When a skilled dictionary editor decides to retire early in order to care for his sick wife, he is tasked by his boss with finding a replacement to work on the mammoth project of creating a new and more modern dictionary by the name of “The Great Passage.” He soon comes across Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda), an introverted and unsuccessful salesman whose degree in linguistics and dedication to his work makes him perfect for the daunting task at hand. After humbly accepting the job, he dedicates his life to the project while dealing with his newfound love for Kaguya (Aoi Miyazaki), his landlady’s beautiful granddaughter.
This was Japan’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars and its not hard to see why it was chosen. Superbly acted and supremely moving, it explores themes of legacy and how traditional Japanese values and ways of speaking fit into this very modern world where slang has become more and more the norm; the small team is tasked with including youth slang terms and alternate meanings, such as “sick” and “bad” sometimes being positive descriptions and the like, as well as deciding which words are too old fashioned and simply no longer applicable.
At the centre of the plot, however, is a brilliantly subtle and well performed arc involving Majime learning to grow and come out of his shell. He proves to be a more than capable replacement for his experienced predecessor and just as he puts his simultaneously forward and critical thinking into good use for the creation of a dictionary that will take years to finish, so too does he develop as a person and be able to communicate his true feelings, not least in his growing relationship with Kaguya, with whom he is quietly besotted. It skillfully keeps that deliberately paced love story bubbling away and developing underneath the surface of the main narrative while never sacrificing its understated but nevertheless powerful impact.
This through line works as well as it does because of the performances, particularly from Matsuda, who brings a grace and crucial subtlety to the table, with a magnetic screen presence in his own small, unobtrusive way. Miyazaki is also excellent as Majime’s wife while Go Kato provides some of the film’s most heartbreaking, and on some occasions funniest, scenes as the ageing chief editor.
As it goes on the film morphs beautifully into this uplifting and inspiring exploration of what it means to work as part of a dedicated team over a long period of time to accomplish something. Now of course not all of us are working for years on developing a brand new dictionary but it nevertheless conveys that sense of pride in accomplishment that’s very hard to achieve in a film without tipping over into heavy-handed triumphalism or sentimentality. The Great Passage makes it look effortless. While perhaps a little on the long side, this is nonetheless a moving, heartfelt and intensely meaningful film that tackles complex themes with admirable sincerity, saying what it wants to say in a graceful way with a deliberate but never boring pace.