Japan’s official Oscar selection in the foreign-language film category is an absorbing look at words and the human connection. Yûya Ishii’s latest film, The Great Passage, is a hypnotic look at how not only romantic bonds bring people together, but also how people unite for a shared purpose. The interesting thing about Ishii’s film is that he tackles these themes through the most unlikely source…the world of dictionary publishing.
The story begins in1995 when longtime editor of a dictionary editorial department, Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi), decides to retire to care for his ailing wife. Araki’s departure comes at an inopportune time as the department head, Tomohiro Matsumoto (Go Kato), announces their most ambitious project yet. Matsumoto wants the team to begin working on a new 240,000-word dictionary entitled “The Great Passage”. Envisioned to be a living dictionary, its purpose is not only to navigate through the sea of words, but also to highlight the relevance of the slang that Japanese youth use in everyday life. Considering how labour intensive the project will be, Araki embarks on a quest to find his successor. Fortunately, he finds it in the shy Mitsuya Majime (Ryûhei Matsuda), a linguistics major who is toiling away in the sales department.
Though viewed as awkward and weird by his co-workers, such as Masashi Nishioka (Jô Odagiri), Majime inadvertently becomes the embodiment of everything Matsumoto envisions for the dictionary. Since words are a key component of human connection, Majime is assigned to find the proper definition for the word “love” after falling for a culinary student named Kaguya (Aoi Miyazaki), the granddaughter of the landlady at the rooming house where he lives. Along with trying to figure out how to best convey his feelings for Kaguya, Majime must learn how to communicate better with the world around him through the words he holds so dear.
One element that makes The Great Passage so engaging is the way it captures the slow and arduous process of creating a dictionary from scratch. At a running time of 133 minutes, Ishii’s decade spanning tale, like it protagonist, takes great care in the details. While the notion of watching people put a dictionary together may not seem “gripping” on paper, Ishii manages to craft a film that is surprisingly captivating. The impending threat of the digital era, and what it means for books, adds to the sense of urgency that comes with meeting expected deadlines in the latter years of the project. In fact, the progression of the dictionary actually consumes a large bulk of the film as the romantic story arc is pretty much resolved by the midway point. By focusing on the struggles of making the dictionary, Ishii is able to aptly show the growth of his characters.
Matsuda does a wonderful job of capturing Majime’s growth from meek man to confident editor. Go Kato and Kaoru Kobayashi provide the heart and soul of the piece. The men they portray are dedicated to fulfilling a job and a dream, but must confront the mortality of both themselves and their loved ones in the process. Jô Ordagiri is the most surprising of the bunch as Nishioka. He takes on a character that could have easily become obnoxious and provides a level of humanity to him.
The Great Passage is a film that takes great care and respect in both its story and characters. Spanning fifteen years, Ishii provides a thorough look at the types of connections that can be made in life. Like the subject it focuses on, the film may seem simple on the surface, but the complexities reveal themselves the closer you look. Though the threat of the digital era is prevalent, the slow and methodic approach only helps to emphasize the importance of words and the connections they help us to make.
Thu Nov 14, 7:00 PM, Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, Kobayashi Hall