Thursday, August 01, 2013

Fantasia ’13: The Great Passage

Remember when Microsoft was in the ink-and-paper reference business?  Now the Encarta seems like a relic from a past era.  In contrast, the new dictionary a diligent Japanese publishing team develops might just live up to its hype in Yuya Ishii’s quietly nostalgic The Great Passage (trailer here), which screens tomorrow during the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival.

In the mid 1990’s, the publishing industry had barely progressed beyond a stylus-and-stone level of technology.  CD-Roms were projected to be the next big thing.  Mitsuya Majimme, a socially awkward former linguistics student, performs poorly as a sales rep, but he finds his niche when he is transferred to his company’s sleepy reference imprint.  Obsessively detail-oriented, he is the perfect editor for the director’s ambitious new dictionary, The Great Passage.

Over the next fifteen years, Majime will compile a definitive dictionary of the Japanese language as it is truly spoken, identifying and defining scores of new words, while refining the definitions of words that have evolved over time.  It is an arduous, time consuming process, involving note-cards more than computers.  Frankly, it is not the sort of investment his publishing conglomerate is inclined to make.  Fortunately, Majime has a high-placed ally in Masashi Nishioka, a former dictionary colleague transferred to the corporate marketing department.  As Majime invests years of his life in the dictionary, he also slowly but surely develops a romantic relationship with Kaguya Hayashi, his landlord’s granddaughter.  An apprentice chef and compulsive knife-sharpener, she is the same but different from Majime in all the right ways.

Based on Shion Miura’s novel, Passage can stake a strong claim to be the great Japanese reference publishing movie we have all been waiting for.  Its operational understanding of the dysfunctional business is almost scary.  Yet, there is something aesthetically pleasing about its affection for language and book people.  It is also refreshing to see a film with a sufficient attention span to follow the in’s and out’s of the fifteen year editorial and production process.  While Passage’s one hundred thirty-three minute running time is not exactly breakneck, the consistently absorbing film never feels slack or padded.  Rather, it pulls viewers along with its own gentle rhythms. 

In a radical change-up from his work in I’m Flash, Ryuhei Matsuda is terrific as Majime.  Without the benefit of a big epiphany moment, he vividly portrays the editor’s subtle but steady personal and professional growth.  Likewise, Aoi Miyazaki is genuinely engaging as the spirited yet only somewhat more outgoing Hayashi.  Yet, it is Shingo Tsurumi and Kaoru Yachigusa who really lower the emotional boom of time’s passage as the reference director and his devoted wife.

Yes, this is definitely the sort of film that will choke viewers up.  Let’s face it, there’s nary a dry eye in the house when that blasted dictionary finally comes out.  However, Ishii never indulgences in cheap manipulation, earning his sentiment the hard way.  At every turn, he opts for small telling scenes over big melodramatic show-pieces.  The cumulative impact is deeply satisfying.  Highly recommended for fans of Japanese cinema and anyone connected to the book business, The Great Passage screens tomorrow (8/2) and Sunday (8/4) at the J.A. De Seve Theatre as part of this year’s Fantasia Festival.