Japanese Title: 舟を編む
Romaji: Fune wo Amu
Release Date: April 13th, 2013 (Japan)
Seen at the BFI London Film Festival 2013
Running Time: 133 mins.
Director: Yuya Ishii
Writer: Shion Miura (Original Novel), Kensaku Watanabe (Screenplay),
Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazaki, Joe Odagiri, Haru Kuroki, Misako Watanabe, Kumiko Aso, Shingo Tsurumi, Chizuru Ikewaki, Hiroko Isayama, Kaouru Kobayashi, Go Kato, Kaoru Yachigusa, Ryu Morioka, Shohei Uno, Kazuki Namioka
The year is 1995 and the place is the Dictionary Editorial Department of the publisher Genbu Books. The staff include Matsumoto (Kato), a veteran editor in chief of dictionaries who is assisted by his key right-hand man Araki (Kobayashi), a skilled editor who is on the verge of quitting because his wife is ailing and he wants to be by her side. Also in the department are Sasaki (Isayama), the oil for the team ensuring that word entries are logged on computers and filed away and young blade Nishioka (Odagiri) who, while not as is good at defining words, is a pro at getting more up to date definitions and examples because he has skill with human contact.
And that’s it for the dictionary team. All dedicated to the beauty of words but considered weird by the rest of the staff at the publisher. Fact of the matter is that compiling dictionaries is not hot shot work in publishing terms because such things are boring and costly in an age when digital technology is coming to prominence and everybody else would rather work on glossy magazines.
With Araki seeking to retire it places great strain on the department at a time when Matsuoka wants to initiate a new project called The Great Passage, a 240,000 word dictionary that will capture everything from the most current youth slang to the most technical terms of different fields like theatre and literature making it the most comprehensive and representative dictionary in the country.
The team will need a capable editor and so Araki and Nishioka stalk the halls of Genbu publishers for a replacement but there are few interested. Fortunately Nishioka’s girlfriend Renmi directs them to Mitsuya Majime (Matsuda), a post-grad in linguistics who is so shy he actually lacks the ability to communicate his feelings to others except his cat Tora-san and his landlady at the Sou-Un-Sou Rooming House Take (Watanabe), but with his involvement in The Great Passage dictionary, he may find that his world opens up and over the course of fourteen years things get better when Take’s granddaughter Kaguya (Miyazaki) arrives. A cook by trade but uncertain about her career choice, she provides the impetus for Majime and he finally finds the by right words to say to people.
Aaaaaannnd this is Japan’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar category. Ostensibly a film about the creation of a dictionary over fourteen years sounds boring but when you consider the diverse mix of people who could be responsible for compiling the thing then there is great potential. Put a director like Yuya Ishii, a man given to creating indie movies full of funny characters as demonstrated by Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers (well, maybe not the last one), then there is the guarantee that The Great Passage will be able to tickle your funny bone. It does more than that though as it presents a warm-hearted and amusing gentle drama/comedy centred on a group of intelligent individuals brought together through a love of words which provides as some insight into the art of making a dictionary and the changes in publishing and culture as it does general amusement and a stirring tribute to team work. I bet you’d never thought a film about dictionaries would be able to do the former without sacrificing the latter things!
The world of the characters is established clearly and concisely with every interaction, line of dialogue, scene and sequence the dictionary team have. The team is small and their status in publishing terms is handily shown by the state of the building they work in. Not the flashy modern office that their parent company resides in but the squat ageing ivy covered relic from a bygone age that is just next door. The interiors are dimly lit and clogged with ancient tomes. When they first start writing the dictionary it is mostly by hand, a laborious task involving leafing through older dictionaries, holding rigorous debates about the meaning of words and filling in index cards and using a creaky old word processor to file entries. As time passes we note the changes connected to the small team’s efforts at making the dictionary like word usage and the computer software and the technology that both threatens the worth of a paper dictionary and makes its creation possible.
The world is the background for a sometimes comic, sometimes serious look at the people involved who demonstrate the power of words. Through the passage of time we see the changes in fashion and hairstyles as the characters age, the relationships forged and how those connected to the project grow as people thanks to their work and their unwavering dedication belief. People meet, get married, children are born and all of these experiences happen because of, and inform the content of the dictionary.
Matsumoto wants to name the dictionary The Great Passage because he knows that words are important and it will allow people to navigate that sea of words and communicate with others, make connections. By the end we come to share this belief not least because we have Majime’s slow but steady character growth which means blossoming from shy-guy to wooing Kaguya.
Ryuhei Matsuda is absolutely loveable as Mitsuya Majime¹. He is your typical great thinker. A bespectacled beanpole who doesn’t bother with fashion, he floats around in his own world when his nose isn’t in a book. He is an introvert who is precise with his definitions and actions but finds himself lost for words when dealing with other people whether it is his co-workers at the publisher or the girl he loves most.
That said girl is the beautiful Aoi Miyazaki is a pretty good spur to change and the two make a nice couple. Kaguya is a character with some depth in terms of emotions. Although more forceful than Majime, she is beset by doubts over her career choice as a cook but through Majime’s support and seeing his genuine passion for his work, Kaguya is empowered herself.
Perhaps the more interesting roles for me were Joe Odagiri as the more worldly Nishioka, a man totally different from Majime who acts as a sort of friend/guide that manages to loosen up Majime and is brusque enough to ensure their relationship doesn’t get too sickly sweet – his reaction to Majime’s love-letter is priceless. Kaoru Kobayashi who acts as a father-figure is another great actor who I came to care about.
The film never loses sight of the people at the heart of the dictionary so when it comes to the crunch moments – when people have to negotiate for its continued development and help has to be asked for from students and others who love words, we are hooked during these moments. At the heart of the film are a bunch of characters that we come to know and love. Each character has their own distinctive traits and is fleshed out enough so that the flow of comedy comes across as natural and funnier and we are invested in their lives and the project as a whole.
The excellently written script is full of intelligent people we connect with and direction which compliments and highlights the skilled performances brought by an impressive cast who bring these characters to life.
As Yuya transitions from the indie world into the larger budget with a star-studded cast this comes as a sign that he has lost none of his observational skills or comedic tone. A lot of the laughs may come from the source novel by Shion Miura and it may be a little longer than necessary but Ishii films everything perfectly. The editing and use of camera angles are all smoothly utilised to create an amusing human tale of dedication, growth and making connections.
¹Majime is the Japanese for diligence (something I didn’t know) and Majime has diligence in spades (not like me with my Japanese studies ;_; )