Documentary Review: Ukiyo-e Heroes

By: Amy Uyeda

On May 2nd, 2017 the Toronto Hot Docs film festival hosted the world premiere of Ukiyo-e Heroes as part of a special programme of Made In Japan films. Ukiyo-e Heroes is a film about woodcut printmaking master David Bull and his collaboration with graphic designer Jed Henry.

David Bull is an English-born Canadian artist who lived in Toronto before moving to Japan permanently in the mid-1980s. He said he first learned of Ukiyo-e prints in Stuart Jackson Gallery in Toronto. David Bull has a strong online presence, including many instructional Youtube videos about his woodblock printmaking practice and his Tokyo live-work space.

Last year, I had the privilege of meeting David Bull at Edo Day, an event hosted by the Consulate of Japan in Toronto at the ROM. David was at the tail end of a 5-hour printing session, having not stopped for an obento lunch break. He is truly a printing machine! He was graciously printing 4-colour demo prints and giving them to eager visitors to his table.  I met a young couple who were longtime fans and customers of his prints and who had driven to Toronto from Rochester, NY just to meet him in person. He warmly greeted them, and it was inspiring to see young collectors because it showed how approachable David is and that his prints are actually quite affordable. David’s generosity reflects his dedication to upholding the original intent of Edo-era Ukiyo-e prints: the dispersion of fine art and popular culture among the masses, without clear delineations between the two. For this reason, he does not number or edition his prints. He keeps the woodblocks from which the prints are created and reprints images after their initial runs.

amy1The documentary cuts between interviews with David Bull in his Tokyo studio and Jed Henry in his Utah home and studio, as well as their skype communication. Jed approached David a few years ago after learning of his work online. After a few tenacious attempts at proposing a collaboration, David agreed, and so began their Ukiyo-e Heroes endeavor.  Using imagery from Japanese video games such as Super Mario, Megaman, Pokemon, Kirby, and Shadow of the Colossus,  Jed creates the initial concept design, using video game characters and storylines to compose a narrative image inspired by elements of Edo-era Ukiyo-e prints.

In Ukiyo-e Heroes, David Bull states that the unique quality of Edo art can be summarize in one word –  線 せん –  line. So much visual information is conveyed through the carefully considered line-work of Ukiyo-e artists such as Hokusai, Hiroshige, Yoshitoshi, and Utamaro, to name a few.  Jed creates the original image in digital form, lays the brushwork by hand, then sends scanned images to David. David must think as printmakers do: in layers. He must conceptualize a plan to carve blocks corresponding to each layer of the image, while considering colour separations and the culmination of the overall finished impression. In this way, the finished Ukiyo-e Heroes prints are a pure combination of the line of Jed and David.

Now there are fewer than 10 Ukiyo-e artists printing in Japan. This art form which is considered by many as ‘the face of Japan’ is a uniquely Japanese traditional form of printmaking. Toronto is fortunately home to a few practicing Mokuhanga – woodblock printmaking artists.

If this timeless and fascinating form of Japanese printmaking piques your interest, please stay tuned for updates about a Beginner Mokuhanga Workshop which will be offered in August 2017!

For more information about Ukiyo-e Heroes prints, and info about David Bull and Jed Henry, click here.

For more information about the Ukiyo-e Heroes documentary, click here.


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