You might think that a movie about compiling a dictionary – even the first ever “living dictionary” – is going to be about as compelling as watching paint dry. Under normal circumstances you’d probably be right, but normal circumstances don’t take The Great Passage’s sterling cast and sensitive filmmaker Yuya Ishii’s deft handling of everyday social interactions into account.
It’s 1995 (pre-computing technology, if you can believe that. Or, you know, check with Wiki) and Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda, Big Bang Love, Kanikosen) is a young man with some fairly serious social handicaps. In fact, on the autism spectrum he would probably be firmly located dead centre in Asperger. He’s painfully shy, single-minded, awkward, and out of touch. That is until about-to-retire assistant editor Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi, Kamui) successfully scouts him for a transfer into the less than popular Dictionary Editorial Department in the publishing company where he works. It’s at that point that Majime’s carefully catalogued and shelved world starts to change, perhaps arguably for the better.
On his first day in the new job, the venerable head of the department, Matsumoto (Gou Kato, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades), announces the commencement of a project to compile the first ever “living dictionary”. Words, Matsumoto says, create bridges between people, and it is the department’s job to continue to uphold this so that people can always find the words to say what they mean. Considering this is a subject relevant to Majime’s interests in more ways than one, our ugly duckling finds himself inspired and throws himself into the project with all the geeky energy he can muster. He soon finds, however, that compiling a dictionary is a big job, one that can take a number of people years, or even decades. If he wants to see the tome finished, Majime is going to have to learn how to work with people. You know, interact and talk and stuff. Like an average person.
It’s this journey that Majime embarks upon from isolated and socially awkward to, well, less isolated and a little bit less socially awkward, that makes this film so emotionally engrossing. It’s humour is gentle, and so too is its drama. Aided by a scene-stealing performance from Joe Odagiri as Majime’s co-worker Nishioka, who has no small hand in bringing Majime out of his shell, and the luminous presence of Aoi Miyazaki as Kaguya, the slightly knife-obsessed chef with whom Majime falls in love, Matsuda effortlessly commands the emotional focus, giving a very clear impression of the character’s personal growth. The rest of the cast are equally strong, and Ishii’s directorial hand never once slips into jarring notes, but instead guides us steadily and with calm assurance through the twists and turns of life as the end of the project draws near.
I suspect that as a native Japanese, there might even be a measure of delight in the actual linguistic content of the film. Words of course feature heavily, but lacking a finer understanding of the mechanics of the Japanese language and how the language has changed over the decades, I get the feeling that like Kaguya when she receives Majime’s rather formally written love letter, I’m not equipped to appreciate it as it could be appreciated.
Not that there’s anything alienating here. This film will appeal to someone with even with zero grasp of the language. The themes, both immediate and underlying, are universal, and treated with such obvious affection that it’s impossible not to feel a little of that affection yourself, for both the words and the sometimes terrifying effort of using them.
The Great Passage is screening as part of the 17th Japanese Film Festival until December 8. Please check the website for screening times in your city.