Watch out Edison! Learn about Yoshiro Nakamatsu, the mad “genius” behind thousands of bizarre patents.
Dir. Kaspar Schroeder, 2009, 57 min
I’ve talked before on this blog about the line between examining and exploiting a subject when making a documentary. I firmly believe that a filmmaker should maintain total respect for his or her characters, no matter how kooky they are. The Invention of Dr. Nakamats is a first-rate, almost teachable example of how to properly use a bugnuts insane person for comedy.
Yoshiro Nakamatsu, better known as “Dr. Nakamats,” claims to hold the world record for patents, with over four thousand inventions to his name. He’s a celebrity in his native Japan, a frequent fixture of talk shows and speaking engagements. Turning eighty during filming for this doc, he’s quite fit and healthy, which he attributes to careful documentation of his food intake (which he has accomplished through photographing every single meal he has eaten over thirty-four years). The only thing more remarkable than the sheer volume of patents that he has accumulated is the completely ridiculous nature of every single one of those inventions.
Here are just a few things Dr. Nakamats has dreamed up:
- A water-powered three-seater cart.
- A strapless, “enhancing” bra for small-breasted women.
- The “Cerebrex” chair, which improves one’s mental health by heating their feet and cooling their head.
- A health drink containing the 54 “necessary elements” for life. It is all you will ever have to consume again.
- The floppy disk. According to him, at least.
As you might guess, none of these things actually work. As you also might guess, Dr. Nakamats is somewhat off his rocker. He comes up with these ideas by submerging himself in a pool until he nearly drowns, writing his flashes of inspiration on a waterproof notepad (of his own invention, of course). Apparently, one is most creative in the 0.05 seconds before death.
This could so easily have been a mean-spirited, uncomfortable piece of sustained ridicule. But the movie works because it never judges the good “Doctor,” no matter how badly he seems to be asking for it. It simply stands back and lets him hang himself with his own words. And what words they are! Sure, Dr. Nakamats is a loony, but his lunacy is of the harmless variety. He’s an engaging, intelligent man who seems to act out of a genuine sense of altruism. And even if he were to suddenly reveal that he’s actually a totally sane shyster, I’m not sure that I could be upset with him. He’s just too affable.
But as funny as the movie is, it’s at its best in the quieter moments, when we get to see what makes Dr. Nakamats click. He’s driven by a lust for longevity; he plans to live for over a hundred and forty years, and is still haunted by the death of his mother. Embodied in Dr. Nakamats is a symbol for how fear of death can drive ambition and creativity. Even his stupefying method of inspiration by way of drowning works into it. There’s a sad heart to the Doctor, and that, more than anything, is why I believe he’s genuine. So weirdly, delightfully genuine.
I went into The Invention of Dr. Nakamats expecting a light, breezy piece of feel-good oddity. And it is surely light and feel-good, but there’s a philosophical weight to the doc that shouldn’t be underestimated. That’s what you get when you don’t go for the cheapest punch line, no matter how easy it might be.