Ukiyo-e Heroes: Donkey Kong Visits 17th-Century Japan
Mario racing a rickshaw, Kirby wielding a katana, and Donkey Kong bounding past cherry blossoms. In his fantastical Ukiyo-e Heroes series, 29-year-old illustrator Jed Henry reimagines classic video game characters in the style, setting, and medium of traditional Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e). Growing up in Indiana in the 1980s, Henry learned to draw by copying the art in his video game manuals. It was an exciting time to be a gamer, as companies like Nintendo and Sega raced to create the best systems and graphics. A decade later, with a degree in animation and living in Utah, the illustrator and children’s book author is working with Canadian (by way of Tokyo) printmaking master Dave Bull to to create fine art prints of his characters. With the help of a Kickstarter campaign — Henry raised $290,000 more than his original goal — his illustrations are celebrating Japan’s vibrant pop culture, both then and now. We talked to him about his craft.
How do you choose which video games to feature?
I’m a big retro gamer. I played a lot of games as a kid, and my heart is really stuck on those games — a lot of Nintendo, Konami, and Capcom titles. So, that’s how I choose, it’s just my favorites from when I was a kid.
What’s your process like for each print?
I start with the game I want to base the print on, and I think about all the things from that game that I want to include in the print — situations, characters, interactions. Then I go back to mostly the prints of Yoshitoshi, a late 1800s ukiyo-e artist. I love his stuff. I look at his artwork and try to find visual symbols and characters that I can repurpose or borrow from.
Do you usually use digital media, traditional media, or a combination of the two?
I use a combination. I sketch everything in Photoshop, and then I trace the sketch on a lightbox using a Japanese brush, to get the final line quality I need for the ukiyo-e. Then I use Photoshop to get the colors exactly how I want them. After my design is complete, I send it to David Bull, my partner in Tokyo. He translates my design, carves it, and prints it by hand into the final product. You can see videos of each step of the process here.
Has your approach evolved since?
At first, I feel like my technique was a little clumsier — I hadn’t really gotten the feel for drawing with a Japanese brush. Also, I do a lot more research now. I quickly realized that if I really wanted these images to look authentic, I needed to find a reference for every element in the composition, so that the 21st century American white boy doesn’t butcher it too much, you know? To channel the Japanese artists, I have to immerse myself in their work for a couple days before my brush actually touches paper. It’s great practice for me to try and retrace their steps … it’s a real honor for me to be able to do that.
There are only a few people making this kind of woodblock print in Japan. What has it been like working with them?
It’s a really cool, tight-knit community. David Bull is a unique figure: He’s a foreigner who moved to Japan and mastered one of their ancient techniques. There are only a few people who can do what he does. And a lot of them are having a hard time finding work these days, because within Japan, there’s not a lot of interest in woodblock prints. To the Japanese, it’s like folk art — not very current. But foreigners love it because it’s a connection to a kind of fantasy Japan. With the money from our Kickstarter, we’ve been able to channel tens of thousands of dollars back into the industry, hiring talented artists and trying to keep the community going.
You also illustrate children’s books. How do you balance all your projects?
Well, I don’t sleep very much.
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