Whether Hyrule or the Mushroom Kingdom, we’re used to video game heroes saving their own respective pixel worlds. This is the story of how video game characters like Mario, Link, and Kirby helped save a "floating world" (literally translated): ukiyo-e, a genre in the ancient craft of Japanese woodprinting. After artistically languishing for most of the 20th century, the craft is in the process of being discovered by a whole new generation, thanks to Ukiyo-E Heroes, a collaboration between American illustrator Jed Henry and British craftsman David Bull that reimagines popular video game characters in the context of medieval Japan.
Of all the visual art the West associates with ancient Japan, woodprints are probably the most well known. You may not have ever heard the term ukiyo-e before, or know how a Japanese woodprint is made, but if you’ve ever seen a copy of The Great Wave off Kanagawa or The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, you know the style.
Just as video games are today, woodprints were once one of the most popular art forms in Japan. From between the 17th and 20th centuries, ukiyo-e was the art of the Japanese middle class. Comedy, pornography, horror, celebrity gossip, landscapes, you name it, it has a ukiyo-e. And this style of wood printing didn’t just have a following in Japan. In fact, ukiyo-e prints were discovered by the European Impressionists in the mid-19th century, influencing the work of artists like Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and others. From there, the design language of ukiyo-e disseminated through the art nouveau and deco movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We owe much of the flattening design trends of the last hundred years in Western visual arts to the influence of Japanese woodblock prints.
Yet despite ukiyo-e's worldwide influence, the craft in Japan began to stagnate. The introduction of German printing presses into the country over a hundred years ago made printing easier and cheaper, while ukiyo-e was expensive and difficult to master. As a result, Japanese woodprinters stopped commissioning new ukiyo-e art, and instead contented themselves with reproducing "classic" designs. And that’s the way it stayed for the better part of a century.
The Ukiyo-E Heroes project starts with Jed Henry. A 29-year-old illustrator in Utah, Henry is a self-described "Japan nerd" who was looking to combine his passions in life— Japan, video games, and illustration—in a way he felt was meaningful. One day, it occurred to Henry that the Japanese video game aesthetic owed much to the design heritage of ukiyo-e.
"A lot of the design decisions of these old '80s Nintendo games are inadvertent descendants of Japanese woodblock printing," Henry tells Co.Design. "Instead of painterly renderings, Japanese game designers would use black pixel outlines and color fills. If classic games like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda were made in Germany or America, they’d look very different, but because of ukiyo-e's influence in Japan, they have a distinct style."
At first, Henry was interested in learning how to make wood prints himself. He contacted 61-year-old David Bull for help. An Englishman who has spent the last 30 years in Japan mastering the technique of Japanese woodblock printing, Bull began to tutor Henry in the rich history and exquisite techniques of ukiyo-e. After a couple of years, Henry began to put together a series of designs that incorporated video game characters into medieval-style Japanese settings. The designs began gaining popularity on Tumblr and Facebook, and eventually, Henry approached Bull about a more formal collaboration. He would illustrate a new ukiyo-e design that Bull would then print.
But Bull wasn’t interested. He had experimented in the 1990s with commissioning new ukiyo-e designs from artists, only to be met with a collective yawn. No one cared.
"It really discouraged me from trying new things," says Bull. "I decided ukiyo-e was just good for making reproductions of existing designs, and tourist stuff." Bull didn’t think anyone would buy ukiyo-e video game prints, and besides, he thought that Henry’s first efforts were clumsy. But then Henry came up with a design that changed Bull’s mind.
It was called Soul Eater, a visual parody of the Nintendo Gameboy game Kirby’s Dream Land that recast the pink, marshmallow-like Kirby and his mallet-wielding avian antagonist, King Dedede, as Edo-era samurai spirits engaged in a duel to the death. The title comes from Kirby’s main power in the video games, the ability to hoover up and swallow enemies to take their powers. Henry’s illustration put a malevolent spin on this ability, rendering Kirby as a soul-swallowing frog demon from hell.
"Soul Eater instantly transfixed me," says Bull. " I showed it to my apprentices, and they immediately saw it was Kirby. They said, 'Wow, do we get to make this?'"
From there, Henry and Bull began to collaborate on more designs for a potential series. For Henry, the process of each print began by identifying a game that he wanted to turn into a Ukiyo-E Heroes design, then coming up with an idea of how to give it a medieval spin. For example, Pocketing a Wager—Henry’s take on Pokémon—is set in a sumo ring and prominently features a gyōji, or sumo referee, to put Pokémon in a context that is evocative of the Edo era. To match each print to the classic style of Japanese wood prints, Henry and Bull would use classic ukiyo-e as visual references. "For every piece, I have to do a lot of research because I’m trying to channel long-dead foreign artists I don’t necessarily draw like," explains Henry. "At first I felt guilty about lifting so much from the masters, until David pointed out to me this is how ukiyo-e has always worked: There’s a master artist, and then apprentices who spend years copying him. I was just inadvertently creating the Japanese apprenticeship system."
Once a design is finalized, Bull takes over turning them into carvings. Ukiyo-e prints are extremely time consuming to make, and it takes decades to learn the mastery required to produce them. From a single illustration, multiple detailed carvings must be intricately hewn out of blocks of mountain cherry wood, one for each color. Each carving is then covered in ink and pressed by hand onto a sheet of paper, one after another, until the entire print has been completed. "The process is 100% analog," Bull tells Co.Design. "It doesn’t scale at all, so it costs three times as much to make a small print as it does to make a much larger, high-quality giclée. In a single day, I might only be able to make 10 prints from a single design." But each one is a unique work of art in its own right.
Because of the expense and time required to make a traditional ukiyo-e print, Bull and Henry initially decided to test the waters by launching Ukiyo-E Heroes as a Kickstarter campaign. Picking Henry’s Rickshaw Cart illustration (a parody of Mario Kart) as a jumping-off point, Henry and Bull originally set out to raise only $10,000, offering traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints only for those who contributed $135 or more (a giclée print only cost $40). To explain the distinction between the two printing methods, Bull began a series of YouTube videos illustrating the intensive process used to realize each of Henry’s illustrations as classic ukiyo-e prints. "We knew people were interested in the designs, but we didn’t know how much interest there would be in the woodprints," Bull tells Co.Design. "We thought we’d be lucky to sell fifty giclée prints for every one woodprint."
In the end, Ukiyo-E Heroes was a bigger success than either Henry or Bull could possibly imagine. In 30 days, it surpassed its modest $10,000 goal by over $300,000. A year later, it’s still the most successful art project in the crowdfunding site’s history. Even more incredibly? One out of every three prints sold is printed using a traditional ukiyo-e woodprinting process. In fact, these days, Ukiyo-E Heroes woodprints even hang in the halls of Nintendo America.
To Bull, it’s impossible to overstate the effect the success of Ukiyo-E Heroes has had on his life. "When we launched the Kickstarter, I’d already decided to fire my four apprentices and go back to being a solo craftsman," says Bull. "I knew kids liked video games, but I always thought they had no money to buy artisan’s prints." Not only has Bull kept on his apprentices in the wake of Ukiyo-E Heroes, he’s had to hire five more just to meet demand..
It would be easy to dismiss the success of Ukiyo-E Heroes as a Kickstarter flash-in-the-pan, another instance in which the mouth-breathing hordes of the Internet were mobilized to fund some empty video game art project with the allure of pop culture nostalgia and a dash of otaku nerd cred. This interpretation denies Ukiyo-E Heroes its true importance as a project that is helping to rejuvenate a dying art form.
"For almost 70 years, there have been no new, fresh ukiyo-e designs," says Bull. "All the printers doing this have literally done nothing their entire lives but make reproductions of century-old prints for tourists. No one cared about it anymore. Now, I’ve got young people all around the world who are writing me, asking where woodprints have been their whole life. It’s all because of Jed. He singlehandedly revitalized the craft of traditional Japanese woodblock printing. Even a guy like me pushed him away. But he had a vision, and he just kept pushing his way right back in."
For Henry, though, the credit doesn’t belong to him. Ukiyo-E Heroes is just a natural extension of Japanese culture itself, the intersection point between two traditional forms of Japanese art that he was lucky enough to see. "Centuries ago, the tradition of ukiyo-e was known for its vibrant creativity, and showed invulnerable heroes, holy swords, and boss fights. Even the classic double-jump can be traced back to medieval Japanese legends," says Henry. "The video games we love are just a new chapter in that ancient and enduring culture."
You can buy yourself a Ukiyo-E Heroes print here.