HotDocs17: ‘Ukiyo-e Heroes’ explores Japan’s old world art and pop culture

Ukiyo-e is a 400 year old traditional Japanese art form of creating hand made woodblock prints. Only ten craftsmen in Japan  continue to carry the traditions today. The documentary Ukiyo-e Heroes takes a look at how the old world art form has had a recent surge in interest thanks to a hint of pop culture.

David Bull and Jed Henry have a unique partnership that has brought a renewed interest to Ukiyo-e and they are the subjects in this documentary. Bull  is an English-born Canadian who lives in Tokyo, Japan and makes his living as a woodblock artist and printmaker. Henry is a graphic designer with an interest in video games and pop culture. It was Henry that approached Bull with the idea of mixing pop culture gaming inspired characters with the classic form of art after he had first discovered versions of wood block printing art while in Hawaii.

Bull made a good point about the traditional art form saying that the prints have been popular with westerners for hundreds of years — becoming the face of Japan to the outside world. As a self-taught Ukiyo-e artist, he explains on his site that he sees woodblock prints as objects and “not just as vehicles for carrying a particular design to a viewer.” He sees it as one element that is an integral part of the final product. Much like the pigments used and the paper it prints on. I can appreciate his approach to art, and I would guess it’s his view on life — it’s the sum of all the elements work together that is most meaningful and no one component is a star. They are all equal.

Is he hoping to preserve the tradition of Ukiyo-e ? Apparently not according to his site. “I myself have not the slightest interest in ‘preserving’ any tradition, and to tell the truth, I don’t think that traditions should be ‘preserved’…my point is that if any tradition has decayed to the point where the activity in question cannot support itself ‘naturally’, then so be it, it will (should) disappear as a matter of course,” says Bull.

So why does he continue working in this art form? “Simple. I like it. I like using these beautiful materials … the wonderful tools … my hard-earned skills … to create beautiful objects. Nothing more. Nothing less.” says Bull.

He agreed to collaborate with Henry and through online meetings they’ve been able to create some wonderful artwork that is now sought after by collectors and gamers alike. Henry starts with a concept and rough drawing and then brings the idea to Bull where they discuss the logistics, composition and other details before the carving begins. Henry tells us that while they sell the prints online, he also works the Comicon circuit where there is great interest as attendees look for unique items.

Ukiyo-e Heroes is a documentary that took me by surprise. It’s thoughtful and beautiful approach gives much appreciation not only to this traditional art form but also to a way of life.

Ukiyo-e Heroes is part of the ‘Made in Japan’ series in partnership with TokyoDocs, that features the country’s filmmakers at HotDocs 2017 Film Festival. For more information visit

Rickshaw Cart. Ukiyo-e Heroes.


Sonya is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of She is also a well-established contributing lifestyle writer to other sites and magazines sharing her passion for arts & culture, fashion, beauty, travel and food. Sonya is based in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @theculturepearl

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