Working in partnership with Dave Bull, Jed Henry is bridging the gap between ancient and contemporary media through the Ukiyo-e Heroes project, which has been in full swing since 2012. A gamer and animator, Jed builds off of his experience in both spheres and couples it with a passion for traditional Japanese woodblock prints. The result is a growing Ukiyo-e Heroes community, including a collection of prints, a workshop, and an upcoming video game known as “Edo Superstar” in the works. In this Jed Henry interview, we learn that Japanese cultural motifs are consistent in his work. As an artist and designer, he plays a crucial role in preserving traditional technique for audiences across the world and generations to come.
Q 1 || We have featured works by Hokusai, Ohara Koson, Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Mitomo Horihiro on our site, what are some of your favorite ukiyoe artists?
I love the late Edo Period designers. My particular favorites are Yoshitoshi Tsukioka and Ogata Gekko. Every time I look at their designs, I’m instantly in awe!
Q 2 || You’ve mentioned that Japanese video games reflect the culture they represent- can you give some specific examples of the role that traditional values and ideals play in Japanese video game narrative?
Japanese mythological themes often appear in video games. My favorite example is from the famous epic Gikeiki. In it, the warrior Yoshitsune double jumps to defeat the great Benkei. I wouldn’t be surprised if double jumping ultimately has Chinese or even Indian roots. But the reference I know comes from Gikeiki. I think double jumping is taken for granted in games, but I doubt double jumping would exist if Japan wasn’t part of the gaming scene.
I also think games’ visual design has been heavily influenced by Japanese art. In the West, artists were obsessed with realism. In the East, artists were concerned more with creative design, rather than realism. Even now, Western gamers often gravitate to realistic gaming graphics, while Japanese designers create more stylized cartoony worlds. It’s all just a continuation of medieval artistic tastes between East and West!
Q 3 || How does the reception of your work in Japan compare to that of the United States?
It’s funny to note the difference between the Japanese and Western reaction to my art. In the West, lots of people want to own the prints. Most of my customers are Westerners. But I rarely get official attention from U.S. media outlets. In Japan, it’s the exact opposite. I rarely get Japanese customers, but my artwork is on Japanese TV several times each year. I’m not sure why this difference exists, but I find it very amusing.
Q 4 || As a westerner, do you ever feel that you miss certain Japanese cultural nuances while creating and interpreting your artwork?
Absolutely. I try to do lots of research before attempting each print, but in the end I’m certain I miss important imagery. That is the catch 22 of studying Japanese: the more you know, the more you realize you’re clueless! It’s so infuriating!
Q 5 ||How do you add some of your own personal story and identity to your artwork and imagery?
I love nature, and I take extra care when designing natural forms for my works. It’s a big challenge to make animals, plants and people look real, but also still adhere to Ukiyo-e design. I love the challenge!