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OzAsia on Screen: The Great Passage

Sep 19, 2013

Writing any book is a mammoth task but how about writing a book which contains – which has to contain – every single word available? Impossible?

Okay, let’s take something much more simple: just one word. How would you define the word “right”? I mean, in a dictionary? How would you indicate what that commonly used word really means when applied to direction, never mind the other possible meanings? No Google allowed – it’s 1995!

What is the best definition of “right”? That’s the question Masashi Nishioka (Joe Odagiri) carries around with him as he tries to find another editor for a new dictionary which will be called The Great Passage. The former chief editor at Genbu Books has quit due to ill health and the project to create a totally new dictionary – one that will contain all known Japanese words and even modern slang – looks likely to take a while. The last revision took 28 years.

Enter Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda), an unsuccessful salesman with the struggling imprint. His love of reading, his dedication (his name actually means “diligence”) and a degree in linguistics catches the eye of Nishioka and, slowly, together with a growing crew of fellow editors and eventually dozens of students and volunteers, the impossible project develops.

“Slowly” is the word here: this gently moving film follows the development of The Great Passage over a period of 15 years – years which ironically bridge the gap between the end of printed dominance and the rise of the know-it-all search engines and the “everyone in” attitude of Wikipedia.

This Japanese film by young director Yuya Ishii has enormous charm, throwing up obstacles to the completion of this daunting project and a romance to cloud the issue. Majime’s love of language leaves him speechless when he meets Kaguya (Aoi Miyazaki), his landlady’s granddaughter. Words fail him when he tries to woe her, with a letter to her backfiring badly. Obviously well smitten, back in the small office – by now a Taj Mahal of books, notes, and thousands of tiny cards detailing overheard, “found object” words – Majime is immediately put in charge of the word “love”.

Soon there is chaos and complications, and as the deadline looms a flaw is found in the third (or is it the fourth?) proof-read – a word totally missing.

There’s drama here, but perhaps not as you know it. But you do know the characters – the human face of pure creation and seemingly endless, at times sleepless, enterprise in the servitude of the wonder of words.

Moments when the ageing editor excitedly discovers phrases such as “uncool” and “bummed out” are genuinely funny. We learn to love these people. And the whole film is so … Japanese. The mise en scene – those dank and crowded interiors, those meticulous little cards, that food, that crazy ’90s office made of paper, the concrete city outside – is enough to warrant a ticket.

But above all, The Great Passage is homage to the love of language, and the growing love of the people who are driven enough to take on this monster. Never underestimate the power of the written word and, in this case, a well-made film about it. Lovely.

The Great Passage is showing again at the Mercury cinema tomorrow, September 20, at 11am. OzAsia on Screen runs until September 29, with the full program online.

More OzAsia Festival coverage

Review: Fight the Landlord

Review: Meeting with Bodhisattva

Review: Malaysian singer Yuna

Preview: The Light Surgeons’ Super Everything

Preview: Leigh Warren and Dancers’ Not According to Plan

Preview: Yegam Theatre Company’s Extreme Jump!

 

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