WITH styles ranging from goth tragedy to the pornographic, Third World Television’s take on a traditional Japanese storytelling form is certainly not aimed at children.

“I’ve never really had much interest in making children’s theatre,” says performer Jemma Kahn, who first saw the storytelling form kamishibai while visiting a Manga museum in Kyoto.

“I wanted to make something I would want to watch.”

Kamishibai is an ancient form of street theatre using hand-drawn cartoon boards to tell a story.

The seven tales South African Kahn performs have been penned by Gwydion Beynon and cover a range of different forms over 55 minutes, from morality tales to nonsense stories, a 19th-century take on Super Mario to the story of Nelson Mandela.

“It’s a YouTube/MTV mix of high and low art,” says Kahn, who spent time learning the techniques of over-the-top performance from veteran practitioner Rokuda Genji.

“Gwydion saved me from myself by writing it all, and I illustrated the stories. The overall feel is quite irreverent, although there are moments of poignancy. We were always going to have the different genres in there so audiences got a taste of everything in kamishibai.”

Part of the attractiveness of the genre was the scope of storytelling.

“Often writers for television are restricted by budget,” says Kahn. “With kamishibai you can do what you want. You can have expressive explosions. The huge limitation for me now is the drawings, I should really have redone them by now!”

Audiences have identified recurring themes in the stories of journey, sex and loss – but Kahn feels those are present in all forms of storytelling. One thing which has shocked audiences though is the violence in some of the tales.

“Audiences haven’t seen anything like it,” says Kahn. “It’s like the way anime was used in Kill Bill, that meeting of high art and cinema, explaining something complicated or grotesque.”

The influence of director John Trengove was to add an extra element of coolness to the show, using Japanese punk music to soundtrack the ancient form.

Kahn’s fantasy costume is inspired by Japanese cosplay, having experimented with different styles over the creation of the show.

“As long as the stories are captivating, I could be dressed in a dragon costume and it wouldn’t matter,” she says. “I never wanted to divert attention away from the story, but then I realised that dressing up is fun. It is a good indicator that the show shouldn’t be taken seriously and it has a modern Japanese feel.”

The Epicene Butcher has previously been performed at the Adelaide and Perth Fringe festivals, as well as the Edinburgh Fringe. Kahn is looking forward to performing in front of a main festival audience.

“At the Edinburgh Fringe we were labelled as being on the outer limits of the Fringe,” says Kahn. “It’s nice to be in the main festival in Brighton, but the show is very fringe, it is an experience.”

As for the future, the medium offers lots of opportunities for Kahn’s company Third World Television to carry on with new stories.

But for their next project she is planning to move away from kamishibai, having experimented with multimedia, sock puppets and Beethoven for a new piece that premiered last year in Cape Town, called Theatre Of Death.