Saturday, July 10, 2010

Which Japanese Car Should You Buy?

Because, clearly, buying an American car is out of the question. Unless it's the Pontiac Vibe, which is actually a Toyota spy.

I thought I'd compare two advertisements this week. What they share as a common point of reference is that both are produced by major car companies (both Japanese) and both were released exclusively on the internet (as far as I know). At the risk of giving away the ending, I'll give you the synopsis right now and say they're both utterly spectacular. Not having watched TV in years, I usually find myself completely absorbed by advertisements when I see them. There's a special place in my heart for advertising that's done well, and that, in some small, evil way, makes the world a little bit of a better place.

Honda - The Cog

This unbelievable, Rube-Goldberg machine is made in one continuous shot without the use of any CGI or digital mumbo-jumbo. It took 606 takes to get it right. Six Hundred and Six. That's what it would look like if you had to write it out on the DOLLARS line of a check. What's incomprehensible to me, besides the sheer accomplishment of the feat, is that a giant multinational corporation had the balls and the tenacity to produce a work of art this compelling and ephemeral. Because of this and other things I've heard, I am especially impressed and intrigued by the way Japanese businesses are run.

A bit of trivia you might not know if you don't talk to Gabriel at the Columbia City library branch, The Cog ad is actually derivative of a much earlier, much more dangerous and less polished German short film by the especially German name Der Lauf der Dinge, or The Way Things Go. The film came out in 1987, is 30 minutes long and was filmed in a giant warehouse. It is much rougher, relying more on chemical reactions than the crisp mechanical actions of the car parts in Cog. It also lacks the central concept and clean execution that makes Cog so impressive (The Way Things Go is clearly edited together, fairly roughly in some spots). The Way Things Go, which you can get from the Seattle Public Library, reads much more as some science guys getting together and seeing what they can do with all the bits and pieces left at the end of the semester, which is nice in it's own, B movie sort of way.

There are some beautiful moments in The Cog. The tuning fork hum of the exhaust pipe as it circles wiggling around on its pivot. The sequence of 3 nails that activate each other on the hood, each describing its arc on the alternate side, completing a single S curve between them. The little wheeled radiator fan whose power gets cut off just as it gets up the juice to roll. The stainless cylinder that has to stop and wait for the automatic window to sense its presence and lower its glass. The mobile of window panels that knock over a steel plate with the force of a breeze. Even that it all really does start with a lovable little Everyman cog.

What really ties this work together, though, providing the guiding concept that all the components use as a touchstone, is to use all parts from the car in the machine, and that the creators had the patience to give them each the space to perform in a manner that most highlights their attributes and potentiality. The windshield wipers, in particular, illustrate this point - seizuring across the floor, 2 jerks forward, 1 jerk back, their spastic movement simultaneously capturing the anthropomorphic struggle of a creature trying to accomplish a task and perfectly referencing the peculiar circumstance of seeing them so out of context. Even the use of music - not as atmosphere background element but keyed by a sequence of actions and using the cars own speakers, yet another part of the machine. You have to love how they bring it home - using the direction from the key-chain control to the actual corporeal whole as it rolls off the ramp for its perfectly lite glamor shot. After watching that video at least 20 times, I couldn't even tell you what model car that is.

Toyota - Swagger Wagon

Toyota takes an entirely different approach to gain your respect and affection. Whereas Honda went for stunned admiration, Toyota elects for hilarious, demographically-targeted antics.

From the cut up cinematography and stock imagery of a rap video (fortunately for Toyota, rap videos often center around the rapper's ride) to the ingenious call out "Where my motherfathers at?", what's there not to love about this little culturally-appropriating number? In particular I like the jiggling jello mold paralleling the booty shaking of dancers and especially the absolutely perfect and utterly disinterested dancing of the daughter.

Toyota seems to be making a very deliberate decision as to the gender roles of the mother and father in the video. Throughout the course of the video, the woman says she's "better with the money, so she handles the bills", and in another ad (it's a series) she wins rock-paper-scissors and walks away, leaving the father to change the child's diaper - both reflecting a sort of hip equality that transcends your parent's gender norms. The father, for his part, has a little more ego as an actor and some of his movements seem just a touch harsh and out of sync with the rest of the video. Regardless, the focus for both parents and the main message of the song is how devoted they are to their kids, which is why you're buying a Seinna, right?

As with the last video, the ending uses the keys to the car, which I guess is the symbol that you, the consumer, are supposed to identify with. The taking ownership of this expensive and worthwhile object that is either finely machined down to the tiniest cog or else hip and funny and humble and the mark of a good 30-something parent who wants to balance personal style with parental responsibility. They do a nice twist with the ring of plastic Playskool keys.

The Sienna family (you noticed that, right?) is actually featured in a series of ads Toyota put out. I believe this is the original, because the others are more episodic. I watched a couple and they're not nearly as good. Trivia on this one - I don't think it's a direct influence, but the ad definitely reminded me of that old Dynamite Hack version of the Easy E song Boyz in The Hood.


I've gotta say, as much as I enjoyed the Swagger Wagon ad, and as much as I identify with being a white person who loves seeing white people mocked or mocking themselves for not being as cool as black people, it just didn't have that utterly adroit coherence and unimaginable execution that The Cog did. Maybe the call here just comes down to whether you're more of a cerebral person or a fun person. Clearly, if you know anything about me, it's that of the two, I am a more cerebral person.

So, there you have it, get out there and buy yourself a freaking Honda something or another and show your appreciation for the art form. The arts don't thrive on free Art Walk cheese, box wine and illegally downloaded music alone, you know.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You know, I must say on the initial viewing I agreed with your assessment. The Honda Cog is 1,000 times cooler and more amazing than the Swagger Wagon. However, when I watch the Cog I say, hmm, that was cool, and go about my day. When I watch the Swagger Wagon, I say, "look at those funny people. I wonder what other antics they have in store?" Then, I click on the "Sienna Channel" link that pops up right in the window and watch twenty clips that are actually just advertisements but I'm fooled into thinking I'm being amused, and then I'm like, wow, I wish they'd make a movie about these people, I'd sit there for a hour and watch these yahoos. Genius, genius advertising. Did you know the Sienna has recline seats? 360 degree camera? And more!

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