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Top>Opinion>Mathematics, Literature, and Movies


Mathematics, Literature, and Movies

Yoji Ito
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Film, French Literature

Read in Japanese

This is the story of how a child who loved math became a scholar of French literature and eventually a film critic as well. It is the story of a finite person with limitations—one who could only comprehend things representationally and had trouble understanding reality. Working to advance science, the modern human beings have learned to amuse themselves richly with fiction—the world of symbols and ideas that can be found in long novels and films.


I teach French as part of the Faculty of Economics at Chuo University. Though I am technically a scholar of French literature, people ask me to work on publications as a film critic. For this reason, film theories have become the main pursuit in my research activities. As you can see, things are a bit complicated, so I’d like to start out by telling a little bit of my personal story.

I don’t have the right kind of mind for pursuing the liberal arts in literature or film studies. Math was always my strongest subject in school, and I didn’t do nearly as well with Japanese or English. I was clearly inclined towards the sciences, and I’m sure I would have had a much easier time of it had I simply pursued that line of study. In fact, my earliest memories are of wanting to be a mathematician when I grew up. The change came over me when I was in my second year of elementary school. At the time, I was completely absorbed in the number pi (π). I was going around buying up books about it and getting lost in them—things like Petr Beckmann’s A History of Pi—and enthusiastically calculating the ratio by hand. Then, on a night when I was even more engrossed in the calculations than usual, I found that I was able to work out the figure to the twenty-fourth decimal place. When I lifted my head, however, I noticed that a clear, beautiful morning sun was starting to peek its way through the curtain into my room. It was the first time in my life that I had stayed up all night. At the time, I regretted that I had wasted my time on something so pointless. I stopped reading books about mathematics and threw myself into reading novels instead.

Though my second-grade self didn’t know it at the time, what I have since realized is that that sense of meaninglessness I felt—the meaninglessness that caused me to quit mathematics—was actually the crux of the entire experience. Of course, I can’t blame my seven-year-old self for finding significance in something profound rather than something meaningless. There was no reason for a child to know anything about what is meaningless.

Because I hadn’t yet encountered the true nature of mathematics, the story of why I failed to pursue it is a tremendous insult to mathematicians. That said, I’d also like to point out that although the shift in my interest from mathematics to literature was certainly one that took me from truth to beauty, the reality of the situation was a bit more complex. As a child, mathematics was the closest I could get to the study of truth itself. There is no doubt that the search for truth was the key factor driving my total absorption in mathematics. However (and I was fully aware of this even at the time), had I not found beauty in the number pi, and the like, I never would have been so passionate about math in the first place. On the other hand, while moving from mathematics to literature did take me farther from truth, it also allowed me to pursue beauty in an extremely direct way. In other words, the shift in my interests was a transition from the beauty inherent in truth to a beauty that mixed both fact and fiction together. I don’t know now how aware of this I was at the time, but then I was surely living the decisive collapse of that blissful union with truth, good, and beauty during those years.


The books and films that I encountered as a junior high school freshman have had a major impact on the rest of my life. I went to the Junior High School at Komaba, University of Tsukuba, which fortunately does not require its students to take a high school entrance exam. This allowed me to spend my time completely absorbed in the books and films that I loved. Some of the novels and poems that I became fascinated with in my first year there were Camus’ The Stranger, Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil. It wasn’t that I was making a special effort to read French literature; it’s just that before I knew it, almost everything I liked was a modern French work. This naturally led me to decide to major in French literature once I got to university, where my undergraduate, master’s and doctoral theses were all about the twentieth-century French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. It was also during my initial year of junior high school that I was powerfully moved by Apollinaire’s poems for the first time. During my second and third years at Komaba, I was certainly enchanted by Russian literature like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Latin American works like García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and American pieces like Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. But it was ultimately modern French literature, particularly Lautréamont’s The Songs of Maldoror and Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, that fascinated me the most and continued to hold my interest.

It was also around the first year of junior high school that I began watching movies every day. Before that, it was no more than that I was watching more movies than the other kids I knew. This was when I first realized that films were just as rich a form of expression as literature—more so, in fact. Godard’s Breathless and Pierrot le fou, which I saw towards the end of that year, had a particularly profound impact on me. Soon, I was not just watching films daily, I was watching 700 of them a year. I had become something of a movie buff, and if I were heading to university today, I would probably seriously consider a major in film theories.

I began studying French when I got to the University of Tokyo, and was able to continue my studies in the Department of French Literature of the Faculty of Letters. I had known I wanted to study French literature since I was a kid, so I really should have started studying French earlier—but since I wasn’t very good with languages, I had my hands full just studying English through high school. From there I went on to the master’s and doctoral programs in the graduate French literature department, during which time I studied as an exchange student at the École Normale Supérieure and also registered for a doctoral program at New Sorbonne University. Unfortunately, my lack of skill kept the writing of my doctoral thesis from going as planned, so I ended up living in Paris for six and a half years. The dissertation I ultimately submitted to New Sorbonne University ended up being picked up by a Parisian publishing house and later released in book form.

The thesis dealt with the love letters of Guillaume Apollinaire. My decision to study his letters rather than his poems or short stories was based on the current state of Apollinaire research at the time. When you tell people you’re studying someone’s letters, they typically think you’re doing autobiographical research on the author—but my paper was actually a thorough textual analysis. In other words, I wasn’t looking to discover the real life of the author behind the text, I was analyzing the text itself in an effort to make its value known. This approach, however, caused a bit of a problem. The letters that authors write are of a fundamentally different nature than the works of literature that they release to the public. Demonstrating their value to modern readers (aside from their value as source materials) is not a straightforward task. Of course, the situation is a little different when it comes to Apollinaire’s love letters. The poet includes poems in his letters, which he is offering to the woman with whom he is in love. What’s more, he even wrote portions of the letters with the idea that they would later be compiled and published in book form. Given that, you would think that there wouldn’t be a problem convincing people of the literary value of these particular letters—but in reality it was no easy task. The argument was that existence of poems in the letters only proved that the poems themselves had literary value, and said nothing of the value of the rest of the letters. In my view, however, there was literary value to the other passages as well. Next was the idea that the text had literary value because the author intended to publish it, which is a strange argument. Just because an author claims that he has produced a literary work does not mean that it has literary value and does not make it literature, and even if he says it is not a literary work it does not prevent a text from being literature either. There are plenty of texts out there where the author’s intentions are unknown. Whether or not a text has literary value ultimately comes down to elements found within the text itself. In the process of studying Apollinaire’s love letters, therefore, I had to consider the question of what makes a letter literary as well as what the inherent nature of literary value was in the first place. In doing so, I also analyzed the essential communicative function of letters as I closed in on the literary value of what Apollinaire wrote.



Once I had gotten my doctoral degree from New Sorbonne and returned home to Japan, I took a position at Chuo University. While I continued my research on Apollinaire, I also began to work as a film critic in earnest. I had already written a piece for a special edition of Eureka on Deleuze’s Cinema just before I went to study abroad, but had hardly had any requests for work while I was there. My current most well-known assignment as a film critic started just before I took the position at Chuo, with “Film Review” in Dokushojin Weekly. At Dokushojin Weekly, I got to interview film directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinji Aoyama, Pascale Ferran, and Guillaume Brac, and even sit down multiple times with film critic and former president of the University of Tokyo Shigehiko Hasumi. I’m now also working as part of the editorial committee for Chuo Hyoron, published by the Chuo University Press, on planning a special edition. I’ve even been asked to contribute to film brochures, writing them for Lou Ye’s Spring Fever, Robert Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, Guillaume Brac’s Tonnerre, Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, and others. More recently, I’ve had additional requests to contribute to special features on films in Eureka as well as on actors like Hideko Takamine and Setsuko Hara. Finally, I’ve compiled a series of research publications for the Chuo University Institute of Cultural Science and contributed a paper on the film director Teiichi Hori, who also happens to be my longtime friend.

While I once saw films as a simply a hobby of mine, it somehow ended up becoming the subject of my criticisms and research as well. Looking back on it now, I can again see how much of an impact Dr. Shigehiko Hasumi’s course at the University of Tokyo had on my work in the field. Though most of the courses I teach are French language classes in the Faculty of Economics, the fundamental approach I use in my film studies course in the Faculty of Letters is a direct extension of what I learned from Dr. Hasumi. And his influence shows up clearly not just in my teaching, but in my work in film criticism as well.


Four Nights of a Dreamer
© Gian Vittorio Baldi

Bird People
© Archipel 35 - France 2 Cinema-
Titre et Structure Production

So what is the joy of films? I’d like to give you my take on this important question as a film critic, since it gets at the fundamental nature of my work with them. The most important thing we need to get clear on is that the reality we see unfold before our eyes on the screen is not being reproduced in its entirety. Everyone’s definition of what the word “reality” refers to is slightly different, so it would be better to call as “what actually exists” or “the real world.” In any case, even documentary films are staged, and anything staged or otherwise fabricated is fiction. Even if you fix a camera in place and do zero editing work on the film, the minute you place the camera in a specific position, the staging has already begun. In addition, no matter how sophisticated your camera equipment, the images it captures are not the same thing as the scene that actually unfolds in front of the lens. If there were absolutely no discrepancies between the two, then what you have is no longer a film at all. People toss around the word “nonfiction” all the time, but in the strictest sense, there is no such thing as a nonfiction film. Just as realism is a form of fiction, documentaries are a subset of fiction as well.

Therefore what is the most fundamental is that all films are fictional. And we human beings have learned to find joy in amusing ourselves with the fiction that movies offer.

For modern people, our habit of amusing ourselves this way may be in one sense inevitable. The reason for this is that in the modern era, human beings recognize the finitude of their existence, and therefore have no choice but to distance themselves from reality and subjectively construct fictions. What does this really mean? In his Critique of Pure Reason, the philosopher Immanuel Kant separates the thing-in-itself from the phenomenon, arguing that human beings are able to perceive phenomena, yet incapable of knowing the things-in-themselves. In this way, he argues for the intellectual limitations of finite humans, who are not the omniscient God. We can substitute the words “reality” and “representation” for “thing-in-itself” and “phenomenon” as well. What we see and hear with our eyes and ears is no more than a representation of reality—not reality itself. Of course, modern science continues to try to explain the reality of our world trough representation, but its conclusions can do no more than approximate truth, and will never be without some level of uncertainty. And if that is the case, it’s only natural that our approach is to actively try to experience the richness of the representational world itself. Representation is not the same as reality, and as long as a permanent gap exists between the two, we can say that all forms of expression are fictions. Indulging in the abundance of representation is none other than amusing ourselves with fictions.

A film is literally a representation of reality captured by a device we call a camera. This makes the representational format of a movie a perfect means by which to actively experience representational richness. Long novels and films are the way that modern people throw themselves into amusement with fiction.

Just because films deal with representational fictions and do not show the truth of the real world does not mean that they do not have value as a form of expression. The truth of the real world may be unknowable to human beings, but the provisional truth revealed by modern science is that the real world simply exists and empty, having no meaning in itself. If God does exist, and if God created the universe, the universe (the real world, in other words) has meaning. If so, it means that there is such a thing as absolute value. But if the real world is godless it exists simply arbitrary, having no meaning in itself either way. Therefore, all human efforts to insist upon meaning are nothing more than self-created fictions. As Hidemaro says in Ogai Mori’s short work As if [Kanoyoni], “Things with value are the lies that everybody knows.” Every form of value is a lie—nothing more than a fabrication. But the truth is that human beings cannot live if they simply deny that anything has value. Ultimately, we have no choice but to go around acting “as if” we truly believe there is some value—even if we know deep in our hearts that it is a lie. This is what it means to amuse ourselves with fictions.

Even the idea that the planet Earth is a more precious planet than Mars, for instance, depends on a human-centric perspective—or at least one focused on life as we know it. Saying that planets without life are inferior to those with it is nothing more than one subjective viewpoint. Taken to the extreme, the extinction of the human race may be nothing more than a trifle within the vast expanses of the universe. Depending on how you look at it, the faster the humans who are destroying the natural environment disappear, the better it might be for the Earth and for the universe as a whole.

Human beings live their lives estranged from universal truth, good, and beauty. The joy of films for human beings, who have no choice but to live in a world of subjective fabrications, is precisely that we feel for a fleeting moment when we find of the richness in fiction of representation.

Yoji Ito
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Film, French Literature
Professor Yoji Ito was born in Tokyo in 1969. He graduated from the Faculty of Literature at the University of Tokyo in 1994, going on to complete the master’s program at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology at the University of Tokyo in 1996. In 2003, he completed the required courses for the doctoral program in the same school, finishing without a degree. That same year, he completed the doctoral program from the Department of French Literature and Civilization at the New Sorbonne University. Professor Ito received his Doctor of Literature from the New Sorbonne University and then taught at Chuo University as a full-time lecturer and associate professor in the Faculty of Economics before taking up his current position in 2012. He is currently researching fiction in film aesthetics and other topics. Key publications include Apollinaire et la lettre d’amour (Editions Connaissances et Savoirs 2005), of which he is the sole author. His “Film Review” is also currently under serialization in Dokushojin Weekly.