“To become a real takumi takes a lot of time. It takes a lifetime to get to the top, the pinnacle of being a takumi,” says Shigeo Kiuchi. He should know. The carpenter has been practicing his craft for 40 years, ever since his father, also a master carpenter, took him to see his work on the 1,400-year-old Shitennō-ji Temple’s restoration. “I was seven years old and I remember climbing up these railings which were about 20 metres high. Back then, there were no safety standards, and people used to just jump from one part of the temple roof to another. I remember it being quite scary.”
Shigeo is one of four craftspeople profiled in the beautiful new documentary, Takumi, which is coming to Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms next week. Directed by Clay Jeter, who is probably best known for Netflix’s Chef’s Table, the 54-minute documentary is an intimate portrait of Japanese artisans who have each passed the requisite 60,000 hours required to attain Takumi status, welcoming viewers into the picturesque temples, restaurants, papercraft studios and the Lexus factory. That last setting might not seem the most obvious backdrop for this level of human craft. Indeed, this last chapter centres on the crux of the question the film is asking. Director Clay describes the place as: “like being in a space station. It’s a place where robots are helping other robots perform tasks, yet we still find this integral role of the human being. While humans are less precise than AI and technology, they still have senses such as sight and hearing that technology cannot yet replicate. A robot can’t tell you exactly what it feels like to sit in a car.”
Written by The&Partnership London creative partner Dave Bedwood for the agency’s client, Lexus, Takumi wrestles with the tension between automation and the human senses that the car brand builds its reputation for quality upon. To bring home the feeling of the 60,000 hours required to become a Takumi, the team also made a film that lasts that long. Of course, they don’t expect anyone to actually watch the 60,000 hour edit, but it’s all there if you want to.
As you might imagine, this has been a huge undertaking for the agency to pull off, requiring almost takumi levels of mastery. LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Dave to find out what it took to achieve this feat.
LBB> Where did the idea of focusing on the concept of the Takumi come from?
Dave> That came from the strategy to focus on the craft of Lexus. There is no better proof point than the fact Lexus have these Takumi craftspeople within their factories.
LBB> And when did that turn into a (VERY) long-form project? What was the reasoning?
Dave> The initial idea was very, very long from the start. Lexus Takumi craftspeople devote 60,000 hours to attain true mastery. Which was just a number to me, so how do you get a sense of how much time that actually is?
Currently there is a lot written about the effects of phone addiction, especially for our children. This sense that attention deficiency is being exasperated by these new habits being formed. Google and Facebook telling us no one watches anything past six seconds unless it really captures or dupes them. It leads to all this fake news, sensationalist stuff. It felt like we could make a point by doing the opposite and putting something out there that was 60,000 hours long. There was the 10,000-hour theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, and this could press on that even more - to do something great requires repetition, devotion, whether you are a sportsperson, a musician, an artist, a craftsman. It takes time, it’s hard, accept that, don’t buy the shortcuts.
At that point it was less a story and more an advertising idea. But the question was eventually asked - what are we going to fill the time with? Writing wise it was a different process to how you'd usually approach a long-form piece. We had to find a narrative that would work in 60 minutes, to get us on streaming platforms, but could also be 60,000 hours to satisfy the original idea – the medium is the message.
For the 60,000 hour version we had to create a bespoke player. It was a technical challenge, and clearly we couldn't send out the film crew for 30 years to capture the footage, or 10 crews for three years.
But I think we got to an elegant solution - which combined the philosophy of a Takumi and our technical limitations. Takumis are about repetition and no shortcuts. Doing the same process for years, perfecting, perfecting. So we made short film sequences of three to five minutes for three of our Takumis. These sequences just followed them as they went about their daily business. Quite calm, meditative to watch. They were then looped, over and over for 20,000 hours each. Technically that means we only ever have to load in the initial sequence then every subsequent loop is effectively for free. So a 60,000 hour film can be created with 54 mins of documentary and 20 minutes of footage which is looped - yet still makes the point.
If a viewer was to hit play on the online version it would run non stop for 7 years. But crucially, for us non-Takumi, they can fast forward through these looped sequences by holding down the space bar. It has three increasing speeds, warp speed will go through thousands of hours in seconds, till the viewer catches up with the next chapter in the documentary. In our 54-minute edit it’s exactly the same film, we just fast forward through the looped sequences in 10 seconds.
LBB> How did you settle on Clay Jeter as director and what was it he brought to the idea that worked so well?
Dave> We had some amazing filmmakers treat on the idea - Asif Kapadia, Morgan Neville and Clay Jeter. They all brought something different to it, and all would have made a film we would have been proud of. But Clay just had a very clear idea of how he could tell a great documentary narrative whilst still managing to also create a 60,000 hour film.
LBB> What was the process like for finding your four Takumis for the film?
Dave> Clay and his team found a wide range of Takumis and we also inputted into this initial search. Obviously a lot of things have to align, and the list gets shorter as you go on. It was the typical case of finding not only fascinating people but having them give a sense of journey in the film itself.
Once we had our 'old world' Takumi - the carpenter from Kongo Gumi - it gave us a starting point to the film and thus helped direct the choices for the other Takumis. How each could add to and build the story? The casting process was in essence a writing process, it informed where the themes might be, how the structure could evolve and vice versa, the structure then re-focused our casting brief to find particular types of Takumi.
LBB> What were your major decisions along the way and how were they informed?
Dave> There were a few major decisions along the way. All of them were guided by the story.
Firstly deciding that it had to be told in a way that was good enough to be on a streaming platform. Which meant we had to commit to creating a film that wasn’t a Lexus story that others were part of, but a bigger cultural story that Lexus could play a relevant role within.
Secondly we had to stay true to the 60,000-hour idea, which was also solved by the story by finding the structure and theme of AI vs. craft. This also led to another big decision - to have the Lexus Takumi last in the film, which is a brave decision considering this is a brand-funded documentary, but it made complete sense from a story perspective. I suppose people would consider a car factory to be the height of AI and tech - so the film builds towards this place, a place where we believe craft must die, yet we find Takumi there.
LBB> What is your most enduring memory of the whole project?
Dave> It has been such a long process that I can’t remember half of them, I just know there were a lot of them. It was an ambitious project so Lexus believing in the concept and the global nature of such a process was a great moment. A real ‘shit, we’re actually going to do this’. But I’d have to choose the culmination of all the work everyone put in and that was the Premiere screening in New York at DOCNYC. To watch it again, but as a punter, with people who had paid to see it, on a massive screen - with the group of people who made it happen, that was really enjoyable.
LBB> How do you hope people will engage with the film, both as a documentary work and as a brand-building endeavour?
Dave> I was hoping that the two would be inextricably linked. Lexus has a genuine story and it helped that we took world-class filmmaking talent to the start of the process and built upon it - rather than already having a film idea we wanted to flog or get funding for. That always ends in some sort of compromise. But, critically, this needs to be seen and consumed as a documentary people are engaged in, with an interesting view on something relevant to them. That’s the thing we had to crack, otherwise the rest is academic.