Gaming culture’s gotten huge. It’s easy to miss, but the gaming industry makes more than either the movie or music industries. Hot Docs in Toronto plugs into the gaming world this year with two very different documentaries. Living the Game takes a revealing look at the world’s best competitive Street Fighter players, while Ukiyo-e Heroes is a subtler portrait of an unlikely collaboration, as an elderly master of Japanese woodblock carving teams up with a graphic designer to make classical Japanese prints of modern gaming characters.
Takao Gotsu’s Living the Game is a riveting look at a season in the life of pro gamers. That there’s a market big enough to support a cadre of top-flight Street Fighter players is astonishing enough. Seeing the precariousness of their lives against their clear talent and adulation is very revealing. When a world class star like Daigo “The Beast” Umehara can make mincemeat of his opponents, or an up-and-comer like Yusuke Momochi describes the split-second timing to land moves in a single frame, a sixtieth of a second, it’s clear that these players are skilled and highly trained. The only thing keeping them from baseball or basketball money is the size of the audiences. But that’s growing all the time, and now they compete at tournaments all over the world for prizes that have reached $100,000. While the film moves a bit too slowly taking in its panoply of dextrous wonders, Living the Game uncovers an equally fascinating mystery: the ephemerality of star power. Daigo has “it” in spades, an effortless free-wheeling innovator. Now in the fading years of his career, he contemplates ways to make life better for other gamers. Meanwhile Momochi sweats mastering every technique, and even his wins seem to pain him. Nothing comes easy, even as he climbs higher in the world rankings, his goal to be the best. The two are a perfect contrast. For the stars to shine, someone has to be the night.
Toru Tokikowa’s Ukiyo-e Heroes is a slower film, naturally more contemplative given the nature of its subject. Japanese woodblock carving is a centuries old art, where an illustration is carved onto a series of woodcut blocks and inked onto paper via the blocks. The classical images are quite beautiful, and represent an early progenitor of the comic art. The film opens focusing on David Bull, an unusual figure in and of himself. A Canadian ex-pat, Bull has given his life to mastering woodblock illustration in Japan. With no traditional master, he’s emerged over many years as a self-taught genius, keeping alive the fading tradition. The path of his life and art is transformed when he partners with the young American designer Jed Henry. Henry took it into his head that making traditional Japanese illustrations of Nintendo and Pokémon characters could be a big thing. Once he and Bull started working together, they caught lightning in a bottle, launching their collaboration on Kickstarter to tremendous success. Their relationship is unusual and perfectly symbiotic, each bringing a vital skill to the table. While Bull is a convivial rambler talking about his life and his art, the eventual evolution of one of their pieces is among the best parts of the documentary. Anyone interested in prints, comics or classic gaming and Japanese animation is bound to find Ukiyo-e Heroes interesting, as it explores creating mass art in a deeply old-fashioned way.
Living the Game opens tonight, May 2nd, at Hot Docs in Toronto , playing at 8:30pm at the ScotiaBank Theatre. It plays again at ScotiaBank on May 4th at 8:45pm and May 7th at 6:15pm (more info at HotDocs here). Ukiyo-e Heroes plays the ScotiaBank Theatre tonight, May 2nd, at 9pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and on May 4th at Scotiabank at 12:30pm (more info at HotDocs here).