Mario and Link Give Japanese Woodblock Art a Few Extra Hearts

When Jed Henry decided to combine his love of woodblock art and classic Nintendo games, he didn’t realize he was going to help revive an entire art form. Henry, an illustrator and artist based in Utah, thought that designing Nintendo characters in the classic Japanese woodcut style, known as ukiyo-e, would make an interesting project. Being a newcomer to ukiyo-e he approached David Bull, an English artist who has spent the past 30 years in Japan studying woodblock techniques.

At first Bull was hesitant. Ukiyo-e has languished for years, with most artists focusing on reproducing only the most famous historical prints rather than trying to do anything new with the form. Then Bull saw Henry’s work on “Soul Eater,” in which a samurai Kirby fights his nemesis, King Dedede—and the sinister Nightmare looms above. Bull found the image so striking that he decided to take a chance on the project, and the pair worked together on a series of pieces that put Nintendo heroes like Mario, Link, and Samus in the classic Edo-era settings of rickshaw-clogged streets and sumo rings.

When they pair took Ukiyo-e Heroes to Kickstarter, it exploded—earning $300,000 dollars in a month, and becoming the most successful project in Kickstarter history. Henry and Bull print every third order using the traditional woodcut process, and several of their prints now hang on the walls in the Nintendo America offices. But even more exciting is the way the series has revived an ancient art form. Bull writes:

For almost 70 years, there have been no new, fresh ukiyo-e designs. All the printers doing this have literally done nothing their entire lives but make reproductions of century-old prints for tourists. No one cared about it anymore. Now, I’ve got young people all around the world who are writing me, asking where woodprints have been their whole life. It’s all because of Jed. He singlehandedly revitalized the craft of traditional Japanese woodblock printing. Even a guy like me pushed him away. But he had a vision, and he just kept pushing his way right back in.

You can read more about Ukiyo-e Heroes over at Fast Company, and watch the production video below!

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