Assembled as carefully as words in a poem
One of my favorite things about anime is how it can make the mundane seem ridiculously dramatic. The Great Passage is about putting a dictionary together. To be clear, I’m not talking about reassembling scattered shards of a sacred tome or combating kanji-turned-kaiju with giant, sensual robots that transform and combine. I’m talking about a drama where ordinary office workers compile a dictionary for publication … and it might be one of the most poetic anime out there.
Araki, the dictionary editorial department chief, is retiring soon due to his wife’s failing health and his increasing duties as her caretaker. But before he can quit working with Matsumoto-sensei, Nishioka, and Sakai on the latest dictionary, Daitokai, Araki vows to find a perfect successor—someone with patience, attention to detail, a reasonable indulgence for words, and a wide perspective—to take his place. But what are the odds of finding a person like that in today’s modern world? Actually, the odds are pretty good.
Mitsuya Majime is defined as a man who reflects upon words and narrates his thoughts aloud like a living dictionary. This makes him a perfect fit for working with the dictionary crew at Genbu Publishing. Ironically, Majime is also a man who has trouble saying what he wants to. He’s often overpowered by words and observations and gets distracted from reality. He’s also a man who focuses on the facts rather than the personal, so Majime trying to interject his personality into the creation of the Daitokai is initially a bittersweet obstacle. But that voyage is exactly what makes this anime so wonderful.
The Great Passage, which revives the laurels of the Japanese noitaminA programming block, largely focuses on Majime’s efforts at work. There’s also a love story, but the true will-they-won’t-they in this series is the building of the ship (Daitokai) intended to let people cross the ocean of words in order to foster understanding and peace. Numerous setbacks and resulting tensions (personal and professional) push and pull the crew as they assemble Daitokai. These as well as the more laid-back aspects of daily life are further dramatized with a sweeping score and metaphor-saturated imagery. (Even situations, such as where the dictionary department resides and why, are wonderfully layered metaphors.)
The show also keeps things visually engaging with staging and presentation. There’s a lot of love put into character designs and reactions, to be sure, but there are also such aspects as multiple panels of detailed, moving images that form mesmerizing montages, and the animated imitation of complex, single-shot camerawork. Tricks such as these, as well as diverse camera angles and settings, are definitely welcome in an 11-episode series that spans a 13-year-long dictionary production process. (As opposed to relegating itself to the cramped dictionary editorial department office.) But that’s not to say the series seems slow.
To the contrary, every episode of The Great Passage is an over-before-you-know-it affair, and a lot of that is owed to, as one might expect, the careful crafting of the script. The way characters are energized by words and working with them doesn’t come across nearly as hokey as it sounds. This isn’t an anime about teaching children words, after all. It’s a drama about finding and being able to find the perfect words in all aspects of life. The focus on expression and empathy and climactic moments are assembled as carefully as words in a poem. Even those few visual metaphors employed throughout that can be deemed needlessly dramatic rhythmically squeeze the heart like a stress ball. The multiple, lengthy time jumps would be a major concern if not for the fluidity and organic feel of how interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships feed off each other.
The Great Passage shows how dictionaries are not only a source of expression but inspiration. As a word nerd myself, I cannot recommend this title enough.
Studio/company: Anime Strike