Last Saturday, C&EN colleague Carmen Drahl and I headed to the American Film Institute’s SilverDocs festival just outside Washington, D.C. During our day at the film fest, which ran June 21–27, we screened a quirky, highly entertaining documentary about science, the art of invention, and how to pick out a new camera by smelling it.
Yes, “The Invention of Dr. NakaMats” has everything Newscripts readers love, including a scene about the Ig Nobel Prizes. You see, Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu, the subject of the film, earned the Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition in 2005 because he photographed every meal he had eaten for 34 years and studied the effects of the food on his health.
Although Dr. NakaMats comes off as a kooky piece of work—a Willy Wonka who deals in patents rather than chocolate—the Japanese inventor is in fact responsible for the technology behind an impressive number of gadgets. You might have heard of the floppy disk, the CD, and (of course) the karaoke machine.
Against the brightly lit backdrop of Tokyo, filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder has painted a vibrant cinematic portrait of the inventor, a man just slightly full of himself. And why shouldn’t he be? He holds more patents than anyone else in the world: 3,357 at the time the documentary was shot, compared with Thomas Edison’s paltry 1,093. This is a fact NakaMats makes sure to point out as he stands on Dr. NakaMats Street in front of Dr. NakaMats’ house, framed by a floppy-disk-shaped gate.
But NakaMats, who has acquired a cultlike following in Japan, is just as endearing as he is egotistical. We see him proudly present invention after wacky invention to the camera, saying of his motivation, “I do it out of love.” Clearly, a lot of the inventions Schröder presents in the film get played for laughs. And they are indeed hilarious: a notebook that works underwater, springy PyonPyon jogging shoes, and a new bra called B Bust, just to name a few. What else can you say about a man who, as a response to Japan’s declining birthrate and aging population, invents an aphrodisiac for women that he names Love Jet?
NakaMats’ most ambitious goal is to live a long life—record-settingly long. He’s about to turn 80 as the film opens (he is now 82), but he considers himself to be in the prime of his life. His goal age? 144 years old. When NakaMats outlines his philosophy on how to attain that goal to a 91-year-old visitor, we learn that he combines rigorous caloric restriction (just one meal a day) with his own special supplement, a patented (of course) blend of 13 herbs and spices he calls his “Brain Drink.”
But we would’ve liked to see more of the science behind NakaMats’ inventions. What in the world is in Love Jet anyway? And how does a pedicab that he manufactured run on “water energy” with a water-based engine?
More about NakaMats’ relationship with his family would also have been nice, going a long way toward making him less of a cartoon. He certainly had a close relationship with his mother; she inspired his first invention, which is a pump contraption for transferring soy sauce. His visit to her grave is one of the most touching moments in the documentary. In contrast, his relationship with his own children felt strained—an awkward hug with his daughter says it all.
At heart, though, NakaMats is a larger-than-life scientist. And the film, at its core, embodies science and the importance of invention. As he says to some prospective buyers of his pedicab while tearing them a new one for lowballing him on a bid, “You must respect the value of innovation.”