Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda) is a shy and awkward employee at a publishing house. He has lived at a rooming house for nearly 10 years with his only source of conversation being Take (Misako Watanabe) the elderly woman who runs the home. He works in the sales department for Genbu Publishing but is unable to speak to anyone therefore he never makes a sale. He eats lunch alone with a book perched in one had as he eats with the other. Books surround the small desk at his living quarters. His only other interaction is with a cat Tora-san that scratches the shutters to come into his quarters each night. Faithful employee and editor Kouhei Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi) has announced his plan to retire. He would like to spend more time with his ill wife. The timing is bad for the head of the Dictionary Editorial Department Professor Matsumoto (Shingo Tsurumi) as he has planned to compile a modern living dictionary in a project called The Great Passage. Professor Matsumoto envisions the reference tool as a boat for passage across the sea of words. A dictionary so people can cross the vast sea and connect. The book will contain all of the main words currently in use plus a good portion of secondary words but the key will be the inclusion of slang terms with the proper definitions and a note on how the word is misused.
Director Yuya Ishii tackles a potentially mundane subject in an appealing fashion. At the beginning of the project the year is 1995 and the team discusses the amount of years that it took to complete some popular dictionaries ending the discussion with one that took 28 yeas to complete. The group concluded that they would be happy if they finished The Great Passage in 10 years. The opening portion of the film is shot mainly in the dark and shadows. Looking at the Dictionary department it's amazing to see how far technology has come in under twenty years. The words are compiled on index cards and kept in a card catalogue. Most of the work is by hand although the department does have a computer that is used sparingly paper, books, spreadsheets and folders are piled in towers leading up to the ceiling. Each team member is surrounded or more accurately buried and barely visible to other colleagues. It's into this dreary settling that Majime arrives passing his first test to provide a definition for the word Right that has stumped the group especially his co worker Mr. Nishioka (Joe Odagiri) who is Majime's complete foil and brought fear to the Professor when he was contemplated as Araki's replacement.
Majime's world is tilted when he meets Take's his granddaughter Kaguya (Aoi Miyazaki) a budding Sushi chef whose fascination with Japanese knifes is on par with Majime's for words and books. The two strike up a friendship that grows and once they decide to follow the same path the narrative jumps ahead 12 years to 2007.
The film is based on a Shiwon Miru novel adapted for the screen by Kensaku Watanabe. The narrative is presented in a slow meticulous manner which is to be expected for a project that is focused on compiling a 240,000 word modern living dictionary. The action picks up when Majime first meets Kaguya and literally falls for her in their first encounter followed by his awkward attempts to show his feelings for her. Mr. Nishioka is the main source of comic relief full of funny remarks to keep the group going starting with his declaration after only the first few words are recorded of how long will this take. A memorable part of the story is the three words that are defined by prominent characters in the film. The afore mentioned Right plus, Love and Uncool.
The main set for the film is the Editorial Department office. It is small full and incredibly cramped. An interesting set piece at the outset is the computer circa 1995 and the manual reference library type filing system used as the words are compiled. The transformation of the set is notable when the timeline jumps ahead to 2007. The first change is the familiar audible click of a mouse as information is now compiled on a laptop computer. The piles are lower and more light now comes into the room with to signify the arrival of the 21st century.
Ryuhei Matsuda is terrific as Majime the central figure in the film. In the course of his first rate performance he rises from an introverted bookworm paralyzed in public to the confidant Director of the Dictionary Editorial Department and leader of the decade plus project to complete the dictionary. Joe Odagiri shines as his laid back colleague Mr. Nishoka who springs into action when the project is threatened showing his sales skills to obtain outside backing. Take (Misako Watanabe) provides sage advice and a quick wit as his landlady. Her contribution to the film is especially important in the early stages when due to the dry subject matter the piece could easily have stalled. Aoi Miyazaki is very good in the role of the quiet stoic sushi chef and knife aficionado Kaguya.
The Great Passage is an engrossing study of a skill and subject that is probably lost to the new technological edge. After all who owns a Dictionary nowadays and if the answer were yes would the owner know where it is? Handled in a charming manner and featuring several noteworthy performances the Great Passage is a film that I can recommend.
The Great Passage | Yuya Ishii | Japan | 2013 | 133 Minutes.
*** out of 4.
Bibliophile, research project, publishing, the 90's,books, Dictionary, Meticulous, Obsolete, Life's work, Sushi, Japanese knives.