In our Culture Crossover series we pick up examples of projects that delightfully bridge the worlds of technology and culture. We'll be reviewing exhibitions, giving you a heads up on cultural events or talks coming up in the UK and highlighting the best techy art.
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The carmaker Lexus, a subsidiary of Toyota, has released a documentary that aims to resolve whether master crafts workers can possibly survive in a world that continues to move towards automation and artificial intelligence. It takes the unusual form of a '60,000-hour-long' film.
The 54-minute feature stresses the traditional Japanese notion that a worker will not be considered a master of their craft until they have spent 60,000 hours working on it, which is the equivalent of eight hours a day for 250 days a year for 30 years - these master craftspeople, the film says, are called Takumi.
To illustrate this, Takumi follows four Japanese individuals in the pursuit of mastery of their work: a carpenter working in one of Japan's oldest construction firms (Shigeo Kiuchi); a restaurateur and chef (Hisato Nakahigashi); a paper-cutting or kirie expert (Nahoko Kojima); and an inspector of vehicles (Katsuaki Suganuma) at the Lexus plant, the company that sponsored the film.
The team behind the documentary actually identified at least 100 potential subjects - and even thought of Katsuhiro Otomo, the legendary manga artist and force behind Akira - before settling on these four craftspeople, due to the usual mixture of availability and interest in the project. But they also wanted to tell the story of creative work in four stages, progressing from the arch-traditional, to the more modern in the restaurateur, the early stages of technological fusion with the paper cutter experimenting in 3D printing, and finally the ultra-modern nature of a luxury car manufacturer.
Summing up the concept of 'takumi' in a press statement, kirie artist Nahoko Kojima says: "The essence of takumi is to gain a sublime understanding of the nuances of a particular art. To be focused and spend countless hours on one thing, and to carry on, requires one to empty the mind and focus in a way that simply isn't possible when still acquiring a skill."
The film is directed by Clay Jeter, director for Netflix Original, Chef's Table, and narrated by Neil MacGregor, who formerly was director at the British Museum.
There are two immediate questions that come to the fore. One: can a film really be 60,000 hours long? Two: is sponsored content an advert or a documentary? And these, it turns out, raise some more.
Can a film really be 60,000 hours long?
Extremely long cinema is a mainstay in cinephile circles, with the works of Tarkovsky, for example, at the lower end of the spectrum, clocking in at a not-insignificant roughly three hours. When you get to films like Bela Tarr's Satantango, the episodic art film that hits almost eight hours, or the Holocaust documentary, Shoah, which spans just over ten hours, even the most dedicated viewer might feel challenged to complete the pieces in a single sitting, let alone taking the difficulty of the subject matter into account.
Sixty thousand hours then seems an obviously insurmountable task. The team set out to make a 60,000 hour film before the other aspects fell into place.
While the version available on Amazon Prime is just under an hour, the version that was uploaded to the Takumi website is indeed that long.
Mostly consisting of loops of footage of the masters at work, the film uses technology also utilised in Black Mirror Bandersnatch to remind the viewer, as the loops continue, that the running time will indeed last 60,000 hours. It will then bring up a fast-forward prompt to skip through those loops, each about 20,000 hours long, at various speeds to bring on the next 'Takumi' vignette.
The idea is, then, a conceptual one that eschews conventional forms of narrative, instead placing the viewer 'in time' with the aim of conveying just how much time, effort, and patience goes into 20,000 hours of work.
Creative director of the film from the T&P agency, Dave Bedwood, says that the genesis of the story was to depict the extremities of craftsmanship. "We dug into it and found out about Takumi," he tells Techworld by phone this week. "I was reading [Malcolm] Gladwell at the time, on the 10,000 hour rule - the idea came from that.
"The idea really was to do a 60,000 hour film, we thought no one is going to watch that, but that's sort of the point. It felt quite interesting to do that in a world where we're told by Google and Facebook that people don't watch past six seconds and everyone has a phone addiction - it's quite an interesting concept to show the opposite, if you want to be great."
Is it an advert or a documentary?
Anyone with their eyes open will have noticed how in the last decade - as traditional advertising methods fall out of common use for reasons of practicality or, more commonly, of profit - sponsored content has become king.
There are plenty of examples where this works well, one of the most successful being Red Bull Music Academy where, although a brand is clearly displayed in the name of the publication, talented journalists, writers and other creatives are given the space and budget to promote interesting stories.
Bedwood says that although the film started as an advertising brief - as a project that could highlight Lexus' craftsmanship - the team, with Clay Jeter et the helm, decided that it couldn't be a gimmick void of concept; it couldn't be the story of a carmaker that other voices are bolted onto.
"With [Jeter] we sort of developed the story and realised that no, it can't be a Lexus film that other people are in - it needs to be a bigger film that says something a bit more interesting culturally," he explains. "It moved from advertising into: how do you do something? To get onto these platforms, and even the old-fashioned broadcasters, they don't put anything on unless it's entertaining first and foremost, and obviously a brand doesn't want to pay a lot of money for something that doesn't have them in it.
"So you have this constant balance of 'we have to make something that's got a story beyond Lexus', but also allows Lexus to be in there in a meaningful way."
As you would expect with the team behind Chef's Table, the film is beautifully shot, produced, scripted, and paced (at least the significantly shorter iteration you'll find on Prime). Just enough context is provided on the artisans themselves, situating their exceptional craft within their lives, and why they do what they do, whether filially by generation, existential reasons, or for the sake of the craft itself. This is all told in a way that balances the human with the output. Each of them is a worthy subject of a longer examination but in the vignette form the film achieves much.
Peppered between the portraits of these artisans are commentaries from talking heads on increasingly pressing societal and political questions of our time. What does it mean to work? Will unaccountable Silicon Valley corporations automate a sizeable portion of people out of meaningful existence?
This is where the funding of the film becomes more pronounced.
Toyota, in May 2018, committed to an enormous round of cost-cutting. Not to single this carmaker out in particular: the whole auto industry has been riven with industrial actions, strikes and layoffs. So a film that has a common thread of uncertainty around AI running through it smarts somewhat. Lexus, of course, is the brand's high-end car arm, and will to an extent have to obey slightly different laws to cars that are mass produced on a higher scale.
This is also where the film's central premise wavers. On the whole, the documentary supports the idea of hard work, niche, individual craftsmanship, and patience paying dividends - the kinds of qualities that have become scarce in today's societies, particularly among the financial-economy countries of the global north.
There is also an irony in the message. First, a cynic (me) might suggest that we can't all be master artisans - there will be undoubtedly a great deal of people left behind by automation. Second, if those functions could be automated economically to provide more profit to the shareholders, then they would be. The crafts people featured know their trades, and robotics or AI are nowhere yet near the level to usurp their talent. But if they could - then what?
It was mass production that in the first instance displaced people from their roles in the creative process. Fordism (which to be fair to the filmmakers, does get a mention) and 'Taylorism' dictated that workers would become cogs in the overarching machine, each doing their bit on the production line and stripping the creativity that many in manufacturing were stakeholders in, in pre-mass industrial times.
However, Bedwood tells Techworld that the tension could be taken quite deliberately.
"Clay was interested in that," he says. "There is certainly a tension there. Lexus is a luxury car brand ... if you're making mass-produced cars you can't do it without huge mechanisation and robots. What they have through craftsmanship, and these takumi, is the human touch - and the level of craft that adds something that machines can't yet replicate.
"When you're working with a brand, it can lose all conflict and tension because they don't want to put something out there that's going to raise questions - they want to tell people 'we're great'," he adds. "Part of this was, if you're going to make a film, it's got to have - for the cynics - a 'was that a load of nonsense?' You want to keep that because that's what makes it a film, rather than a brochure that's moving. You have to be very wary of that, that you're not avoiding the interesting questions."
Perhaps it is unfair to dwell on this for too long - the questions are certainly bigger than an individual luxury car manufacturer. But they are there nevertheless.