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Film Review: Tongue-tied linguist's lexicon of love in The Great Passage

Yvonne Teh

 

THE GREAT PASSAGE
Starring: Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazaki, Joe Odagiri
Director: Yuya Ishii
Category: I (Japanese)

 

The winner of last year's Japan Booksellers' Prize, Shion Miura's charming Assemble the Boats centres on a socially awkward linguistics graduate who finds his calling as a lexicographer assigned to work on a modern living dictionary with 240,000 word entries.

Adapted to film by Yuya Ishii (with a script by Kensaku Watanabe) and retitled The Great Passage, the story begins in 1995, when mobile phones were still a novelty and many homes were without computers - but dictionaries and dictionary work were already losing popularity.

Bespectacled, soft-spoken Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda) is recruited to join the dictionary department of a publishing house after one of its three editors, Araki (Kaoru Kobayashi), retires. While he is as earnest and industrious as his name ( majime means "diligent"), he initially comes across as being out of his comfort zone when tasked with working on a new dictionary, named The Great Passage because it is designed to help users navigate the endless sea of words.

As his more laid-back colleague Nishioka (Joe Odagiri) reports to his girlfriend Remi (Chizuru Ikewaki), "He seems young, out of touch - a virgin."

It's only after a dinner conversation with supportive Take (Misako Watanabe), his elderly landlady of more than 10 years, that Majime realises that, in addition to liking words, his new job as a lexicographer also requires him to use them - by regularly talking to others, including Nishioka and Take's granddaughter, Kaguya Hayashi (Aoi Miyazaki), whom he falls in love with.

Majime then embarks on an emotional journey that sees him mature and develop professionally into an editor who can lead a team.

Ishii's immensely likeable The Great Passage is an unhurried 133-minute work whose story eventually spans some 15 years. It is a near-perfect antidote for summer blockbuster fatigue.

Although the diligent and somewhat eccentric Majime would appear to be a protagonist more naturally suited for a book than a film, the frequently tongue-tied central character ends up working very well as the film's anchor.

And while leading man Matsuda's quiet performance could hardly be described as show-stopping, there's sufficient weight and gravity lodged firmly at the heart of an ensemble work that can count on a number of veteran supporting actors and actresses to agreeably steal a scene or two, along with two eye-catching co-stars in the luminescent Miyazaki and perennially watchable Odagiri.

yvonne.teh@scmp.com

 

The Great Passage opens on August 22

 

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