Creativity isn’t just about creating fancy designs.
For the Japanese band Sour, Masashi Kawamura created one of the most interesting YouTube videos of all time. For Hakuhodo, 180 Amsterdam, BBH, New York and Wieden + Kennedy, New York, he came up with campaigns for Nissan, PlayStation, Levi’s, adidas, Google, and Nike. With his new agency, Party, based in NYC and Tokyo, he has won several Gold Lions in Cannes right out of the blocks. Hermann Vaske met up with the exceptional creative in New York and Cannes.
L.A.: Masashi Kawamura, your company’s name is Party. How did you get it started?
Masashi Kawamura: Party was founded by the five partners, who are me and Naoki Ito, ex-ECD of Wieden + Kennedy, Tokyo; Morihiro Harano, ex-founder and CD of Drill Tokyo; Hiroki Nakamura, who was a CD at Dentsu; and Qanta Shimizu, who was a Technical Director at IMG SRC, Tokyo. And we’ve known each other for a while, you know, through our works. I was living abroad, but every time I go to an award show, I see some work from Japan, and I was pretty impressed by it. And a lot of the times, it was made by the same names, and it was actually done by these four people in these different places. I always wanted to connect with them and then eventually – since it’s such a small circle of people in this industry – I met them through a friend of a friend, and we got together and kind of dreamed about doing something together someday. We always were joking about it, saying: “Maybe sometime, somewhere, someday.” Then it kind of went on without anything really happening, but, finally, this year we reconnected and figured out: “Well, maybe we could, you know, we were always talking about it, but maybe it is the right time to try and jump together and do this kind of small shot that we’ve always dreamed about doing.” I think it was also due to the long experience in our agencies. We’ve all been involved in agencies for about ten years or more. We felt that there was a lot of interesting work that could be done there, but we also felt that there is this new way, or different ways, of working and different ways of creating things. And it all stemmed off of conversations around things like the interactive technologies and the pace of production having changed, and there are all those different mediums you can use, so art and advertising is coming together in one and there are no more boundaries. A lot of agencies are trying to do this, working to figure out new ways to create communications, but because they have such a massive structure, it’s always difficult to really make radical changes fast enough. So we really wanted to cut away from those contexts and start something of our own that at least makes the five of us feel: “This is the way we should make stuff now.”
L.A.: Where did you get together? Did you meet in New York or Tokyo to kick this off?
Masashi Kawamura: Actually, we have offices in Tokyo and New York, and we have our headquarters in Tokyo, because I guess that’s where our home town is. But we feel it’s really important to have an office outside of Japan as well, especially due to the crisis. Everybody left after the whole earthquake, and you know, nuclear issues, radiation ... And also because of the fact that Japan is so closed. We had a market which was pretty strong and big, but because of this every Japanese creative felt like they could just work in Japan. They were getting enough money and there were enough outlets. But that’s really changing now. We really want to expose more of these Japanese creative talents to the outside world, and we are hoping that our company, Party, could become like a hub for the creatives in Japan and for the clients outside, and vice versa. For example, Japanese clients that want to work with foreign creatives, and foreign clients that want to work with Japanese creatives, can both work with us to do so. We are soon going to hire local staffs in New York, so we want to create this circulation of clients and creatives in a new way. We want to keep this flow very agile, so we plan to keep our company fairly small.
L.A.: But you met in Tokyo first, right?
Masashi Kawamura: That was quite a while back, like two or three years ago. We’d never really worked together, and the five of us had never sat down at a table together, I think that only happened this year.
L.A.: And you had sushi together and sorted it out, yes?
Masashi Kawamura: Yes (laughs). It was pretty quick, and I think the tragedy in March really accelerated the process as well. We felt like, “Ok, it’s really bad times in Japan, but I think we could look at this as an opportunity for change,” now that people are realizing the power of Twitter and social networks. These things were what people relied on when the earthquake hit. So there was a lot more focus in that field, a lot more focus on the need for change for the industry. Even in the economy, the way the advertising business was structured. So we just wanted to get on to that and start something new, and hopefully we could become an initiator of that big change.
L.A.: Did you have your office up and running already? Your office is in Tokyo?
Masashi Kawamura: No, we were only preparing for it. I was still in New York when that happened. We were all in different places but, after the tragedy, I immediately tried to connect with them, and also my family, and everyone. I was so worried about them. And then, eventually, things started to settle down and I finally got to connect with them, and we had this conversation, you know, “Should we really start up a company in such times?” but I think after a month of debate, the four of them in Japan decided ”Yes, we should do it and, Masa, you should come and join us.” So I was like, “Ok, let’s do it.”
L.A.: So, how can creativity be used to help solve the problems your country is facing?
Masashi Kawamura: I think creativity can bring many changes. The way I look at creativity isn’t just about creating fancy designs, but I think it’s more about finding the problems that you need to solve, and I think that’s what creativity is about. And then answering that in a very smart way. There are obviously a lot of issues in Japan. Not just earthquakes, but also the way the government works, and how people treat advertising, or how mass media is dysfunctional, etcetera etcetera. And we as a company feel that there’s a strong potential for creative directors to serve almost as advisors to these different areas, to figure out smarter ways to communicate. Developing new products or new services that could help solve these problems. And that’s another thing our company really wants to do.
L.A.: That’s why they call them think tanks.
Masashi Kawamura: Yes, well, we call ourselves creative labs, actually. We didn’t want to call ourselves an agency, because we just don’t want to do only advertising. We will be doing some, because that’s our background, but that’s only going to be fifty percent or less. What we want to do is to actually work with the clients to create services and products, whether that be a tangible object or an online service. We want to bring innovation to the core, the source of the issue. And then try to make communications for them …
L.A.: That’s interesting.
Masashi Kawamura: That’s kind of our style. Making prototypes for products.
L.A.: Can you give us an example?
Masashi Kawamura: Well, it’s really diffi-cult because some of it’s still confidential …
L.A.: Tell us about these ideas then, these stories that were so quick to win Gold Lions for Party.
Masashi Kawamura: Yes, so the first Gold Lion we got was a Design Lion for an interactive music video called Sour Mirror. That was a video that I made last year for the band Sour, and it was a music video, but it was technically not a music video, because it was all program and the whole experience happened on your browser. What it does is it actually accesses your Twitter and Facebook account and, by doing that, it actually collects all the data from your social networking sites (Twitter and Facebook) and customizes the video experience based on your data. At first you start on a Google page, but you actually see your name getting typed into the search bar. It’s using the Facebook API and it searches Google and shows you the actual search results, and those images come together to form a character that walks across different pages that are actually related to you. And so on and so forth. It travels across your Twitter timeline, Facebook page, and it actually shows a map of where you’re actually watching this video by reading the IP of the computer. And, eventually, it shows an image of yourself through the webcam, but pixelated, using your own Twitter follower icons. It’s a full-on social experience, using everything that we can, from APIs, Flash, and Java Script to html.
L.A.: That’s the one where my friend said it’s really complicated ... Is that the one he was referring to?
Masashi Kawamura: Yes, that must be the one. It was a really complex program. Each of the sections could have easily become its own music video.
L.A.: How important is the technical aspect of it?
Masashi Kawamura: The technical aspect is really important. It was the first time that I felt, like, “I could never do this on my own,” so I had a great partner called Qanta Shimizu. He is also a partner at Party and he was the technical director on this project. When I first came up with the idea, I called him up and asked if anything like this is possible, and he said, “Yes, we could figure it out together.” So after that, I drew up the storyboard, knowing what’s kind of possible using the current technology, but almost pushing its limits. Then I passed that to Qanta. And then he answered from the technical side, “Ok, this part is doable, but this is not, but if we do it like this with Flash, we can make it happen.” And then I said yes to some parts, and no to some, and rethought some areas. And after that, he made prototypes of each of the scenes and passed it back to me.
L.A.: So it was a step-by-step process between creative directors and a technical director, trying to come up with something that’s really new, but still doable. You were referring to your creative influences, you know, your heroes. Try to kind of see through your Japanese background, something that makes it unique, a combination of senses. How would you go about this?
Masashi Kawamura: I think all of the members in Party have this sort of Japanese sensibility. Sometimes, it comes across really strongly, and sometimes it’s less and a little more vague, but I think, there’s something in our culture in the way we design things, where we actually appre-ciate the “space,” Sometimes you call it
“between the lines,” but we like to keep
things not too obvious, and leave it to people’s imagination. We like to experiment with the empty spaces. Also, minimalism is something that lives strongly in our culture. Designers that I was really influenced by were people like Yusaku Kamekura, who designed the Tokyo Olympics posters …
L.A.: Did he also do the book on Leni Rie-
fenstahl? Is that the one?
Masashi Kawamura: I’m not sure … He has worked on an Olympic film like she did, though. He has that simple and strong Japanese aesthetic. You can see the roots of that kind of simplicity in different parts of classical Japanese culture such as haiku, Japanese gardens, calligraphy, etc. Something that I’m really intrigued by, and I’m still learning about. When we do interactive work, it’s all about the interaction design. When you say interactivity, it’s not just about something online, but it’s also the mixture of experiences online and offline. Like a lot of the work you see in campaigns here at Cannes, it’s not just digital work, but it’s more about how you can apply the interactive concepts into the real world, and vice versa. That’s where the interesting stuff is happening now. I think the Japanese also have a good sense in this as well. There’s a tradition we call “omotenashi.” It’s all about how to greet people and how to interact with people. It’s about reading between the lines, or the context, and giving the person something they want before they tell you about it. It’s all about non-verbal communication, but really reacting to people’s slightest interactions, and figuring out, “What’s the next thing you should do in order to please that other person?” I think Japanese is a culture that really understands that, or has that in its DNA.
L.A.: Yes, like they say in Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurais”: “The danger is always at its peak when nobody thinks about it.” But that’s really interesting, it gives you a sense of “Wow,” you know. That is a great combination of 1 + 1 = 3.
Masashi Kawamura: Right, yes, I think that’s what we would really, ideally, like to achieve: 1 + 1 = 3. And I also think “interactivity” is a very strong value that we could add to anything in the world. We have a lot of strong backgrounds in interactive design. Naoki & Morihiro have done a lot of brilliant interactive online campaigns; Hiroki and Qanta have been technical directors for a long time. So we know that we can do something in the monitor, we know that we can create some interesting work there. But, ideally, we would love to extend that into the offline world. So our bigger aim is to apply that interactivity into products, and space, and tangible objects, and figure out what that would bring, what kind of new values that would add to these things.
L.A.: Yes, they have like interactive spaces, or meeting spaces, or google shops, or whatever ideas they have, right?
Masashi Kawamura: Yes. So those are the paths that we’re really interested in. But also, when we say interactive, it doesn’t have to be like you walk in and there’s a Kinect camera that scans you and you can do this and do that … We want to figure out the right balance of natural interactions mixed with the right technology. One thing I always say is that the idea should come first. The work should never become a demonstration of a technology. It doesn’t mean anything just to use the latest technology for the sake of it, because that’s only interesting because it’s new. When the technology becomes old, it’s not so interesting anymore. So it’s all about understanding the medium and the technology, what it can do, and finding the right medium to bring your idea to life. And hopefully we can do that, mixed with interactivity.
L.A.: Yes, it’s interesting that beyond the big mega-agencies there is somebody bringing something new to the party. Thinking global out of Japan, with a strong link to New York.
Masashi Kawamura: Yes, so that’s definitely what we want to do. Hopefully ... we are a small company, and we actually want to keep it that way, to be agile and nimble. But I hope we can create a big impact in terms of exposing a lot of the talented Japanese creatives to the outside world and connecting them with foreign clients and vice versa. I think that kind of creative circulation would bring a new kind of chemistry to not just Japan but, hopefully, in terms of the bigger global advertising/design market.
L.A.: Tell us about the work that won your second Gold Lion.
Masashi Kawamura: The xylophone ...
L.A.: Yes, what was that about?
Masashi Kawamura: The second Gold Lion was for the film called Xylophone for NTT Docomo. And one of our partners, Morihiro Harano, worked on it. It was a viral film that he created, in which he constructed a forty-meter-long wooden rail, and put these wooden blocks, almost like dominoes, on it. And when they rolled a ball down, it actually made a single note, every time the ball bounced on the wooden planks, and it actually played Bach. It was really beautifully done, using a lot of traditional Japanese craftsmanship. And they actually were shaping it to make the right noises out of each of the blocks, and they had to reset it every time it went wrong. So I heard it was a really long shoot, but they actually recorded the sound live, and did everything in camera. The online buzz has gotten really big. I think about five million hits in a month on YouTube, so it won the Lion for sound design, and I think it was well deserved.