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These GIFs of Hokusai Woodblock Art with UFOs and Lasers Are Freaking Awesome

Ukiyo-e from the future.
Image: Atsuki Segawa

Japanese video artist Atsuki Segawa has created Ukiyo-e 2.0 by transforming some centuries-old woodblock art into a series of animated gifs. Ukiyo-e are woodblock prints that became popular in Japan from the 17th to the 19th century. In Segawa's quirkily repurposed world, futuristic objects make cameo appearances in the Japan of old as kimono-clad women laser down aircrafts, gaze upon UFOs, and wave psychedelic glow sticks to the beats of a traditional theatre performance.


For his first animated gif project, which he has entered into Japan's 2015 GIF Awards, Segawa told me he stuck to adding layers to the work of Ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai, who is known internationally for his print The Great Wave of Kanagawa.

"I chose Hokusai's work because the lines in his drawings are really clear, so it's easier to make them into animations," Segawa told me. He used Adobe After Effects and Photoshop to create his gifs.

Ukiyo-e (translated as "pictures of the floating world") were mass produced in Japan in the Edo period (1615-1868). The prints are often populated with roaming travellers, beautiful women, landscapes, stern-faced Kabuki actors, as well as erotica, and the supernatural.

Since starting the project, Segawa's gifs have prompted unexpected feedback from the Twitter community, with some of his biggest hits racking up to 1.5k shares.

"I never thought it would be so popular," he admitted. "I was even surprised to receive messages from people living abroad, seeing as I wrote everything on Twitter in Japanese."

One gif, of women in a tea house (Yoshida at Tokaido) looking out onto a passing bullet train, was inspired by real life. "There's an actual bullet train running in that city now (Toyohashi city in Aichi prefecture in central Japan)," said Segawa.

Segawa told me that he's got a few more ideas up his sleeves for his Hokusai series, but would be game to experiment with other genres of art in the future.

As for the inspiration behind his future-past mashup—he tells me most of it just "came in a flash."

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.