Ukiyo-e Heroes : gaming characters & woodblock printing united


Ukiyo-e Heroes and woodblockprints, not something i was very familiar with untill a few days ago.

Thanks to the famous work of Utagawa Kuniyoshi, who drawed a lot of warrior portraits & battle scenes, i knew a bit about Ukiyo-e but didn’t really got the idea/concept behind that.

And woodblockprints.. well the word speaks for itself but i had no clue about the process behind it. Once you start to digg into that it’s quit amazing what kind of artwork could be made back in those days.


Left is a painting, right the same ‘design’ as a woodblockprint, see the texture ?

But i don’t want to digg any further into that today because that would take us too far away from today’s topic : the Ukiyo-e Heroes project.

Jed Henry, a passionate gamer and professional illustrator came with the idea of taking his (classical) gaming heroes (Zelda, Pokemon, etc) and draw them into a ukiyo-e style artwork.

On the other side we have David Bull, an English-born Canadian who moved to Tokyo about 30 years ago to learn the woodblock printing art. Today, he belongs to a very small group of Elite craftsmen there.

The goal of the project was to turn Jed’s  ‘Rickshaw cart’ design into a woodblock print and they needed $10.400 to finance the whole project. The project is live for about 20 days (still 10 to go)  and so far they’re approaching the $200.000 mark (!!)  which means that more designs will be turned into woodblock prints. The be exact, 6 more designs are already been scheduled..

These are the 12 designs Jed has finished (click to enlarge) :

[nggallery id=1]



It was time for me to get a hold of these men and arrange a little interview. They both had very little time at this moment (as you can imagen) but were kind enough to shoot me some answers. The first 4 questions were asked to & answered by Jed, the last 3 by David.


1.Where did the idea/inspiration comes from to take popular gaming characters , place them in an medieval context and have them made & printed through this ancient woodblock printing process ?

I’m a huge fan of Japanese art history, especially ukiyo-e. It’s so interesting to me that even 400 years ago, Japan had a thriving pop culture scene. The urban participants in the Ukiyo movement were the savvy consumers of their day. They read comedy, romance, tragedy, adventure, horror – you name it, they had it. Following that trend, ukiyo-e prints were intended to be entertaining. They definitely weren’t fine art in most cases.

Fast-forward 400 years, and Japan is still churning out pop culture. If you look at Japanese games, you’ll find a lot of influences from the old ukiyo-e. “Boss fights”, invincible warriors, and crazy adventures are as common now as they were then. Even the ubiquitous “double jump” (gamers, you know what I’m talking about) has Sino-Japanese origins. In the Japanese classic Gikeiki, Yoshitsune defeated Benkei by double jumping in mid-air. These days, any game hero worth his power-ups can do the same. Because Japan largely invented the modern video game, they were the first to define the entire industry’s culture. And because of that, people around the world have been exposed to ancient Japanese motifs.


2.How important is it to be at the same level/line as David in terms of designs & coloring, etc ? Are there any restrictions or certain things that can not be done with the woodblock printing technique ?

David is a very clever printmaker. He can basically execute any design I throw at him.


3.At this stage there are 12 designs available and 5 of them will become available as handmade woodblock prints. I have heard ‘rumors’ that you are planning to draw a collection of 100 different designs 🙂 What’s up with that and is that a scalable idea, knowing that the current project & designs will take up to 2014 before they can be delivered ?

I can keep making new designs, even if David isn’t availalbe to carve them as woodblocks. My process is more akin to graphic design or illustration. So a book full of designs wouldn’t require Dave’s involvement. He would be free to pick and choose his favorites from that body of work, for carving later.
4.Any other plans to turn ‘real human (movie) heroes’ into these Ukiyo-e style (woodblock) printings in stead of gaming characters ?

I would love to do a series of Akira Kurosawa’s films, as ukiyo-e. That would be a huge challenge, and very rewarding.
5. Now you’re making Ukiyo-e style prints of gaming characters. Wouldn’t it be a challenge to make Manga style (or any other modern concept) woodblock prints ? Kind of what the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum did with their Evangelion & Japanese Sword Exhibit

I think perhaps you might be confusing the image ‘content’ with the ‘techniques’. From the point of view of the craftsmen making the prints, the particular content of each image is not really relevant. For us, it’s lines and colours. Whether the content is old courtesans and kabuki actors, new gaming characters, or anime heroes, isn’t really relevant.


6. The Kickstarter project is running as a train, do you believe that the combination of famous gaming characters, Ukiyo-e and the ancient art of woodblock printing causes that success or rather that an ancient art & style is thrown in front of a large Western crowd that didn’t know of the existence of this kind of artwork ?

Well it’s both of course. There is definitely a synergy happening here with the combination of the old craft and the new image content, but even without that, simply showing this work – and the process videos – to a new audience that hadn’t been familiar with it before, is helping a lot …


7. In one of your video’s you mentioned that your workshops was going to be closed down because there was less interest & work and too hard to keep your workers. With the explosion of this project, does that mean that the future of your workshop is ‘secured’ and or that you will need to hire ‘extra’ people to get the job done ?

Well don’t misunderstand, it’s not that I was ready to close down. My own personal (subscription-based) printmaking work is doing very well, no problem there. What has been difficult is the project I began a few years ago – Mokuhankan – to incorporate a number of young trainees to learn how to print. I knew this would take a few years, and I had hoped that I had enough money to carry it to the point where they would be productive.

I was too optimistic, and I ran out of money this summer, and was going to have to close it down. So Jed’s project has definitely ‘saved’ that venture. He will be giving us enough work over the next couple of years to keep us going, and hopefully if the workers can become fully trained within that time, our further future will be much more stable. So we are definitely grateful to both Jed, and to Kickstarter!


So far the interview, if you’re interested in this artwork, you can sign up here at Kickstarter.




Jed introducing the project

David working on the Rickshaw Cart design