Hot Docs ’17: Old world meets modern in “Ukiyo-e Heroes”

Although Canadian craftsman David Bull may be surrounded by technology, he still finds joy in working with a simple block of wood. Bull and American designer Jed Henry work together — ...
May 2, 2017

Although Canadian craftsman David Bull may be surrounded by technology, he still finds joy in working with a simple block of wood.

Bull and American designer Jed Henry work together — despite being separated by an ocean and a generation gap — to reinvigorate the ancient art of Japanese woodblock prints known as ukiyo-e.

With fewer than 10 ukiyo-e artists left in Japan, the threat to this centuries-old tradition is real. 

Combining old-school craft, new-school design and contemporary pop culture references from Super Mario to Pokémon, Bull and Henry revive the art form known worldwide as the Face of Japan. Ukiyo-e Heroes is a process-driven doc that preserves hundreds of years of mastery by showing the creation of a woodblock print from start to finish, and features iconic Japanese artists and grand masters whose tools and materials support the work.

Below, writer, director and producer Toru Tokikawa spoke about the film’s production:

What was the genesis for this film?

Our creative director found the Ukiyo-e Heroes prints on the web and then she researched further to find there were two very different individuals behind the making of the art ­– a young game nerd and an old-school craftsman. I instantly fell in love with their art and instinctively thought there must be a story to tell. They are contrasting otaku (a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests) with a father-and-son generation gap.
Their story has an East meets West vibe — two Westerners trying to revive an ancient Asian art form using global pop-culture icons from Japanese video games. It’s a story of different people collaborating despite their boundaries and differences. They create something unique together.

Can you name two or three specific production challenges you faced?

Budget, budget, budget. In documentary filmmaking,  you’ve got to go when you’ve got to go sometimes. We wanted to film and show the content while it was still fresh for the global audience. Also, after further researching the project, I learned there were fewer and fewer master-class craftsmen remaining active. I knew I had to film it now.
I’ve always regretted not being able to film and interview the late Frankie Knuckles, my DJ idol and the godfather of the house music, for my DJ show. We deal with real people in documentary and the subjects are obviously irreplaceable.

Stylistically, what choices did you make when it came to filming in the U.S. vs. Tokyo?

I respected the lights and vibes of each locations. Each place has its own feel and groove in the daylight and streetlight. I used hand-polished old prime lenses and a narrow focal point. I hope the audience can feel the atmosphere from the image and audio.

How did you decide what music to use in the documentary? 

I love and admire the work of my composer, Alan Braxe. He is a legendary French electronic DJ/producer who has worked with Thomas Bangaltier of Daft Punk and Beyoncé among others.

Alan’s sound is classy and sophisticated, but contains human warmth and emotions that I really like. We first met for a project to write and direct his music video while I was still in Paris. The project didn’t happen, but we remained great friends. I have a sci-fi anime feature project that Alan will score, and he has already created a track for the teaser trailer. The new anime movie tells a story of father-and-son emotions, people overcoming their differences to find bonding and love. Interestingly, Ukiyo-e Heroes is also somehow a story of father and son. Although Dave and Jed are not a biological family, they are bonded by the art they create together. So for both films, Alan’s music is the perfect match.

What are your plans for the film after its premiere at Hot Docs?

We’ve already sold it to Japan and discussing U.S. and ROW territories. The trailer has great responses from North America as well as U.K., EU, Australia and East Asia so far from both gaming, anime & comic-con demographic and art & craft fans. I’m expecting Canada to show this content to their audience. They should honor and celebrate the unique and exceptional Canadian talent David Bull and his legacy.

What message do you hope audiences take away from Ukiyo-e Heroes?

Making things together is a way to understand each other. Dave and Jed, despite their differences, make art together and find love and bonding. I hope the audience will get inspired to make things with not only their friends and loved ones, but also with strangers. We can understand each other better by breaking own cells. By creating something great together, we can find love and bonding.

  • Ukiyo-e Heroes premieres at Hot Docs on Tuesday May 2 at 9 p.m. ET at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
  • The 2017 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 27 to May 7.
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