The Great Passage (Fune wo amu)
Japan (2013) Dir. Yuya Ishii
Tokyo, 1995 and Kohei Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi) works in the small dictionary editing department of a large publishing company. His wife is very ill and he wants to retire to look after her, but when the current editor-in-chief Tomosuke Matsumoto (Go Kato) announces he wants to create a new modern dictionary, Araki needs to find his replacement quickly.
Luckily, Araki’s colleague, Masashi Nishioka (Jo Odagiri) notices the timid bookworm Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda) floundering in the sales department, his degree in linguistics making him a prime candidate. The next fifteen years are spent creating this mammoth dictionary, entitled The Great Passage, during which time Majime finds love in the form of his landlady’s granddaughter, sushi chef Kaguya Hayashi (Aoi Miyazaki).
Only Japan could make a film like The Great Passage. Well, possibly the French, but it wouldn’t have the same quiet dignity about it, instead more dialogue, nudity and smoking! Such is the faith in this gentle study of dedication and love of language, based on the novel by Shion Miura, it has been chosen as Japan’s official submission for the 2014 Foreign Language film Oscar. I honestly feel it is too culturally esoteric to win but that doesn’t discount it as a worthy contender.
One would think that two plus hours spent watching a small group of people, lead by a tacit, stone faced Majime (the Japanese for “serious”), slaving over the creation of a dictionary for fifteen years is a recipe for boredom but the exact opposite is true.
Director Yuya Ishii, famed for his droll and quirky comedies such as Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers, presents us with a mature and respectful work that exudes the same unspoken passion and focus as our diligent on-screen compilers. He even manages to inject some low key humour into the proceedings – usually at Majime’s expense – although it might be a little too subtle for some to pick up on but one finds themselves fully engrossed in the story from the get go.
Majime lives up to his name’s meaning, never once smiling, approaching everything with a clinical eye and being emotionally reticent. He lives with the elderly Take (Misako Watanabe) and his library of books and dictionaries which are his life. Working on The Great Passage is like a dream come true and he dedicates every waking moment to it, impressing Matsumoto and contract worker Kaori Sasaki (Hiroko Isayama) while the out going Nishioka finds it amusing.
A year into the project and Director Murakoshi (Shingo Tsurumi) wants to axe the dictionary so it falls to Majime and Nishioka to convince him otherwise. The story follows the progress of the project as well as Majime moving up the ranks to editor as Matsumoto ages, with new staff entering the fore, including smart mouthed teen Midori Kishibe (Haru Kuroki) who doesn’t get it at first but soon becomes as dedicated to the cause as everyone else is.
The romance between Majime and Kaguya is possibly one of the most unromantic, physical free yet somehow endearingly sweet unions in film history. She appears on the balcony one night with Tora, the cat Majime tends to, and he is literally floored by her appearance.
As it happens they are two peas in a pod as she is also very shy and withdrawn but her passion is cooking, especially knives. They just sort of bond as time passes, the defining moment coming after Majime writer Kaguya a love letter but it is written in old fashioned script with a brush which she, as modern girl, can’t read!
Because of the mid 90’s setting this film comes across as paean not just to the care and attention given to making a dictionary but also the pre-digital age of working. The staff relies on pencils, stacks of books and note paper with the occasional use of an old PC with Windows 3.1 which adds to the sweat and tears going into the workload and good old fashioned elbow grease to get the job done. Ishii’s use of close ups of the texts and the notes and of the intense studying of the staff takes the viewer deep into the heart of the process, giving us a new found respect and admiration for dictionary compilers everywhere.
The title might seem obscure for a dictionary but the concept is that it “navigates the reader through a sea of words” which is a typically quaint Japanese way of approaching something so commonplace. Therefore it is no surprise that the film similarly navigates the viewer through the minutiae of researching, compiling, editing and publishing a dictionary.
It seems unlikely that even the softness of the paper for ease of turning the pages would be a major issue but it is, as we learn. Conversely, westerners will marvel at the immense loyalty of the staff, who at one point actually LIVES in the tiny office to meet the publishing deadline! Now THAT is dedication.
Ryuhei Matsuda has the tough job of making the charisma free Majime grow before our eyes from a shy doormat to the respected leader with a supportive wife, achieving so much both personally and professionally and not losing himself in the glory of the moment. Matsuda has that stoic face and the acting experience to pull this off with utter credibility and conviction.
Aoi Miyazaki faces a similar challenge and with her elfin looks and slight physique pulls it off, and although her role feels the lesser of the two, she is the perfect match for Matsuda. The versatile Jo Odagiri never oversteps the mark as the brash Nishioka while the senior actors all bring the necessary gravitas their roles demand.
The Great Passage sees an indie director step up and make his mark on the mainstream with a gentle but absorbing film of great heart and grace while retaining his unique identity. A simple yet evocative tale, one may just find their faith in humanity restored via this heart warming drama.