The Professor's Beloved Formula Review
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.
- Willam Blake: Auguries of Innocence
The definition of a Mathematician in relation to a Scientist can be summed up by the fact that, while the latter attempts to discover an approximation of the truth about the world around them, a Mathematician looks only for the absolute truth. To study Mathematics is to appreciate the myriad of patterns and links that numbers can tell us about our own little corner of existence. There have been countless films about science over the years - it even has its own form of fiction - but stories centred on mathematics are usually harder to come by. In recent years we’ve seen two hit films on mathematics with the paranoid Indie thriller Pi and the shameless Oscar love-in A Beautiful Mind, so when I saw that Japan was to make a character drama dealing with the effect numbers can have on someone’s life, I was instantly intrigued.
Based on the best-selling novel by Yoko Ogawa, The Professor’s Beloved Formula tells the story of a housekeeper (Eri Fukatsu) who is hired by an aloof heiress (Ruriko Asaoka) to look after her Brother-In-Law (Akira Terao) who, ever since a car crash ten years ago, periodically has his memory reset every eighty minutes. In his former life the man was a celebrated Math’s Professor, and it is through his love of numbers and the housekeeper’s willingness to learn anything new that the two form a strong friendship. In time, the Professor meets the Housekeeper’s young son (Ryusei Saito) and nicknames him Root after the mathematical symbol. Together the trio manage to form a makeshift family despite the challenges that the Professor’s brain damage represent.
Having cut his teeth as Assistant Director on Akira Kurosawa’s last five films, Takashi Koizumi has since made a name for himself as a director of slow burning, gentle dramas like After the Rain (Ame Agaru), Letter From the Mountain, and now his third feature: The Professor’s Beloved Formula. Slow Burning is certainly the way to describe Professor’s Beloved Formula, the story is very simple, but at the same time extremely charming and subtly complicated as the titular professor becomes more self-aware of his condition and how he can move on with his life. When we first meet the professor he’s an eccentric, affable figure who’s prone to becoming self-absorbed in his mathematical theorems and wallowing in self-pity because his memories stop at the time of the crash. Because of these problems his former housekeepers have never lasted long, but the new housekeeper has the patience of a saint and the eagerness to match. She revels in the way the Professor uses numbers and mathematical concepts as a way to break the ice when he’s stumped for things to say and always manages to bring him up to speed after each memory failure. The result of this dedication is that the professor can stop worrying about what he’s forgotten and start living in the moment. Once the housekeeper’s son Root starts visiting the house the professor is overcome with excitement, taking to the boy like he was his own child. This (completely platonic) family unit is what ultimately save’s the professor from the abject loneliness his condition can cause.
The Professor’s Beloved Formula is hard to dislike but it does have a tendency to become very cringeworthy at times. The main problem being that, while the mathematical discussions are genuinely engaging, when the professor starts to link mathematical concepts to human emotions the sentiments can get extremely syrupy. What’s more, Koizumi’s laidback directorial style may appear so languid that it could easily bore anyone not prepared to invest in each scene. And you do have to invest to get the most out of the film, as Koizumi’s direction is so minimalistic it’s possible to sit through the film and fail to pick up on the subtle changes that the professor goes through. Instead, the director relies on the fantastic score by Takashi Kako and the performances of the small cast to dictate the tone of each scene - interjecting only the occasional picturesque shot of the surrounding countryside (One of Koizumi’s trademarks). This calls for impeccable acting from each of the leads, but The Professor’s Beloved Formula is cast well. Akira Terao dominates the film in the titular role of the Professor, he’s a laid back actor perfectly suited to Koizumi’s style (Indeed so far Terao has been the lead in every one of the director’s films) and he completely encapsulates the professor’s innate gentleness and sadness over his mental handicap. Eri Fukatsu is one of the most popular actresses in Japan and someone who has a certain childish eagerness about her performances that makes her perfect in the role of the housekeeper, while young Ryusei Saito provides further proof that Japan is second to none when it comes to child actors. Ruriko Asaoka too embodies the sad, contemplative nature of the professor’s sister-in-law and provides a performance that becomes crucial to the effect of the final act.
The Professor’s Beloved Formula is a charming, elegantly made film, weaving a straight-forward tale about friendship and coping with mental illness with effective use of mathematical concepts to counterpoint its philosophical musings. However, I can’t help thinking that maybe if Takashi Koizumi got a bit more hands-on with the direction then the story could be slightly more gripping and thus more natural to follow – for instance the practicalities of the Professor’s amnesia is never even shown, merely hinted at. The most effective addition the director has made to Yoko Ogawa’s novel is the inclusion of a “present day” framing where an adult Root is conducting a maths lesson using his story of the Professor as the basis to introduce his class to some of the basics – clever idea which ensures that even the most mathematically naïve viewer will have no problem keeping up with the professor’s world. Nevertheless the film is certainly a worthwhile character study and provides a surprisingly moving finalé without resorting to melodramatics.
Presented anamorphically at roughly 1.85:1 The Professor’s Beloved has been graced with a glorious film like transfer, everything about the image is top notch, colours are clean, sharp, and vibrant; contrast and brightness levels are strong, and detail levels are high. What’s more none of the negative artefacts we assign to DVD transfers are present, the print is film-sourced and free of any print damage, there’s neither noise in the image nor any Edge Enhancement. This is exactly how film should be transferred onto disc.
Asmik have provided a Japanese DD5.1 track and what sounds like (not being able to speak Japanese) an Audio Descriptive Japanese DD2.0 track. Unsurprisingly, for the purposes of the review I mostly listened to the DD5.1 track which provides a perfectly adequate aural experience. It’s rare to see a character drama like The Professor’s Beloved Formula receive a DD5.1 track as they’re usually recorded in DD2.0; the 5.1 track on this DVD proves why. There’s no real use for the rear channels, they’re pretty much there for the when the score kicks in and to provide very gentle ambient sounds during outdoor sequences. The audio quality however is very good; dialogue is audible and free of crackling or distortions, while the bass is suitably rich enough to handle the string-based score.
Optional English subtitles are provided, with no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
In the Extras menus you are confronted with five options, which are (reading right to left):
Press Conference Interview with Director Takashi Koizumi and Author Yoko Ogawa, Press Conference Interview with Director and Actor Akira Terao, Premiere Conference with Director and Cast, Maths Tutorials, and TV Spots & Trailers. It’s pretty self explanatory what each feature contains, but unfortunately none of them contain English subtitles. As such, I’m unable to comment on the quality of the interviews, therefore I will leave the score field for the Extras blank.
The Professor’s Beloved Formula represents a continuation in Takashi Koizumi’s CV of gentle, slow moving character dramas. It’s a subtle, elegantly made film that even manages to give you a good basic maths lesson into the process, but anyone unwilling to invest in the characters will no doubt be bored to tears by the restrained story. There are no subtitles for any of the extra features on the r2j Asmik dvd represents, but A/V reproduction is so good that the 5000yen/$43 price tag doesn’t seem quite so steep.