August 25, 2014
The Great Passage
"The Great Passage" is the (fictional) name of an unabridged dictionary being created by the microscopic dictionary department in a large publishing firm.
The title of the movie in Japanese is Fune o Amu (舟を編む), which is even more obscure. It literally means "knitting together a boat," Japanese lexicographer's slang for compiling a dictionary.
The Japanese name of the dictionary is Daidokai (大渡海), literally "great sea voyage." Because a dictionary, the managing editor explains, is the ship by which readers navigate the vast sea of words that encompass life.
These people take words seriously.
Ryuhei Matsuda, who did very well as a roving talent agent in Amachan, plays against type as Majime Mitsuya, a clinically introverted linguist who gets chosen (practically at random) to replace a veteran editor at the onset of the project.
The not-uncommon name "Majime" is an Oscar Wilde-worthy pun, as it has the approximate meaning as "earnest" (or "Ernest").
Majime has been living by himself in a boarding house (plus a cat and the landlady), having taking over all the other rooms to store his books. And then the landlady's granddaughter (Aoi Miyazaki) moves in.
Aoi Miyazaki, who put in fine performances in Nana (also with Ryuhei Matsuda) and Atsuhime, is perfectly cast here, cute without being unrealistically pretty for the part.
You could be forgiven at this point for expecting a classic "geek gets the girl" story. However, that subplot is pretty much wrapped up in the first half.
This really is a movie about making a dictionary. The whole fifteen-year process. Collecting and collating the entries. The endless revisions. Looming deadlines and shrinking budgets. Frantic searches for missing entries.
It's a fascinating tale from start to finish. Granted, you have to love lexicography to enjoy this movie, which apparently some Japanese movie critics do.
"The Great Passage" won Best Picture at the 2013 Japan Academy Awards. It's made the film festival circuit in the U.S. Alas, right now, the only available DVD version with English subtitles is the region 3 (Chinese) release.
In the meantime, here's an extended preview (Japanese only).
UPDATE: Amazon picked up the streaming rights for the anime version in October 2016.