×

Film Review: ‘The Great Passage’

Yuya Ishii takes a step forward in budget and ambition with this gently absorbing comedy-drama about the writing and compilation of a new Japanese dictionary.

With:

Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazaki, Joe Odagiri, Haru Kuroki, Misako Watanabe, Chizuru Ikewaki, Kaoru Yachigusa, Kaoru Kobayashi, Go Kato.

At once accessibly humanist and endearingly nerdy, suffused with a deep love of language and a quiet awe at the possibilities of human collaboration, “The Great Passage” tells a gently absorbing story about a team of editors who spend 15 years writing and compiling a new Japanese dictionary. Previously known for his quirky indie efforts “Sawako Decides” and “Mitsuko Delivers,” director Yuya Ishii takes a considerable step forward in terms of budget and ambition with this simple, sometimes sentimental yet wise and full-bodied comedy-drama, which movingly testifies to the ways in which dedication, focus and an extreme attention to detail can achieve something of lasting value.

Well attended at home, the film stands to court a measure of offshore attention after having been selected as Japan’s official Oscar selection in the foreign-language film category. And while its 133-minute running time could make it something of a tricky arthouse proposition, the length feels entirely appropriate to the vastness and density of its subject. For anyone who ever wondered how a dictionary is written (where to start? Where to end?), “The Great Passage” seeks to illuminate the process, though it never quite demystifies the magical capabilities of words to convey and distill meaning.

It’s 1995 when Tomohiro Matsumoto (Go Kato), head of the dictionary editorial department at a Tokyo publisher, announces that they will begin work on a new 240,000-word tome called “The Great Passage,” so named because it will help the reader navigate “a vast sea of words that extends to infinity.” It’s an imposing yet inherently democratic project, making room for slang words, modern expressions and acronyms, and honoring the everyday relevance of language by engaging with the vernacular of Japanese youth. Unfortunately, with trusty longtime editor Kouhei Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi) retiring to look after his ailing wife, the department must find a suitable replacement before the project can go forward. They find it, unexpectedly, in Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda), a painfully shy and withdrawn employee in the sales department who happens to have a degree in linguistics, which he’ll soon put to excellent use.

Matsumoto’s vision for the new dictionary is predicated on an old-fashioned notion of words as enablers of human connection — a theme that plays out dramatically as Majime, so awkward and withdrawn initially that he has difficulty even forming an audible sentence, gradually emerges from his shell. Drinking and bonding with his rowdy polar-opposite colleague, Masashi Nishioka (a terrific Joe Odagiri), Majime eventually falls head-over-heels for beautiful culinary student Kaguya Hayashi (Aoi Miyazaki), the granddaughter of his ailing landlady. The film’s midsection follows Majime’s charming efforts to woo Kaguya the only way he knows how: through the written word.

Still, most of this leisurely paced story unfolds within the dim, cramped confines of the dictionary office, a wonderland of high-stacked reference tomes and minimal desk space where the editors pore over index cards, proofs and the occasional computer (it’s still 1995, after all). Kensaku Watanabe’s script (adapted from Shiwon Miura’s novel) is unafraid to immerse the viewer in minutiae, at one point pausing so the characters can discuss the varying adhesive qualities of different kinds of paper. Even for non-bibliophiles, it’s improbably fascinating stuff, rooted in a loving and genuinely curious approach to this highly specialized milieu.

“The Great Passage” could just as well refer to the passage of time, as the film soon leaps ahead more than a decade to find Majime and his colleagues still plugging away at their dictionary. The more robust comedy of the first half gives way to more reflective drama in the second as editors come and go, with major life events like marriage, children, aging and death all playing out quietly in the background. Even as he focuses relentlessly on the all-consuming nature of this particular work and the deep friendships built in the process, Ishii achieves a poignant sense of life’s slow but inexorable progression. The steady toll of Majime’s long hours spent working while Kaguya plays the supportive wife (cooking an endless succession of delicious-looking meals that often go untouched) is poignantly acknowledged if never dramatized outright.

The result is a graceful seriocomic study of how the obsessive study of words can both enrich and sometimes limit a person’s life experience, although the director’s tone is largely one of enormous respect for his intelligent, endlessly devoted protagonists. The script doesn’t over-emphasize the considerable changes that have transpired in the publishing industry over the story’s roughly 15-year period, although it’s possible to discern in the elegiac final scenes a sense of longing for a pre-digital era, when language was used with more care and books were held in higher esteem.

Performances are excellent across the board. Matsuda beautifully modulates his character’s long-arc transformation from socially awkward bookworm to respected leader of the enterprise; Odagiri provides non-jarring comic relief while still etching a fully rounded character; and Kato and Kobayashi inhabit their wise-mentor roles with warmth and dignity. Haru Kuroki adds a shot of youthful energy to the proceedings as one of the department’s bright new recruits, her glossy-magazine background making her just the person to update all the dictionary’s fashion-related entries.

Tech package is sturdy. Junichi Fujisawa’s lensing seems to rely largely on natural light, while occasional inserts of nocturnal ocean imagery dovetail beautifully with the film’s title and theme. English-language subtitles at the Vancouver festival screening attended were excellent, a must for a film so heavily invested in the nuances of words.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Great Passage'

Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival (Dragons & Tigers), Oct. 5, 2013. (Also in Hong Kong, Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 133 MIN. Original title: "Fune wo amu"

Production:

(Japan) A Shochiku Co. production. (International sales: Shochiku Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Tomoo Tsuchii, Kimitaka Goka, Fumitsugu Ikeda, Yasuyaki Iwanami.

Crew:

Directed by Yuya Ishii. Screenplay, Kensaku Watanabe, based on the novel by Shiwon Miura. Camera (color, HD), Junichi Fujisawa; editor, Shinichi Fushima; music, Takash Watanabe; production designer, Mitsuo Harada.

With:

Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazaki, Joe Odagiri, Haru Kuroki, Misako Watanabe, Chizuru Ikewaki, Kaoru Yachigusa, Kaoru Kobayashi, Go Kato.

More Film

  • Garin Nugroho film "Memories of my

    Indonesia Selects Controversial 'Memories' as Oscar Contender

    “Memories of my Body” directed by Garin Nugroho has been selected to represent Indonesia at the Academy Awards in the best foreign-language film category. The announcement was made on Tuesday by actress Christine Hakim representing the Indonesian Film Selection Committee. The fact-based film depicts the story of a young man from a dance troupe that [...]

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • The Moneychanger

    Toronto Film Review: ‘The Moneychanger’

    Uruguayan auteur Federico Veiroj (“The Apostate,” “Belmonte”) broadens his usual intimate dramatic scope to diminishing returns for his fifth feature, “The Moneychanger,” . Adapted from a novella by compatriot Juan Enrique Gruber, the period (mid-1950s to mid-1970s) tale centers on the eponymous character, an amoral currency exchanger, who winds up laundering some of the dirtiest [...]

  • Send Me to the Clouds

    Film Review: ‘Send Me to the Clouds’

    The social and economic pressures felt by China’s “leftover women” — referring to those older than 26 and unmarried — are examined in “Send Me to the Clouds,” a rewarding dramedy about a 30-ish journalist seeking financial reward and sexual fulfillment after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Bold by mainland standards for presenting a positive [...]

  • Jamie Bell Without Remorse

    Jamie Bell Joins Michael B. Jordan in 'Without Remorse' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Bell is in final negotiations to join Michael B. Jordan in Paramount’s adaptation of the Tom Clancy novel “Without Remorse.” Stefano Sollima, who most recently helmed “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” is directing from a script by “Sicaro” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. As previously announced, Jordan is starring as operations officer John Clark, also known [...]

  • Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter,

    'Downton Abbey' Movie Sequel? Producers Tease That They Have 'Some Ideas'

    “Downton Abbey” holds the record as the most-nominated international show at the Emmy Awards with 69 nominations and 15 wins — and now, it stands a chance to nab an Oscar. More than three years after the beloved series signed off the air following six critically-acclaimed seasons, “Downton Abbey” is making its big-screen debut. “It [...]

  • Todd Phillips Joaquin Phoenix Joker Movie

    What's Woker Than 'Joker'? Film Critics Made Everything Political at Fall Festivals

    “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Joaquin Phoenix, playing a deranged incel version of the DC supervillain in “Joker,” the unconventional comic book movie that’s sucked up much of the air from the fall festival circuit. Like an aggro caricature of the “involuntary celibates” who troll message boards online, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content