Hot Docs 2017: Ukiyo-e Heroes

Made in Japan

Ukiyo-e Heroes is a line of Japanese woodblock prints based on popular video game characters and franchises ranging from Mario Kart to Star Fox to Shadow of the Colossus. Created by Jed Henry and David Bull, Ukiyo-e Heroes is also the subject of a new documentary of the same name, and both the film and the prints are well deserving of a few hours of your time. 

Directed by Toru Tokikawa, Ukiyo-e Heroes is a beautiful film about art, mastery, and dedication. Some of that is inherent in the subject matter. Ukiyo-e is an ancient form of Japanese woodblock printing in which an artist carves an image into a block of wood, then applies ink and stamps the image onto a piece of paper. Talented carvers will use multiple carvings to layer many different colors onto a single complex image. 

There are only a handful of individuals practicing the craft today, and in that regard David Bull is a uniquely compelling figure. He moved his entire family from Canada to Japan to study ukiyo-e in 1986, and he has become a respected master in the field in the three decades since. Henry, meanwhile, is an American illustrator and animator, as well as the person directly responsible for the Ukiyo-e Heroes line. He reached out to Bull and asked if he wanted to collaborate, and the duo officially went into business with a successful Kickstarter in 2012. 


The unlikely partnership is at the heart of the documentary. Henry creates the illustrations and handles most of the marketing, while Bull creates the woodblock prints that give the endeavor legitimacy and authenticity. You walk away with an appreciation that borders on awe for the sheer artistry on display. The prints are absolutely stunning, and the B-roll footage of Bull at work is equally inspiring. Regardless of the field, it’s always a pleasure to watch a master practicing his craft. 

It’s that emphasis on skill and commitment that allows the movie to transcend its niche subject matter. For instance, Bull only uses hand-made paper from one village in Japan, and he is just as selective with his brushes. The film tracks those suppliers that have spent lifetimes mastering their own trades, and each step in the chain requires an expertise that rivals anything that Bull accomplishes in his workshop. The artisans in Ukiyo-e Heroes are proud of what they do. They love their respective crafts, and that care and dedication runs throughout the documentary. 

There is a palpable fear about the potential loss of knowledge across generations, but Ukiyo-e Heroes argues that these analogue techniques are worth preserving. Tokikawa’s film examines the artistic philosophy behind ukiyo-e prints and the permeable border between pop culture and fine art, instilling you with the belief that physical, tangible artifacts still have value in our modern digital world.

Ukiyo-e Heroes is a beautiful film about people who strive to make beautiful things, and that lesson resonates regardless of your chosen profession.



Tue, May 2, 9:00 PM TIFF Bell Lightbox 3

Thu, May 4, 12:30 PM Scotiabank Theatre 13