A Foreigner’s Reaction to Ukiyo-e

by Nobi Oda

Woodblock prints are one of Japan’s major forms of traditional art as well as a unique type of printing technique. A type of woodblock printing known as ukiyo-e was popular in Japan during the Edo period, but after modern western printing technologies reached Japan in the Meiji period, certain traditional art forms and craftwork saw a decrease in public interest and struggled to grow. However, there is a certain person who, inspired by ukiyo-e, has brought life back into woodblock printing. That person is David Bull, a woodblock printmaker who was born in the UK, grew up in Canada, and currently lives in Tokyo. He partnered with American illustrator Jed Henry to create a work entitled Ukiyo-e Heroes, which became hugely popular through Kickstarter.

When current characters and woodblock printmakers meet

David Bull’s woodblock print studio and home are located in Ome, a suburb of Tokyo. Just as the name of the studio suggests, Seseragi Studio (seseragi means babbling brook in Japanese) overlooks a small brook and is surrounded by trees and beautiful greenery. Originally a deserted house, David continues to live in and remodel the building. Although previously he primarily worked alone, after Ukiyo-e Heroes became such a big hit, he now creates woodblock prints in his workshop with a other artisans.

The Ukiyo-e Heroes piece features video game characters from series such as Super Mario, Street Fighter, and Final Fantasy, recreated through David’s woodblock prints of original illustrations by America’s Jed Henry. Jed’s modern, ukiyo-e style of art was a perfect match with David’s delicate, amazing woodblock techniques, leading to their work becoming a huge hit overseas. In recent years, there have never been woodblock prints more successful than their works.

Ukiyo-e Heroes

Learning about woodblock prints at a small gallery in Toronto

David Bull was born in 1951 in England’s Yorkshire county. At 5 years old, his family moved to Canada.

“My father was a saxophone player in a popular jazz orchestra. Since big band jazz music was losing its popularity, we moved to Canada where he planned to support the family mainly through studio work.”

This was the era when rock and roll overcame jazz as the most popular type of music.

As a young boy, David was obsessed with music. He wanted to become a classical flutist. At college, he studied music with the goal to become a professional musician, but his dream didn’t come true and he ended up joining a musical instrument sales firm in their headquarters at Vancouver.

He first learned about woodblock prints when he was working at a branch of his company located in Toronto.

“At the time, Japanese food was really popular in Toronto. I don’t have a big appetite, so I love Japanese food because it’s healthy and comes in small portions. I went around the city trying out every Japanese restaurant I could find.”

One day, as he was on his way to one of his favorite restaurants, he noticed a small art gallery and decided to go in. The gallery featured an exhibition on ukiyo-e.

“I was blown away by the works. The beauty was just so amazing. What is this?! That was the moment when my love for ukiyo-e began.”

David says in order to truly portray the beauty of woodblock prints proper lighting is a necessity. During the Edo period, when ukiyo-e was at its peak popularity, electric lighting didn’t exist yet so art and text was something to be viewed in the natural light during the day. The color and texture of ukiyo-e is at its most beautiful when light softly shines through paper screen doors.

“Looking back, the owner of the gallery understood this concept. The lighting was strategically placed to hit the works from the side to really show off their beauty.”

David was very lucky to be able to experience his first woodblock prints with ideal lighting.

Eventually, creating woodblock prints became a hobby of his. Since he wasn’t in Japan, he didn’t have access to the proper tools needed for this art form. David explains that the lack of proper tools forced him to improvise, which led to works he describes as “terrible pieces of art.”

At 30 years old, he became the manager for one of the company’s local branches which meant he would spend more time going back and forth between the branch and the company headquarters in Vancouver. Since Toronto and Vancouver are located on opposite coasts of Canada, it takes about 3 days to travel between them by train. But David had the time to spare he decided to take the train to Vancouver.

That’s when his life changed.

“You spend 3 days sitting next to the same person. At that time, the person sitting next to me was a young Japanese female exchange student.”

The two of them became close, and eventually got married.

After being influenced by Katsukawa Shunsho’s work, he spent 10 years working on Hyakunin Isshu

After getting married, they had the opportunity to spend a long time in Japan where David visited a woodblock print studio and learned about the jobs of woodblock printmakers. He also learned about the division of labor used to create woodblock prints and how production progressed.

“Up until then, I created the art, carved the wood, and printed my works on my own, but I felt that I wasn’t a very talented artist when it came to drawing pictures. By dividing up the process, I realized that I could focus more on carving and printing. From then, I used classic ukiyo-e works as bases to work with so I could work on carving and printing.” (David still continues to carve and print on his own)

Soon after, David left his job at the musical instrument sales company. He already had 2 daughters with his wife, and the 4 of them decided to move to Japan and find work there. They moved into the suburbs of Tokyo where they opened up an English conversational school to support the family.

“At the time, there were very few foreigners who taught English in Japan. So our school became popular and before we knew it we had 60 students.”

While teaching English, David continued improving his skills as a woodblock printmaker. While looking for some works to help him improve at the local library, he found work by Katsukawa Shunsho, one of the top ukiyo-e artists of the mid-Edo period and teacher to Katsushika Hokusai.

“I used Shunsho’s Emperor Tenji piece as a base, and when I showed my students the finished woodblock print, they complimented my work with words like ‘So beautiful!’ and ‘I want one!’ That was the first time anyone had told me they wanted to have one of my woodblock prints.”

Afterwards, David found out that this work was one part of Hyakunin Isshu. Hyakunin Isshu is a type of collection of songs that features a total of 100 Japanese songs sung by 100 different poets. It’s very popular in Japan, and some of those songs are still taught in Japanese high schools today. Hyakunin Isshu spread around Japan in the Edo period as woodblock card prints that each featured a poet, artwork, and a song.

David decided he wanted to recreate Shunsho’s Hyakunin Isshu one by one.

“I figured if I could finish about 1 new piece every month, I could make 10 a year, and to finish all 100 works, I would need 10 years. If I could sell each work to at least 30 people, I thought that I might be able to make a living off it. So I made a 10-year plan and informed various media outlets. Soon after, partially due to my uniqueness of being a foreigner in a very Japanese industry, I was approached by many newspapers and TV programs for interviews. Even though I had yet to complete a single work, I was already being introduced as ‘David Bull, woodblock printmaker’.”

One of the reasons why he decided to recreate all 100 works was due to the impact Shunsho’s works had on him.
“Shunsho was completely different from any other artists at the time. The people portrayed in his artwork were unique and they all had very defined characteristics. I think that’s why I was able to feel happiness from creating 100 different and unique characters.”

Through his exposure in the media, David’s works began selling, and eventually he was able to close his English conversation school and focus completely on woodblock printing.
“I first started creating works from the Hyakunin Isshu series in 1989, and by 1999 I had successfully created all 100 pieces. It is currently on display at the terminal in Narita airport.”

Before his 60th birthday, he looks towards the future of woodblock prints

Although many people around David Bull saw his Hyakunin Isshu series as his life work, David was still unsatisfied with his workmanship.

“I was still only 48 years old and I felt that everything up until then was just preparation. I also wanted to learn more about carving and printing techniques that were developed during the time between Shunsho lived and the Meiji period. So in addition to improving my skills, I decided to choose works I found interesting and recreate 10 of those a year, with a total of 50 by year 5. I tried various methods and found new techniques that had not been used by Japanese woodblock printmakers before. I had no intention to limit myself to only a certain number of decided techniques.”

With this, he continued improving his skills and was able to attain a steady income as a woodblock printmaker. Still, right before his 60th birthday, he wasn’t satisfied with where he was.

“I asked myself what I would be doing for the last 30 or 40 years of my life. I thought that if I could teach my techniques to interested students, this studio could stay profitable even after I grow old and lose my abilities. This way, even if I become a 90-year-old man, I could still be in my studio. So I hired 3 female employees with no experience in woodblock printing and started teaching them my techniques.”

However, once David started teaching his employees, the time he could spend working on his own woodblock prints decreased along with the number of works he could create. Since his works were his main income, his company quickly ran out of funds, and by June 2012, he made the difficult decision to end his teaching program in the coming August.

That was just about the time he was contacted by the American illustrator Jed Henry. The e-mail was asking if they could work together to create woodblock prints of his illustrations.

Meeting up with illustrator Jed Henry

“At first I declined the offer. I had no time or money, and I was just really stressed out. But then he explained to me how he would use Kickstarter to fund the project as well as his ideas to make and sell the products, and eventually I decided to take on this challenge.”

Jed Henry was born in Ohio, studied animation and illustration at Brigham Young University, and in 2009 he received an academy award in the student category for his animation Kites. Currently he works as an illustrator and picture book writer.

Jed was a big fan of and has been greatly influenced by Japanese video games, manga, and animation. He has even spent 2 years living in Japan. His picture book, Cheer Up, Mouse! was also translated and released in Japan. Jed says he thinks this book was well received by Japanese audiences because a lot of his influences come from Japan and make their way subconsciously into his works.

He is also well versed in the history of Japanese anime and manga and knows that they got their start from the traditional caricature art created by artists like Utagawa Kuniyoshi. He also knows much about traditional woodblock printing.

With these influences, Jed drew ukiyo-e inspired illustrations using characters from Pokemon, Super Mario, and Dragonball. He titled this series Ukiyo-e Heroes. He started thinking about creating and selling these works through Giclee and woodblock printing techniques, which led him to contact David to help with the woodblock prints. He decided to use the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to try and fund the project.

David was the key to the project. First, they decided to work on a Mario Kart illustration and turn it into a woodblock print. They filmed the process and used the footage to promote their Kickstarter project.

On August 1st, 2012, they opened up their Kickstarter campaign. Donations and orders grew by the hour, and within the first 72 minutes, they had amassed more than 1 million yen for the project. David remembers the excitement everyone felt at that time.

“Everyone at the studio was crying tears of happiness. I remember how we all made a toast.”

By the time the campaign finished, the project had collected 33 million yen worth of orders and donations, and was the top ranking art campaign on Kickstarter at the time.
“I was worried about the ratio between Giclee orders and woodblock orders, but in the end, one-third of the orders were for woodblock prints.” (Woodblock prints cost roughly 3 times more than Giclee prints.)

Since then, a popular game critic featured some works from the Ukiyo-e Heroes series on his vlog (video blog), which led to a spike in popularity and even more orders. Because of the high volume of orders, David now hires outside woodblock printmakers to help with the workload.

David believes that the success of this project will help revitalize the Japanese woodblock printing industry. As with most traditional Japanese art, woodblock printing was a common art practice. Although many highly valued artistic works have been made, it is also an art form that is full of fun and entertainment, making it a medium common folk could easily grab on to.

However, the introduction of new printing techniques during the Meiji period led to a major decline of woodblock printmakers, and it became a small industry that focused on creating souvenirs reminiscent of traditional Japanese art. Of course there were still high quality woodblock prints being made, but it lost its identity as an art form for common folk. Yet through David and Jed’s hard work, they have successfully brought back woodblock prints as mainstream art.

David explains, “It’s not just about being beautiful. It’s a type of art that people can look at and truly enjoy from the bottom of their heart. We successfully brought this type of woodblock printing back to life. Right now, 99% of the people who enjoy and purchase these works are from foreign countries, but I’m hoping that next we can invigorate the market in Japan as well.”

Through the increase of orders for woodblock prints, the number of jobs for previously struggling Japanese artisans, carvers, sculptors, and papermakers has increased.

“This experience feels like some kind of movie. It really feels like I’m dreaming.”

(photo: Daisuke Hayata translation: Nelson Babin-Coy)

Originally published at ignition.co

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