Monday, September 21, 2020

255. Japanese director Takashi Koizumi’s film “Hakase no aishita sushiki” (The Professor and His Beloved Equation) (2006), based on an award-winning Japanese novel by Yoko Ogawa: Melding the magical world of numbers and mathematics with invisible eternal truths existing in the universe, for adults and school-going students alike



To see a World in a Grain of Sand,

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand,

And Eternity in an Hour

                       ---opening lines from William Blake’s poem 

                           “Auguries of Innocence”

Some people don’t like numbers or mathematics but many do. Whether you belong to either category, the 2003 Yomiuri-prize-winning novel by the Japanese lady Yoko Ogawa called The Housekeeper and the Professor (the English translation has been published by Picador) and Takashi Koizumi’s film The Professor and His Beloved Equation based on that novel lead you gently into the mystical world of numbers that have captivated great minds like Pythagoras and Descartes over the centuries. What Ogawa and Koizumi achieve is to make an average person look at numbers with respect and realize that numbers were not created by human beings—they existed in the universe, we humans merely discovered them and are beginning to comprehend a small segment of the universe as we know it today. Both the book and the film motivate all and sundry to learn mathematics without being intimidated by numbers and equations. Ultimately, the film suggests a beautiful equation is like nirvana or the bliss of cosmic understanding described by the lines of the American poet William Blake at the end of the film.

                                 Schoolteacher 'Root' resembles the root sign

The mystical connection

The book and the film introduce a young male schoolteacher who is commonly known by the name “Root,” the mathematical symbol, ever since an elderly mathematics professor associated Root’s somewhat flat head and a stubborn tuft of hair to one side (when he was a lot younger) with that symbol. That professor’s memory was impaired following a brain damage caused by an accident, and subsequently could think clearly only for a slice of 80 minutes at a time before forgetting what had transpired before that. He, therefore, pins reminders on his jacket to jog his memory after each segment of clear recollection. For all practical purposes, the professor adopts Root as own child and gradually instils his love for numbers, mathematics, and baseball in the young boy. Root, in his turn on growing up, very gently infuses the same love for numbers and the mystical association between them to his school students.

                            The professor (Akira Terao) meets Root's mother

How does the film generate unusual interest in the viewer for numbers and mathematics? An introductory conversation between the Professor and his new housekeeper begins with a question about her shoe size, which she answers happens to be 24 centimeters. He happily informs the perplexed young lady that 24 is a “noble” number and a factorial of 4. He then explains how a factorial is calculated, which is in this case 1x2x3x4. He then asks her phone number and is overjoyed because that happens to be the precise total of “prime” numbers up to one billion. Then, as the film progresses, the viewer learns about "perfect" numbers and “amicable pairs” of numbers such as 220 and 284 and why they are called that. All this is not fiction but scientific facts to entertain and instill curiosity in minds to know more. And who discovered the first pair? It was Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician, who lived in the 6th century BC. Even this factoid is mentioned in the film. Then you learn about “transcendental” numbers and “imaginary” numbers later in the film. All facts, not fiction!

                                Young Root is 'adopted' by the professor

And what is the “favorite equation” forming the title of the film? It is a variant of Euler’s equation now called “Euler’s identity.” It is an amazing fact that even today famous contemporary mathematicians call that particular equation/theorem of the Swiss mathematician (1707-83) to be the most elegant or beautiful theorem ever conceived. That is the connection to Blake’s poem ending the uplifting Japanese  film.

While Ms Ogawa has published over 50 books of fiction and non-fiction, in 2006 the year Koizumi released the film, the author brought out a book entitled An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, in collaboration with mathematician Mashiko Fujihara. But who are the persons responsible for the film The Professor and His Beloved Equation? Director Koizumi was the assistant director to the late Japanese maestro Akira Kurosawa on five of his final major films: Ran, Kagemusha, Dreams, Madadayo, and Rhapsody in August and was an uncredited assistant to the director on a sixth one Dersu Uzala. The Kurosawa connection to the Koizumi film continues. The cinematographer Shoji Ueda too was the cinematographer of five of those films, the actor Akira Terao (who plays the professor) was a lead actor in Ran and Madadayo, so too, actor Hisashi Ogawa (who plays the brief role of the housekeeper agent) is a stock Kurosawa actor. Even though Kurosawa had nothing to do with this film, his trusted collaborators were the principal contributors to The Professor and His Beloved Equation. Kurosawa would have been proud because the film apart from mathematics briefly introduces Japanese culture and the essentially Japanese Noh theatre to any uninitiated viewer as well.

                           " difficult as proving the beauty of a star"

While the film is essential viewing for those who love numbers (and their mystical attributes), mathematics, physics and metaphysics, it perpetuates a minor fallacy. While the film attributes the discovery of amicable numbers, after Pythagoras had discovered the first set, to the European mathematicians Fermat (1601-65) and Descartes (1596-1650). It now well known that the Iraqi mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra (826-901) had invented a method to discover them (ref: Wikipedia on Amicable Numbers). Several Arab mathematicians used that method between the 10th and 17th centuries to discover more amicable numbers but the popular Western belief attributes the findings to Fermat and Descartes.

                                The philosophy behind a straight line

The Professor and His Beloved Equation may not be widely known as an important film, which it is. When it does get further traction cineastes who don’t read books are likely to recall the film and not the book on which it is based. How many Andrei Tarkovsky fans attribute even a fraction of the brilliance of his films Solaris and Stalker to Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, respectively? Only a few demarcate a film and its source material.


P.S.  The Professor and His Beloved Equation won the best director award at Fajr film festival in Iran and an award for its music at the Mainichi Film Concours in Japan.

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