modern-day anime and manga in his recent book “Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater.” I wrote about the book and this long-gone street entertainment for Culture Monster, the arts blog for the Los Angeles Times. Here’s a bit from that piece that describes the street performance:

It was the simple clacking of two wooden sticks on a street corner that signaled to children the start of kamishibai, a popular pastime during Depression-era Japan. ... Storytellers would travel from town to town with their butai (miniature stage) on the back of a bike. The setup was reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show, but instead of puppets the narrator would slide a series of poster boards with watercolor illustrations in and out of the box. He would act out the script, which was written on cards placed on the back of a board.

You can read the rest of that piece right here. For Hero Complex readers, it’s intriguing to see the parallels and unexpected overlap with U.S. comics and newspaper strips. With the series of images presented on the butai, kamishibai artists and writers worked in a similar fashion to classic comic strips.

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Although he resembles Captain America’s nemesis Red Skull, Golden Bat has more in common with a certain Man of Steel. Like Superman, he flies, wears a red cape, flexes superhuman muscles and gets away from it all in a fortress of solitude (the Bat’s, though, is in the Japanese Alps).

Golden Bat’s creator, Takeo Nagamatsu, was thought to have been inspired by Lon Chaney in “Phantom of the Opera.

Other characters in the vintage Japanese medium possess eerie similarities to icons of American comic books. The villain Pale Rider, for instance, has a mask that looks like a cross between Batman’s symbol and the Joker’s grinning, chalk-white face. There’s also a dead ringer for the creature from the Black Lagoon in ‘Prince Gamma vs. the Giant Alien.’ In one illustration from a chapter of Prince Gamma, the title letters slant away from the viewer as they did in old Flash Gordon serials, which, of course, inspired George Lucas’ rolling opening credits in the ‘Star Wars’ films.

Kamishibai died in about 1952, with the introduction of TV into popular culture. Many of the form’s writers and artists then migrated into manga, such as Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, known to many as the “Godfather of Manga.” -- Liesl Bradner

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Images, from top: Golden Bat, Pale Rider, Prince Gamma and Jungle Boy. All from ‘Manga Kamishibai’ by Eric P. Nash / Abrams ComicArts 2009


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