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Utsushi-e and the magic lantern – An archaeology of the moving image

Machiko Kusahara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Projection mapping has garnered popularity in Japan since it was performed at Tokyo Station in December 2012. It is a form of projection technology in which images are projected onto three-dimensional objects such as buildings. Projection mapping technology has existed for some time and while its popularity has much to do with the dramatic improvements of projectors in recent times, it perhaps also comes from the fact that, in an age when we can watch images online at any time, people are attracted by the “here and now” of viewers gathering to witness the spectacle of massive images displayed in open environments.

Comparing utsushi-e (by The Minwa-za Company of Tokyo) and phantasmagoria

Projector technology has a long history. The films we watch today originated in the late 19th century when a new method of projecting moving images was discovered in the form of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, a device which projected film onto a screen for viewers to watch, in contrast to Edison’s kinetoscope which took the form of a peepshow device for a single viewer. However, this projection device was essentially an improved version of the magic lantern, a device which had already been popularized well before that time. The magic lantern was the most widely used projection medium of the 19th century. Even after its pre-eminent role was overtaken by film, magic lantern slides were used for announcements and advertisements in cinemas. It continued to be used in schools and homes even long after the end of World War II, renamed as the slide projector.

The history of the magic lantern goes back as far as the mid-17th century. Contrary to popular belief, the magic lantern is a device which from its earliest days has created the illusion of “moving images” by employing a number of mechanisms to make still images painted on glass move. In the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, a spectacle known as “phantasmagoria” attracted a tremendous following in Paris and London, using a magic lantern to project images onto a darkened stage with accompanying sound effects. The performances featured apparitions of demonic spirits and the victims of the Revolution such as Jean-Paul Marat and in some cases, desolate churches were employed as venues for staging the performances. The magic lantern phenomenon continued to spread during the 19th century, with colorful slides produced in large numbers for the purposes of entertainment and education. In theaters, professional showmen told elaborate stories with piano accompaniment amidst spectacular images produced by large-scale biunial or triunial magic lanterns and powerful light sources such as limelight. The magic lantern was also used for news reports and business advertising. Sometimes magic lanterns were even mounted onto horse-drawn vehicles and used to project images onto the walls of buildings. On the eve of the birth of cinema in 1883, French writer and caricaturist Albert Robida wrote a futuristic description of the 20th century, predicting a world in which likes of television, Skype and projection mapping had become a completely normal part of everyday life.

Tane-ita (glass slide) from the Edo period depicting Tenjin Matsuri Festival in Osaka

Utsushi-e showing the tale of Bancho Sarayashiki, taken from Edo no Hana Meishoue series (Edo period; a part of the work), a woodblock print.

The magic lantern seems to have made its way to Japan in the second half of the 18th century, as the fashion for what was known as the “shadow scope” in Osaka was mentioned in Tengu-tsu (1779), a book of magic tricks. In Edo (present-day Tokyo), it was Kameya Kumakichi, a professional designer of kimono who also performed rakugo (one-man comic storytelling) as a hobby, who first conceived of a new application for the magic lantern after watching it as a sideshow. Making use of his skill as a painter, Kumakichi painted images onto pieces of glass and applied mechanisms to make the images move. The technique he devised involved standing behind a screen made of traditional semi-transparent Japanese paper and projecting the images on the screen from behind without allowing the audience to perceive the trick, and accompanying the images with storytelling, music, and sound effects. The shows were very well received. Kumakichi, who was later referred to by his artist name, Toraku held the first utsushi-e public performance in Kagurazaka in 1803. This was a mere four years after the advent of phantasmagoria, which also made use of rear projection in the same manner. Perhaps Toraku got the idea of rear projection from shadow play which also used paper screens, or perhaps rumors of the phantasmagoria phenomenon had reached his ears through the literary circles of Edo, which often included Dutch-style physicians. Another similarity between Toraku’s performances and phantasmagoria is the popularity of the ghost stories. It seems that people everywhere expect such illusions, similar to the horror movies we watch today.

Nevertheless, Japanese utsushi-e took a different approach than its western counterpart. Toraku’s approach went well beyond simply replacing the puppets of bunraku and living actors of kabuki with moving images and adding sound effects in order to tell well-known stories. Whereas in the West a single, immobile magic lantern would be operated by one person to project a single set of images onto a square screen, in utsushi-e, images projected from multiple mobile, lightweight magic lanterns constructed from wood, known as furo (taken from the Japanese word for bathtub), would be combined together on a rectangular (wide) screen to create a scene. Each character in the drama was projected and made to move by one operator holding a furo lantern close to his chest and moving it delicately with his hands or dynamically with his entire body to bring the character to life. It was the western style of magic lantern performance, with its higher level of precision and technical functionality that became the basis for the development of cinema. In contrast, Japanese utsushi-e, with its sophisticated level of technique and collaborative skill, produced what we would now describe as an analog, real-time form of character animation. It was also a logical technique for getting around the technical constraints imposed by more rudimentary development of glass manufacture and metal processing techniques found in Japan at that time. This unique path of development taken in Japan by the magic lantern, a technology originally developed in the West, is a fascinating example of the interdependent relationship that exists between technology, culture and society.

A temperance magic lantern slide by Nakajima Matsuchi (The world through the eyes of the drinker, Meiji Period)

Following this, the Meiji government (1868-1912) introduced the magic lantern into new domains as a way of conveying information about the modern world such as medical and public health information, as part of its efforts for bringing about cultural enlightenment in society. Dai-gento-kai or “great magic lantern shows” were held among the general population to promote causes such as the democratic movement and sale of products from sericulture producers using picture and textual slides in the manner of the presentations that we hold today. With the advent of these performances, it began to be understood more widely among the public that the magic lantern was in fact a “Western-style utsushi-e.” From around the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), small metal magic lanterns for home use began to be manufactured in large numbers in Japan. Eventually the ghosts who had appeared in utsushi-e started to take up residence in the Western-style magic lanterns that served as optical toys for entertaining children.

Learning about the rich popular culture of moving images that blossomed well before the advent of the digital era gives us a new vantage point for thinking about why we today are so enthralled by the illusions created by digital image, and what direction this art form is likely to take in the future. The exhibition “Magic Lantern: An Archaeology of Projection Media ” currently being held at the Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum (Waseda University), and the accompanying “Tanabata Rakugo and Utsushi-e Performance” held on the evening of 5 July at Kagurazaka, the birthplace of utsushi-e, are valuable opportunities to discover for ourselves what ordinary people were seeing when they watched these performances from the late Edo period to the early Meiji period.


Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University. A Natural History of Magic Lantern Slides [Gento Suraido no Hakubutsushi] (Seikyusha, 2015).
Kenji Iwamoto. The Century of the Magic Lantern [Gento no Seiki] (Shinwasha, 2001).
Timon Screech. The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Genjiro Kobayashi. Utsushi-e (Chuo University Press, 1987).
The Magic Lantern Society. Encyclopedia of the Magic Lantern (2001).
Laurent Mannoni, Donata Pesenti Campagnoni. Lanterne magique et film peint: 400 ans de cinema (Editions de la Martinière, 2009)


Machiko Kusahara
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Kusahara was born in Tokyo. She has been internationally active in the field of new media art since the early 1980s. Exhibitions and venues she was involved in curating or launching include International Exposition at Tsukuba 1985, the World Design Exposition 1989, the Kobe Mirai Expo 2001, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and NTT/ICC. She served as a jury for international competitions such as Japan Media Arts Festival, International Animation Festival Hiroshima, SIGGRAPH, Ars Electronica, and International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA). As her research theme she explores correlations between media technology, art, culture and society both in new media art and in the history of visual culture including utsushi-e and panorama. She taught at Tokyo Polytechnic University, Kobe University, and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) before joining Waseda University. Texts by Professor Kusahara are included in The Robot in the Garden (MIT Press, 2000), Panorama Phenomenon (Mesdag Panorama, 2006), MediaArtHistories (MIT Press, 2007), A Life in Wartime [Senso no aru Kurashi] (Suiseisha, 2008), Media Archaeology (UC Press, 2011), Coded Cultures (Springer, 2011) and A Natural History of Magic Lantern Slides [Gentou Suraido no Hakubutsushi] (Seikyusha, 2015) among others. She holds a doctorate in engineering (Tokyo University).