Friday, 28 February 2014

Just watched: Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer

Barely twenty-four hours after I spazz out over the geek joys of The Genius, this is another story where mathematics features heavily. This film relates the story of Yasui Sansetsu, an astronomer who overcame politics, prejudice and tradition to reform the Japanese calendar.

The story is an entertaining one. By the late 1600s, the Japanese calendar was two days out, but the Imperial court felt that changing it would be disrespectful to the emperor. Yasui Sansetsu, frustrated that his more accurate calendar hadn’t been adopted, stages a number of public demonstrations (predicting eclipses) to show the public how accurate his calendar was. This caused a strong, occasionally violent, backlash from the authorities.

The film is full of neat little period details, such as the craze for mathematical puzzles, the method of doing maths with counting rods on a grid and also of a peculiar form of entertainment where two people would recreate games of Go that had been played out many years before, complete with commentary. Also, the film is full of reproductions of the equipment the astronomers used and the charts and maps of the sky that they made. It looks great.

The acting, too, is good. Miyazaki Aoi floats through her scenes serenely, and Okada Junichi goes from steely determination to self-doubt very convincingly. And the directing and photography is very good. But it doesn’t quite fit together. On the one hand, it’s an interesting part of history, but at the same time this film suffers from the problem that science dramas often suffer from: most scientific discoveries are, visually, quite dull.

The film has a lot of fun portraying the public exhibitions of the calendar’s accuracy, with shots of crowds and eclipses. But the most important part of the story: the moment when he realises why his calculations have been wrong, isn’t given the same level of attention. It seems a bit lop-sided somehow.

But like I said, this effects all science dramas. Maybe I'm being too harsh. In fact, yes, I think I am. This is a fine piece of work. It's impossible not to like a film made with such attention to detail and an obvious love of the period.

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