Monday, May 8, 2017

HotDocs '17 Film Review - Ukiyo-E Heroes

The ancient almost lost art of Japanese woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) is explored in detail in the Turu Tokikowa's new documentary. The story revolves around a partnership that spans the Pacific Ocean between a reserved American illustrator and an eccentric Canadian who has spent the last 30 years in Japan. Jed Henry became interested in the 18th century art form in 2010. He looked for an expert and found David Bull. Henry's idea;  use the ancient technique to create prints in the traditional manner to sell to the public. Bull who had become stagnant in his current work jumped at the chance that has lead to artistic and financial success for both parties.

Henry does the design work drawing the image based on the styles of the original masters by brush using subjects that blend well with current, comic, video games popular culture figures. The image is sent to Bull who carves out an outline of the drawing in a wood block, works in colour then uses traditional paper for the finished print. Henry takes the finished product to comic conventions where he sells them for $100.00 each. There is a large market for Japanese woodblock prints as they are a stunningly unique item for a collector to own and display.

The film is at its best when Bull gives his theories on the art alongside his personal manifesto on life. He works often shirtless and always barefoot often twisted into a pretzel as he meticulously chisels the illustration into the wood.  Another set of highlights are the interviews with the craftsmen that make Bull's tools. Their skills from making the paper, to firing the knives, or hand making brushes has been passed down in families for generations. There is also the unspoken fear that when this current generation passes on that these skills could be lost.

The second half of the piece focuses on the creation of one illustration from start to finish. Skype call flow back and forth across the Pacific during design stage.  Once the design is complete the pace slows as Bull sets off to carve the piece.

Ukiyo-e Heroes is a tribute to Japanese Woodblock printing, the craftsmen that surround the art form and to the notion that there is room for a slow steady precise endeavor in today's short attention span disposable world. The production lucked out to find such a complexed character in self taught master woodblock illustrator Bull and it's fitting that he is on screen two-thirds of the time as it seems that he does two-thirds of the work a fact that Henry admits. The subject matter and slow paced nature of the film might  not be for everyone but if you'll not be disappointed if you give David Bull a chance to grow on you as he explains and works at his craft.

*** Out of 4

Ukiyo-E Heroes | Turo Tokikowa | Japan / Canada / U.S.A. | 2016 | 97  Minutes.

Tags: Woodblock Printing, Illustrations, Conventions, Rickshaw, Warrior, Skype, Provo, Tokyo, Kickstarter.

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