Video-game characters time-travel to the Edo Period

by Brian Ashcraft

Special To The Japan Times

When most people in the know look at Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong, they picture them in action in the video games that made them famous. But not Jed Henry. Instead, the 28 year-old American artist imagines how these game characters would have looked if they were around in the days of Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) from the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Until recently, Utah-based Henry has been best known as the illustrator / author of children’s books, including “I Speak Dinosaur!” and the upcoming “Cheer Up, Mouse!” (which will be published in January). But lately he has been attracting attention online with his “Ukiyo Heroes” — a series of woodblock-print-style illustrations inspired by video games that feature iconic game characters in bygone Japanese settings.

The Japan Times talked to Henry about his work for the “Ukiyo” series.

Why did you decide to start drawing video-game characters in a Japanese-woodblock style?

When I look at premodern Japanese prints, I can’t help but imagine them as video games. The prints were made with the same intent as our modern video games — as affordable pop culture for the masses. Those printmakers and artists chose themes that thrilled and excited their public: monsters, ghosts, warriors, romance. We have all the same themes in our modern entertainment. Because video games evolved primarily in Japan, I think a lot of those pop-culture motifs endured. Can you imagine if Europeans had created the first games? Instead of slaying monsters, we’d have games about empires suppressing colonial uprisings, or battle-strategy games about Catholic and Protestant wars. Game over!

How long does it usually take you to create one of your “Ukiyo Heroes”?

A completed design takes about 20 hours, give or take, depending on how complicated it is.

How do you create them? Describe your process.

I sketch the designs in Photoshop. Then I print the sketch, and draw the lines with a Japanese calligraphy pen, just like (ukiyo-e artists) used to do. Then I scan it back into Photoshop, and finish the piece digitally.

How many have have you done so far?

I’ve completed about a half-dozen now, and I’ll do a total of a dozen or so. Then I’ll sell them on Kickstarter starting Aug. 1.

I actually plan to incorporate a real, handmade woodblock run in my Kickstarter campaign. I’ve got a traditional carver/printer in Tokyo lined up for production.

Have you ever been to Japan? I noticed your website ( has a Japanese-language page, too.

I lived in Tokyo for two years as a Mormon missionary. I studied the language voraciously, and generally had a party. It was a great experience.

What video games and artists inspired you?

My childhood was steeped in video games. Honestly, I don’t know why my parents didn’t make me go outside more often — we played a lot of games. As a developing artist, I looked to video games for my first inspiration. I used to copy the art from the instruction manuals. I also preferred to watch other people play, rather than play myself, because it allowed me to pay more attention the game’s art.

I’m a gamer at heart. My favorites are “Shadow of the Colossus,” and pretty much any Japanese role-playing game. So much beautiful artwork goes into those games — it blows me away.

In high school, I discovered the artwork of (“Final Fantasy” artist) Yoshitaka Amano, and it completely blew my mind. His style had all the patterns and flat design of a Japanese woodblock, but also incorporated Western sensibilities. His pictures look like the lovechild of (English book illustrator) Arthur Rackham and (Edo Period ukiyo-e master) Tukioka Yoshitoshi, with a little bit of 1980s fabulous to finish it off. Between video-game art, Amano and Yoshitoshi, I’ve got all the inspiration I need.

For more of Jed Henry’s work, check out his Tumblr page:

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