How Japan's flying shrimp won a Lion

Hisaya Kato, AOI Pro (left) and Tetsushi Kawachi, Tokyu Agency, at the AOI Pro offices in Tokyo.
Hisaya Kato, AOI Pro (left) and Tetsushi Kawachi, Tokyu Agency, at the AOI Pro offices in Tokyo.

The creators of the funky viral sensation for a Japanese mobile giant talk about the sleep deprivation that inspired it

TOKYO — The client approved the craziest idea. The team nailed the timing for the flour explosions. The videos went viral. But the creatives responsible for mobile giant NTT DoCoMo's "three-second cooking" series still thought they might get booed at Cannes.

The offbeat campaign, which a number of regional creative heads had predicted would perform well at Cannes and the Wall Street Journal listed as one of Japan's wackiest campaigns of 2014, won a Silver Lion in the Film category and a Gold Lion for Film Craft.

Still, the creative forces behind the video — Tetsushi Kawachi, creative director at Tokyu Agency (a subsidiary of railway, retail and real estate conglomerate Tokyu Group), and Hisaya Kato, chief producer at production company AOI Pro — did not expect it to be received so positively, particularly given the sort of work Cannes judges have been favoring in recent years.

"I was really surprised that it was so talked about," said Kawachi, noting that it was the first time for Tokyu to win a Film Lion, and that campaigns pegged to social causes had dominated the festival for the past few years. Indeed, Kato said he was worried that "we would be booed" when the footage of shrimp and dumplings flying across the room was screened among a reel of more serious, cause-related work.

"Everything at Cannes for the last four years has been about social good," Kawachi said. "People might have been, not tired of it, but — they’ve seen a lot of it — so the DoCoMo spot was something they could just laugh at and enjoy."

Bringing the concept to life
The idea for the video came to Kawachi and Kato around 3 a.m. the morning of a six-agency pitch to NTT DoCoMo. Their original concept had been to create the world’s fastest Rube Goldberg machine, which would represent the two fastest "lanes" in DoCoMo’s LTE service. But to set it apart from other Rube Goldberg campaigns — hardly a novelty in adland &mdash >the team decided to draw upon Kewpie’s long-running "San-pun (Three-Minute) Cooking" series, which is something of a national institution in Japan.

The idea was unconventional, to say the least. But to Kawachi's surprise, the client agreed to it. The timing was simply right, Kawachi explained, as DoCoMo — which had long focused its creative energies on TV commercials — was struggling to attract young people. "Since it was for the Web, they were in the mood to do something entertaining," he said. Out of a total 30 ideas pitched, "they chose the craziest."

That left the team with just a month to pull everything together, including the cannon, which would need to be built from scratch. Having sold the idea, Kawachi admitted he had not seriously considered the feasibility of it. "We never knew if it was going to work, but we just had to get on with it," he said. They toyed with various solutions, including CGI, or simply shooting a blur of action. But in the end, they opted to make a real device (which Kato commandeered with the aid of an external crew) and film everything live without the aid of effects. Kato said the programming was not overly difficult — the only challenge was to coordinate the timing of the flour explosions — but it took around 40 attempts to get the shrimp and dumplings flying perfectly for the camera.

"It seemed like a lot more than 40 takes," Kawachi said, adding that there was a limit to the number of shrimp they could use. The cannon aside, getting everything just right involved meticulous study of the Kewpie originals. The attention to detail paid off, and the shrimp video alone has since drawn close to 15 million views on YouTube in Japan in addition to its industry awards. It has also spurred a colorful response from competitors, like a recent ad by SoftBank featuring a modern-day samurai taking out a flying shrimp with his sword.

All the same, the team's suggestion that they produce a TV commercial along the same lines was a step too far for the client, Kawachi said. For NTT DoCoMo, at least for the time being, the wackier stuff is destined to live online.

Speaking in general terms, Kawachi said selling outlandish ideas to conservative clients in Japan is not necessarily difficult, as long as the concept connects at an emotional level. "The client always needs theoretical reasons, and they're all about logic, but ... I feel they like and understand ideas that cannot be explained. So when the idea touches their heart, they step forward."

Kawachi's and Kato’s personal friendship was a major asset in the creative process. "The most important thing," according to Kato. The two met at Cannes in 2013 and immediately hit it off. "The time spent together on this project was very long, so having no barriers to say what we felt about it was a really big thing," said Kato. "This is a rare case in the Japanese ad industry. Usually [the relationship between producer and agency] is very businesslike, but in this case we were a team."

Being serious is overrated
Unlike many creatives, Kawachi rarely speaks in terms of changing the world with his work. His aim is to have fun in the creative process and to produce something that entertains and surprises people. In some ways, he feels the industry has become too heavy, burdened with a sense of responsibility to connect brands to a deeper meaning. "Advertising should also be fun and entertaining," he said. "Social good is not the only form of advertising."

Not that he does not appreciate big ideas such as Grey New York’s "Gun Shop" for States United, which won Gold in this year’s Promo & Activation category. But he points to JWT Amsterdam’s "Taste the Translation" for Elan as a standout example of a campaign that aligns with his principles of simplicity and entertainment.

Kato also prioritizes personal enjoyment as a creative professional, because he believes that leads to the best work. "The most important thing is to have fun," he said. "If you’re having fun, it’s a good sign. If you love food, for example, you can only eat three meals a day, but you want each meal to be enjoyable. It’s the same in this business: There is a limit to the amount of jobs you can do in your life, so I feel I've got to make each job great in some way at least, and make sure the work is at a certain level."

Looking ahead, Kato said he hopes to see more attention to the craft of film in Japanese advertising. "We need to draw people's attention. I feel that when the craft is great, it becomes something people want to look at. Craftsmanship is something I want to see more of."

At the same time, Kawachi is uncertain where things will go next. "Online video has been around for some time in Japan," he said. "People have seen it all and are not really that excited about it any more. I'm sure it'll be around, in the same style, for a while yet, but I think people are getting bored. People are basically tired of advertising."

He hopes their work can progress beyond video. "One of the things we should do more of is collaborating with clients to create products, or things that are not advertising. It would be great if we could step into their fields and create things together to try to change people’s lifestyles. Of course, advertising will still be around but this is the direction I would like things to go in."

Until then, a followup spot for DoCoMo is due for release at the end of July. "Another one we never thought the client would approve," Kato said.

This article first appeared on

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