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Japanese director Ishii Yuya returns with “The Great Passage”, following up on his popular “Mitsuko Delivers” and “Sawako Decides” with more quietly quirky observational humour. Adapted from Miura Shiwon’s best-seller “Assemble the Boats”, the film revolves around the painstaking process of the creation of a massive dictionary during a time span of over a decade – a subject which might sound somewhat dry, but which in the hands of Ishii becomes both fascinating and gently funny. Although it didn’t make the final cut, the film was Japan’s entry for the 2013 Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film, and also played to acclaim at a variety of festivals around the world.
Beginning in 1995, the film stars Matsuda Ryuhei (“Nana”) as Majime, a bookish salesman with limited social skills, who works in the sales department of the Genbu Books Company. After the Dictionary Editorial Department’s main editor resigns to look after his ailing wife, Majime is picked to replace him and to take over on editing duties on The Great Passage, an attempt to compile a ‘living dictionary’, complete with up to date, modern words and slang. Though the mammoth task and the incredible length of time it’ll take are intimidating, Majime throws himself into his work, aided by mouthy co-worker Masashi (popular actor Odagiri Joe, “My Way”) and his colleagues, and slowly but surely they begin to make progress. To learn more about the uses of language, Majime is forced to come out of his shell, and encounters love for the first time when he meets Kaguya (Miyazaki Aoi, “A Chorus of Angels”), the granddaughter of his elderly landlady Take.
Although the making of a dictionary might not exactly sound like the most interesting subject for a film, “The Great Passage” is another fantastically humanistic and wholly engaging offering from Ishii Yuya. Seeing the director taking on a somewhat bigger budget than his last outings, the film uses its premise and its dictionary to focus on bridging the communication between people, its 1995 setting, pre-internet and the rise of sites like Wikipedia allowing it to keep one foot in the past and another in the present. With its observations on societal change and the differences in generations, the film quietly recalls the works of Ozu, both in theme and in Ishii’s meticulous sense of shot construction and attention to detail.
Like the building of the dictionary, the film has an unhurried, patient pace, taking its time to develop its characters and their relationships, and to immerse the viewer in their lives. The film is moving and sentimental without resorting to melodrama, and manages to chart the ups and downs of life and love without false drama, maintaining a certain steady sense of constancy throughout. Coupled with some charming, low-key comedy, this makes the film absorbing from start to finish, and its two hours plus running time never feels over-stretched.
Partly this is due to some great performances from the cast, in particular Matsuda Ryuhei in the lead, who hits a perfect balance of making Majime (whose name means ‘diligent’) socially awkward and yet likeable, and far from being a stereotypical comedy nerd or social outcast. Though quiet and a bit inept when it comes to talking to people, he’s a decent fellow who it’s easy to root for, and his gradual maturation as he finds his place in the world is rewarding to watch, as is his courtship with Kaguya, Miyazaki Aoi putting in an effective and sympathetic turn. Odagiri Joe similarly does a good job as Masashi, adding depth and drama to the film’s chief comic relief role, and with the rest of the supporting cast also on good form, it does feel at times like an ensemble piece of sorts, with an air of camaraderie and family.
A wonderfully humanist and generous piece of cinema, “The Great Passage” is another superb film from Ishii Yuya that’s rich in character, detail and humour. Bolstered by a fine cast and Ishii’s perfectly judged direction, it should be enjoyed by audiences looking for thoughtful compassionate drama, even those who wouldn’t initially think that a film about dictionaries would make for gratifying viewing.
Yûya Ishii (director) / Shiwon Miura (novel), Kensaku Watanabe (screenplay)
CAST: Ryûhei Matsuda … Mitsuya Majime
Aoi Miyazaki … Kaguya Hayashi
Jô Odagiri … Masashi Nishioka
Kaoru Kobayashi … Kouhei Araki
Gô Katô … Tomosuke Matsumoto
Haru Kuroki … Midori Kishibe