Review: ‘Ukiyo-E Heroes

Hot Docs 2017

2 mins read

Ukiyo-E Heroes
(Japan, 96 minutes)
Directed by Toru Tokikowa
Programme: Made in Japan (World Premiere)


The narrative of Ukiyo-E Heroes is amply covered in the first ten minutes of Toru Tokikowa’s documentary. Around 2010, Jed Henry, an American children’s book illustrator and animator, became intrigued with traditional Japanese woodblock (ukiyo-e) printing. He researched the subject online where he came across David Bull, a Canadian who has spent the last 30 years in Japan learning and mastering the wood-block printing style practiced from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Bull developed a niche business, running a workshop with a team of apprentices to create traditional-style prints he sent to collectors around the world.

The two men formed a partnership in 2012 and created a Kickstarter campaign to launch a new product. Henry designs images which are influenced by pop culture (video games, comics) and traditional Japanese imagery. Bull carves the blocks and does the printing and Henry sells the prints at conventions and online. The collaboration has changed both their lives, creatively and financially.

As any good editor might ask, what’s the second chapter? Here, Ukiyo-e falters, turning into a drawn-out process story about an artistic activity that seems all-too painstaking. Director Toru Tokikowa continues to interview Bull, an eccentric with a fierce white beard and many opinions, and the less talkative, very normal Henry.

Rounding out the picture, we also have interviews with museum curators and a venerable cast of Japanese craftsmen who work in fields that support Bull’s printmaking. Those include a blacksmith who makes carving knives, and the makers of paper and brushes; each are carrying on multi-generational traditions of rigorous craftsmanship. Admirably devoted, they work for a very specialised market, a description which could apply to the film as a whole.

Ukiyo-E Heroes can be seen:
-Tuesday, May 2, TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 at 9 p.m.
-Thursday, May 4, Scotiabank Theatre 13 at 12:30 p.m.



Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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