Inventing a portrait

A profound interest in Japanese culture led the director Kaspar Astrup Schröder by coincidence to Dr. Nakamats, an eccentric inventor who by his own count holds more than 3400 patents and is planning a final coup: living to be 144. The portrait of Dr. Nakamats is told with tongue in cheek, and it is not always clear, who stages the story – the director or the inventor …

Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats describes himself as one of the world's most important inventors. He invented the floppy disk, a bicycle engine that runs on water, bouncing shoes, Viagra for women and much, much more. He currently holds 3400 patents and plans to increase this further to 7000 before he dies.

Most of the ideas for his inventions come to him while diving underwater in a swimming pool, an exercise that pushes his mind to produce new thoughts. Although in Kaspar Astrup Schröder's film portrait, "The Invention of Dr. Nakamats", the doctor is seen celebrating his 80th birthday, he considers his death to be a far-off in the future.

Kaspar Astrup Schröder

Born 1979, Denmark. Self-taught visual artist and designer. Founded the company Kaspar (pseudodyms: KSPR or Kasparworks) in 2004. Though based in Copenhagen, he often works in Asia. Has exhibited visual work and released music in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, bruxelles, New York and Tokyo. His documentary film "City Surfers" (2007) won Best Danish Film and Filmic Award at the D.A.F.F. Festival and "The Invention of Dr. Nakamats" (2009), selected for IDFA's Mid-length Competition. A companion book to the film compiles the director's journal entries from his time in Japan with Dr. Nakamats.

His mother lived to be 102 and he keeps her brain in his house preserved in formaldehyde. Personally, he plans to live to 144, partly by healthy living and partly by … who knows. Maybe he'll invent something to prolong his life.

Schröder's film takes us on a unique journey into the charismatic inventor's personal world, though there are times when you wonder how much Dr. Nakamats is playing to the camera. This is even more the case if you who don't know a lot about Japanese culture, so much of which can look odd to the uninitiated eye.

Schröder, who is also an artist and photographer, is fascinated by Japanese culture and has travelled widely in Japan. Even so, crossing paths with Dr. Nakamats sent him on a journey beyond anything he had seen before.

Reality on a production schedule

Schröder had been reading about Dr. Nakamats on one of the many Japan blogs he likes to read for inspiration. Dr. Nakamats's homepage provided the contact information and Schröder e-mailed to hear if he was interested in meeting to discuss a film project.

Dr. NakaMats responded promptly and turned out to have ample ideas of his own about what a film about him should be like. The filmmaker says it was mainly a question of hanging on for the ride.

"He was interested, but he also had a lot of thoughts about how the film should be. I originally planned to be the proverbial fly on the wall and observe his life, but when I arrived he had already drawn up a 130-page production plan. I ended up spending 29 very long days shooting, getting more than 100 hours of footage from 50 different locations. The pace was truly breakneck and Nakamats constantly had an opinion about how things should progress," Schröder says.

Access and staging

The film makes it plain that Dr. Nakamats enjoys staging himself, not just for the camera but in other situations in his life as well. All along, he gave the camera unlimited access to a lot of situations that we usually don't get to see from Japan.

"Dr. Nakamats is an incredibly fascinating personality, and in a lot of ways he is unlike other Japanese. As an individual, he sticks out in a crowd. In addition to portraying him, I also wanted my film to depict contemporary Japan through his everyday life.

Personally, I'm fascinated by Japanese culture, so getting the kind of access I did because I was with Dr. Nakamats was outstanding. In fact, it was almost uncanny how invisible I was when I followed him around. I got to film everywhere without anyone reacting to it, which usually is a hard thing to do in Japan," Schröder says.

At one point, he attended a highly emotional funeral without anyone remarking on his presence. "No one raised an eyebrow at me or my camera. At times it felt strange to be so invisible, but it was most definitely a gift," the director says.

"I'm attracted to documentaries because of the element of spontaneity – my art and my music are largely improvisational. This film, however, was more about framing and staging, and that was an exciting and very different process for me."

Cheating death

Schröder doesn't speak Japanese yet, though he is working on it. For most of the film, Dr. Nakamats addresses the camera in English, explaining his inventions or introducing his family and business contacts. Later, during the editing, the translation of Japanese dialogue material revealed a host of surprises when what was being discussed turned out to be entirely different than the director had thought.

Still, these hidden surprises were not enough to shift the film's centre of gravity any further than it already had. Initially conceived as a tender, humorous portrait of an eccentric inventor, the film had expanded into a study of a man determined to fight death.

"We all have our demons. Dr. Nakamats is fighting his fear of death. He does everything he can to cheat death," Schröder says. "My story about him gradually evolved to be more about the relationship between life and death in general and less about his specific inventions. As Dr. Nakamats says in the final line of the film, 'When I'm 143, then maybe I'll think, Next year I'll die….' He's a man on a mission, and it was interesting to bring out that aspect of his personality."

An international team

The graphic design and the music for Dr. Nakamats have a very distinct style, the result of Schröder's desire to sign up his own international sources of inspiration. Though the director never physically met the British graphic designer Rob Chiu aka The Ronin or the American composer Mark Mothersbaugh, who scored The Royal Tenenbaums and other films, he describes their collaboration as a happy process.

Working via Skype and the Net, they pushed the graphics and the music in new directions until they had become central to the film. "I contacted people I wanted to work with, and getting them onboard was a real gift to me to," Schröder says.

"Obviously, not being in the same physical location presents certain challenges, but it worked out surprisingly well, though there was some back and forth as we settled on the role of the graphic design and the music in the film. I always wanted the graphics to stand out. We even tried surrounding Dr. Nakamats with a world of dialogue balloons, but that seemed too contrived as if we were making a spectacle of him. It was important for me to be on his side, though he's like no one else I ever met. Likewise, we didn't want to Mickey Mouse the score. It should follow him and elevate him, in his story."

Getting together at idfa

Schröder's international collaborators were huge inspirations, but the director is also eager to stress that the film would not have been possible without the support of experienced Danish professionals, including his producer, Mette Heide of Plus Pictures, and his editor, Adam Nielsen. He also highlights the fruitful dialogue he had with project editor Kim Leona of New Danish Screen, who was an early backer of his project.

The Invention of Dr. Nakamats has whetted Schröder's appetite to do more documentaries, ideally about Japan and Japanese conditions. For now, he is looking forward to showing his new film in Amsterdam. He has been to the festival once before as an editor on another film, but now his own film is competing, and he's looking forward to seeing his team in Amsterdam, as well as Dr. Nakamats, who will be attending the festival.

"We became good friends while we were making the film, and I want it to give people a good impression of him as the unique individual he is," Schröder says. "The rumour mill is churning with myths and opinions about him, and this film is a close-up look that shows him as more than the inventor of the floppy disk."

KSPR portræt