After winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009 for his funeral-business drama “Okuribito (Departures),” Yojiro Takita faced the usual dilemma of the successful: what to do for a followup? This onetime maker of risqué comedies about train gropers had since become a director-for-hire working successfully in a variety of genres, from black comedy to feudal-era fantasy, but “Departures,” which grossed a stupendous ¥6.5 billion in Japan while winning more than 100 prizes worldwide, was a triumph of a higher order that could be impossible to top.
(“Tsurikichi Sanpei [Sanpei the Fisher Boy],” a comic adaptation directed by Takita, opened after “Departures,” in March 2009, but was not an intended “topper” since it went into production in July 2008.)
Takita had his choice of projects, but finally opted to go with a sure domestic box-office bet: an adaptation of Tow Ubukata’s novel “Tenchi Meisatsu (Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer)” about Harumi Shibukawa, a 17th-century math whiz best known today for devising a new, more accurate calendar.
This is not the sort of subject that would set producers’ pulses racing in Hollywood, but Japanese audiences have long had a liking for biopics of exemplary local heroes, however un-cinematic their personalities or lives. One recent example is Yoshimitsu Morita’s 2010 drama “Bushi no Kakeibo (Abacus and Sword),” about the life of a feudal-era bookkeeper that was a shout out to every salaryman slaving over a spreadsheet — and earned a solid ¥1.5 billion.
“Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer” will probably also reward its backers: It illuminates a little-known episode of Japanese scientific history with a level of explanatory detail, from geometric theorems to lunar orbits, that will delight the engineers and math geeks in the audience. It also entertains less techy types with the sort of dramatics, from sweet romantic interludes to flashing tempers and swords, found in more standard period genre fare.
But for outlanders expecting another “Departures” — that is, a drama that crosses borders with its universal themes, despite its culturally bound subject matter — Takita’s latest will probably disappoint. In the same way, a Japanese audience would probably doze off to a film about the Gregorian calendar (though I rather doubt anyone else would stay awake either).
Shibukawa begins the film as Yasui Santetsu (Junichi Okada), the son of a family known for its prowess at the board game go. Santetsu, however, is obsessed with solving math puzzles and observing the night sky — both unusual occupations for a member of the samurai class, let alone an aspiring go master.
In math he finds the worthy rival of Seki Takakazu (Ennosuke Ichikawa), born with a prodigious talent and temper, as well as friends in math instructor Murase Gieki (Ryuta Sato) and his sister En (Aoi Miyazaki). Despite his giddy enthusiasm for numbers, Santetsu can’t keep his eyes off En, with her million-watt smile and unfeigned interest in his intellectual adventures.
His biggest adventure begins when a clan lord, Hoshina Masayuki (Koshiro Matsumoto), appoints him to an expedition to map Japan using the North Star as a guide. In the course of this arduous journey, he and his colleagues come to realize that the current calendar, in use for nearly 800 years, does not accurately predict the eclipse of the moon. What, Santetsu begins to wonder, is the problem and how can it be fixed?
The answer does not come easily — and not only due to the primitive tools and knowledge available to this Edo Period astronomer. Powerful interests centered in the Emperor’s court in Kyoto are against change, new evidence be damned.
Working with veteran scriptwriter Masato Kato, Takita builds complication on complication far beyond the demands of the ordinary local biopic, which is usually satisfied with a few character-testing crises before the final triumph of the spirit. Along with supplying the requisite villainy in a pair of foppish Kyoto court officials who clownishly slither and sneer, the story provides a real sense of the maddening difficulty of Santetsu’s quest: the era’s equivalent of finding the Higgs boson.
Okada, a boy-band singer turned actor, who played a similarly un-samurailike samurai in Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2006 dramady “Hana Yori mo Naho (Hana),” gives us Santetsu as an eternal boy dazzled by the universe’s mysteries, with a determination to see his biggest project through.
The life-or-death melodramatics at the end, completely invented for the purpose of the plot, are reminders that “Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer” is not a Discovery Channel documentary — or a rival to “Departures,” whose conclusion was quietly shattering. But it’s probably the best film about calendar making you’ll ever see.