Opinion

The Literal Floating World of Video Games in Ukiyo-E Art

Link and Donkey Kong reimagined in ukiyo-e style. Images via Jed Henry.
The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong reimagined in ukiyo-e style. Images via Jed Henry.

OAKLAND, California — The iconic tidal wave of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c.1829–32) is often one the first images we’ll recall when asked about ukiyo-e (浮世絵) art. Literally meaning “pictures of the floating world,” the ukiyo-e genre emerged in Japan in the 1600s and consisted of woodblock prints of the floating world. While we most frequently encounter them now in museums of fine art, these prints were an early example of mass production and pop art, and they depicted all kinds of subject matter, from pornography to politics to landscapes.

Hokusai's The Great Wave Off Kanagawa
Hokusai’s “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” (c.1829–32) (via Wikipedia)

Ukiyo-e Heroes, a new series by American artists Jed Henry and Dave Bull, continues the ukiyo-e form with video game characters. It raised a stunning $300,000 on Kickstarter, and it’s easy to understand why: the project takes video games, a perennial favorite, and sets them in the context of actual woodblock prints. Photoshop filter this is not: Bull and Henry are following traditional Japanese methods to create the works, leaning heavily on Bull’s 25 year practice in the form in Tokyo.

A feature in Fast Company tells the story of how Henry began the series, and the intensive collaboration he struck up with Bull:

“For every piece, I have to do a lot of research because I’m trying to channel long-dead foreign artists I don’t necessarily draw like,” explains Henry. “At first I felt guilty about lifting so much from the masters, until David pointed out to me this is how ukiyo-e has always worked: There’s a master artist, and then apprentices who spend years copying him. I was just inadvertently creating the Japanese apprenticeship system.”

Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charizard dance around an enso--a popular Zen symbol.
Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Squirtle and Charizard dance around an enso — a popular Zen symbol. (click to enlarge)

The characters are meticulously illustrated and produced. At first glance, they read like the traditional prints, but a closer look reveals that it’s a koopa troopa pulling Bowser on a rickshaw, and that’s Link slaying a dragon with a bow and arrow (despite being armed with two awkwardly-placed samurai swords). Almost all of the characters also emerge out of another great Japanese pop art tradition: video game design.

That a centuries-old Japanese aesthetic tradition is being reawoken by two white men from the West might be seen as co-optation of the culture. However, ukiyo-e have long had an acknowledged influence on Western aesthetics. Impressionist artists like Monet and Degas were heavily influenced by the color, lines and subject matter of the form, and walking into a Frank Lloyd Wright home feels like walking into a ukiyo-e print for good reason. And the cultural impact of Japanese video games on the West is impossible to deny. In many ways, games are a new form of floating world (literally floating too!).

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A Mario Brothers-inspired woodblock print. (via ukiyoeheroes.com)

“This heritage [of Japan’s creative culture] is especially evident in Japan’s video game industry,” Henry wrote in a statement for his Kickstarster. “Boss fights. Invulnerable heroes. Holy swords. Even the classic double-jump can be traced back to medieval Japanese legends.”

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