On Our Screens: The Great Passage (2013)

Title: The Great Passage

Year: 2013

Country: Japan

Director: Yuya Ishii

Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazaki, Joe Odagiri and Kaoru Kobayash


When Polonius asks Hamlet what he reads, the Denmark prince simply replies, “Words, words, words.” The Bard might indeed intend that his tragic hero is skimming through a thick and heavy dictionary at the moment. Considering the meticulous efforts devoted to it, a well-researched and carefully compiled lexicon deserves a place in the hall of fame of artistic accomplishment.

Nerdy linguistic scholar Mitsuya Majima is fortunate enough to find his calling early in his career. An avid reader but totally inept in interpersonal communications, Majima is not a valued book salesperson in his publishing house. But Majima’s life takes a turn when he is scouted by the retiring editor Masashi Nishioka for his lexical skills and tolerance of monotonous routines, which Nishioka considers to be quintessential in surviving the pedantic chores of compiling a dictionary.

For the ensuing 15 years, word by word, phrase by phrase, Majima works with Professor Kohei Araki, the publishing house’s chief editor, and his small team in the dictionary department, in completing their ambitious project of compiling the definitive dictionary of the modern Japanese language.

“The Great Passage,” or “Fune wo Amu,” tells the lives of these wordsmiths, their passion and devotion to their job, and the solidarity and support they show for each other, with a subplot of a hilarious and heartwarming romance between Majima and the beautiful sashimi chef, Kaguya Hayashi.

It also demonstrates that dictionary entries are not icy permutations of letters or hieroglyphs arranged on paper, but each word or phrase is a living echo of every vernacular and written expression that emerges, evolves, transforms and eventually vanishes.


Rating (one to five whistles, five being the best): Four whistles


How to Watch:

The movie, which has just finished unspooling at the London Film Festival, is showing on screens in Hong Kong. The DVD and Blue-ray version will be available for sale on Japan Amazon beginning 8 November.



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Art Courtesy of The Great Passage Film Partners