Yûya Ishii’s the Great Passage was Japan’s submission for Best Foreign Language film last year. It received a very limited release in the US one weekend and has played a few film festivals. I couldn’t find the name of a US distributor for the film and ended up ordering a copy of the Hong Kong version from Yesasia.com so that I could finally see it. It’s a shame, really, that the film hasn’t been picked up. I could see people adding it to their list of beloved films. It is a very easy film to like. It sums up the hopes and dreams of all of us-that we will find a task that we can be devoted to and share that devotion with others. It is an optimistic film, not lofty enough to be awe inspiring, but the world it offers up is as much a fantasy dream world as the most magical love story or futurist utopia. It’s a world worth believing in.
The Great Passage refers to a Japanese dictionary that is produced over the 15 year time span of the movie. It is to be a living dictionary according to department head Professor Matsumoto (Gô Katô), with new definitions based on the words that people are actually using at the time. As a reference, it will be a snapshot of Japanese culture at the turn of the century. He explains that the Passage is like a sea voyage enabling people to explore and make new connections. By finding the right word one can express one’s intention properly. By looking up words, readers are attempting to understand what others are communicating. On another level, passage can also refer the conversion points in the path of life. It is with this latter definition that the long journey to create Passage intersects with the lives of the lexicographers who work on it.
The movie opens with one such passage – the retirement of long-time dictionary editor Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi). He has spent over 30 years working on dictionaries and the professor doesn’t know how he can produce his visionary dictionary without him. There are only 4 members in the department, millions of words to sort through, and hundreds of thousands of new definitions to write. The loss of one staff member, especially a competent one, could derail the project. Araki’s wife is not well and he wants to spend his retirement with her, but promises not to leave until he finds a suitable replacement. It is not an easy task. No one at the publishing house is either qualified or interested.
He finds someone barely suitable in Mitsuya Majime (Ryûhei Matsuda). “Majime” means “diligent” and when he is first noticed by his colleague, Nishioka (Jo Odagiri), he thinks he’s met a man with an unfortunate nickname. Majime’s primary qualifications are a degree in linguistics and the fact that the sales department wants to be rid of him. He adequately gives a definition to the word “right.” To say that he is mild-mannered or shy understates the distance Majime keeps from other people. It is a wonder that human resources or Majime ever thought he would be a suitable salesman, since speaking with others appears to be a painful experience for him. He lives in a world of books – his rooming house is full of them – but he is a reader, not a communicator. It is Majime whose character development we’ll follow most closely throughout the film as he develops connections with people for the first time, falls in love for the first time, finds his vocation, and becomes someone who is capable of inspiring his co-workers.
After the introductions of the office team and Passage project overview, the movie shifts gears for a while and follows the courtship of Kaguya (Aoi Miyazaki) and Majime. Kaguya is the daughter of the landlady of the boarding house where Majime has lived for ten years. Misako Watanabe is wonderful as the landlady who is more of a mother for Majime than anything else. After Majime explains his passion for his new position, she lets him know that the fact that he has discovered his calling makes him sexier than he was before. It is probably that boost that enables him to think of pursuing Kaguya. The dictionary staff soon discover his romantic intentions and with mild prodding and advice manage him along, however awkwardly. The professor even assigns him the definition of ‘love’ for the dictionary, just so he’ll get the point that he needs to follow through on his feelings so he can write them down for others to share. It is the subtle change that occurs in Majime once Kaguya accepts him that I think is the performance highlight of the film.
Because Kaguya is devoted to him, Majime can start to connect with people more. Even though he will always be the quiet, humble Majime, he is a more confident version of the quiet, humble Majime. The changes in Majime are very subtle, as are the signs that he loves Kaguya, but Matsuda does an excellent job capturing those subtleties in ways that allow the audience to continue to root for this underdog rather than laugh at him or feel sorry for him. He is meek, but never a creep. When the film skips ahead ten years in time, the pair are still together, and when Araki introduces Kaguya to a new staff member as “Majime’s significant other”, Matsuda beams a little-blink and you’ll miss it-because the thought that she is with him still brings him bliss all those years later. Good for him.
At its heart, The Great Passage is about vocation, personal devotion and change. It is paced like many Japanese light dramas-events may develop slowly, but the story always moves forward. That pacing is not for everyone, and the movie probably much quieter than US audiences are used to. However, if a viewer has the patience to track the movie down, he or she will be rewarded with a wonderful film. I sought out the film because of Jo Odagiri, who I think always improves any film that he’s in. But the reward of this film was watching Matsuda, Kobayashi and the rest of the dictionary staff grow to respect and admire one another as they produce what could be the last paper dictionary. It is the story of the end of an era, where co-workers get to know each other over the years, before we became over-networked and virtual. Were all offices like that, we probably never would have designed ways to eliminate them.
****1/2 of five.
IMDB: The Great Passage