Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda) has a natural talent with understanding different languages and is a valuable member of a dictionary edit team at a publishing house, along with other word aficionados. He is given the ultimate privilege - editing Japan's first dictionary. Majime lives in a boarding house and he becomes enamoured with the owner's granddaughter, Kaguya Hayashi (Aoi Miyazaki). The socially inept editor starts to struggle with his life, with his inability to describe the word 'sea' and confessing his feelings to Kaguya.

Romance writes itself into dictionary drama.

JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL: Here’s a film that would never get remade by Hollywood. The Great Passage is essentially the dramatic story of the compilation of a dictionary of slang over a 15-year period. One measure of a good film is an ability to make an audience care about things that you would never (ever!) care about under normal circumstances. With its emphasis on 'the group’ and its placing import on fastidious detail, this story could have come from almost no other country than Japan. Or if such a film was attempted elsewhere, no other country could do it so well. So stop your rolling your eyes and give a thought to how different cultures generate different types of stories.

moving and compelling

The film begins in the early 1990s on a small scale, when a member of the dictionary team of a huge publishing company tenders his resignation. This event occurs just as a new project is announced (a contemporary dictionary of slang) so a staff replacement is needed and for budgetary reasons, such a person has to be sourced from within the company. The perfect man for the job is a geeky, semi-autistic pedant named Majime (his family name means discipline) who also happens to be the most ineffective member of the sales team. Odd, if not downright weird, Majime is portrayed, thanks to universal movie logic, by the handsome Matsuda Ryuhei. And in case audiences needed any additional help in liking Majime, the character immediately endears himself by his loving attention to his landlady’s cat. His eccentric charms and obsession with precision also happens to warm the heart of the romantic love interest, Kaguya, played by Aoi Miyazaki. And for the film’s first hour, there’s some interplay between other members of the dictionary team and the importance of a dictionary of slang (in a society where formality is a national trait) is given an airing, but primarily it seems like a standard romantic drama.

The romance takes about an hour to build up and initially keeps the film’s tone helium light, until incrementally the film starts to pull all the dramatic strands together so the film begins to cohere into—you guessed it—a moving and compelling drama about the compilation of a dictionary of Japanese slang.

By setting the majority of the film in the early mid-1990s, The Great Passage (this is the Western title: the Japanese title refers more obscurely to a shipbuilding) marks the transition of a youth culture boom, in a time of economic (and still ongoing) depression, and coincides with the acceleration of the cellphone as well as the internet and associated telecommunications industries that transformed Japan before most countries (except maybe South Korea) had really figured out what was going on. Gradually, director Yuya Ishii—in direct contrast to his self-consciously wacky independent films Mitsuko Delivers (2011) and Sawako Decides (2010)—pulls its audience into caring about traditional Japanese values such as commitment, endurance, teamwork and honouring one’s predecessors. While it is hard to imagine that Oscar voters will privilege this film over some of the flashier submissions for the 2014 Academy Awards, (though at this early stage, my money is on the indie Singapore’s Ilo Ilo), it would be judicious to remember that the 2009 win of Takita Yojiro’s Departures was a complete surprise. But why wait for a faceless (though huge) committee to hand down their 'approval’ for you? Take a look at The Great Passage yourself and see how this elegantly simple and emotionally potent film sneaks up on you to warm the heart and soul.


2 hours 14 min