The time honoured Japanese tradition of ukiyo-e is a dying art. There are only ten people remaining in the world who still meticulously carve intricate designs into blocks of wood by hand before using inks, paints, and handcrafted paper to turn them into even more colourful pieces of art. Canadian ex-pat David Bull is one of the few people remaining in the world carrying on this tradition, an impressive feat considering that he was self-taught. One day, Bull was contacted by Jed Henry, an American designer and pop culture enthusiast, with an unusual idea: with Jed’s designs and David’s skill they would make prints that portray famous nostalgic and modern fictional characters (Super Mario, Ninja Turtles) and create ancient looking ukiyo-e versions of them.
Just watching Bull’s process as depicted in Toru Tokikawa’s documentary Ukiyo-e Heroes is worth the price of admission alone. The process of making one of these wood carvings is so intricate and intense, and the process of printing so delicate, that it’s astounding that Bull and Henry’s works aren’t commanding thousands of dollars more than they already are. While Bull clearly knows more about ukiyo-e than the still learning Henry, both show a love for the artistic and collaborative process that has made them an unlikely team.
On a surface level Ukiyo-e Heroes sounds like a look at a bit of obscure pop culture ephemera aimed squarely at the geek market, but with subjects as talented and dedicated as Henry and Bull, it becomes an entrancing film to watch even if you don’t get what their art is referencing.