Mooneyes continues its long tradition of remaining an iconic presence within kustom kulture. Founded by Dean Moon, his impacts within the hot rod racing scene are seen internationally but his passing in 1987 briefly left the company in limbo, until Shige Suganuma and Chico Kodama purchased Mooneyes in 1992.
Working tirelessly to usher in a new era for kustom kulture, they successfully preserved the legacy while enhancing the brand. They utilized Mooneyes to unite contrasting cultures based on the premise that kustom kulture’s passion and reach can be limitless. However, no triumph comes without a challenge.
With this conviction, filmmaker Ming Lai presents Craft of Speed, a documentary built on the foundation of an intertwined, coming-of-age story that not only chronicles Dean Moon but sheds light on Kodama’s racing history and rise to prominence within a subculture that was initially resistant to welcoming him.
“People have said about documentaries, you don’t want to make them. You have to make them. You have a company with such a storied history and at the time of purchasing Mooneyes, Japan had a very strong economy and was beginning to purchase several U.S. companies. There was some resistance and xenophobia to that trend. People were resistant to Chico and Shige purchasing Mooneyes because they were uncertain if the brand and history they loved would be continued, but many were unaware that Chico had a story and history of his own within racing and building,” shared Lai.
Filmed over the course of four years, Lai does not present Craft of Speed as a mere moto culture documentary. He ambitiously approached his film with the question of ‘just how does someone become an individual with a strong legacy? How did they become the person we see them as today?’
“While in college I was always fascinated by origin stories. Chico came from a rural farming and fishing community in Japan, which was in marked contrast to Mooneyes in California. There was no hot rodding there, so how did he become so invested in it and earn accolades? After speaking with so many people, I noticed the commonality of people being passionate about models and Hot Wheels cars, that was the link. Chico was also very interested in art and you have to be artistic when you problem-solve; building a car or working within a craft,” said Lai.
Lai states that despite earning a Bonneville land speed record and other distinguished accolades, Chico remains very humble, which was one of the many challenges Lai faced when he approached him with the project. After working to build trust, Lai recalled several late nights of earning the privilege of intimately witnessing Chico build his new racer in pursuit of another Bonneville land speed record.
“Chico is a man of few words, but late nights after work, he would let me join him while he would work tirelessly to build his racer. It was my first experience of being around someone that could build from the ground up and it was powerful to see. When you film, the dynamic completely changes. People feel some pressure so I would audio document the conversations of the rich experiences Chico shared,” said Lai.
Lai stated Craft of Speed utilizes widescreen shots and imagery that were inspired by the shape of Chico’s car and Japanese art methods.
“Within Japanese art, the negative space can be just as important as the main subject because it can reinforce the subject being depicted, and with Chico, at times working on his car in solitude, I feel the negative space portrays him lost in thought, with the singular focus of completing his project. We would work in a creative tandem; working on his project while I worked on mine,” shared Lai.
Lai added he used traditional Japanese art to further inspire the film, stating a lot of Japanese art features scrolls or multiple panels to incorporate storytelling, and for Lai, Craft of Speed has a broad story and its scope distinguishes itself from other moto culture media.
“The film is not just about hot rodding, it shows the rich connection of contrasting cultures. In Japan, they widely embraced American styles and imagery but worked to enhance it. Chico and Shige have worked so hard to elevate the subculture and broaden its visibility. I learned about and continue to see hot rod and kustom kulture communities in Thailand, Bangkok, and Japan. Shige attended college in the U.S. and loved classic cars and would race them. He brought that passion with him when he later returned to Japan in the early ‘80s,” said Lai.
Chico and Shige earned the respect of the California kustom kulture communities by carefully preserving the Mooneyes legacy, retaining many of the original machinists, and propelling the subculture to new, international heights. Mooneyes Japan and the original, California location continue hosting several open houses and Lai remains very proud of their annual Christmas holiday shows because of the diverse communities that travel extensively for the opportunity to meet individuals that are integral to elevating kustom kulture.
“The show in Yokohama is amazing! It’s so refreshing to see international builders, including Japanese and Asian builders continue to popularize hot rodding. The subculture is something many associate with exclusively Americana but events like this continue showing hot rodding has jumped the Pacific. Knowing the rebellious nature, creativity, and unique passions that motivate creativity is so vibrant and alive is truly amazing to witness,” said Lai.
Craft of Speed is currently being considered for multiple film festivals, to earn distribution for greater accessibility. For Lai, the project’s completion comes as a great relief and he immediately credits his team for all their talent and support, despite undertaking an ambitious project with almost no secured funding.
“I hope this film reignites people’s passions and grows their appreciation for handmade craftsmanship despite living in a modern world, where mass production is so quickly accepted. I hope younger people view it and appreciate the past and celebrate the legacy while being inspired enough to create something new to the subculture while working to write their own story,” said Lai.