The virtue of words gets a sweet, funny, at times profound close-up in “The Great Passage,” Japan’s entry for 2013’s foreign-language Oscar. Director Yuya Ishii, working off a gentle, finely textured script by Kensaku Watanabe (adapted from the novel by Shiwon Miura) takes his time telling this warm story of the 15-year creation of a definitive print dictionary, but it’s a worthy journey.
Initially set in 1995, on the cusp of a tech explosion that would gradually render physical books an endangered species, the film follows the trajectory of Mitsuya Majime (Ryuhei Matsuda), a desperately shy young publishing company employee whose inability to verbally express himself is in direct contrast with his innate love of language — and his linguistics degree.
This paradox makes Mitsuya an odd, yet also oddly ideal, choice to join the firm’s Dictionary Editorial Department as it embarks on the sweeping task of compiling what veteran editor — and Mitsuya’s humane new boss (Go Kato) — calls “a modern living dictionary.” The name of this massive, ultra-comprehensive tome: “The Great Passage.”
But it will also prove a “passage” for Mitsuya, who, as he commits his life to bringing the often-tenuous reference book to completion, becomes more capable, confident and communicative. His blossoming, inspired in part by a romance with his landlady’s pretty, culinarily gifted granddaughter (Aoi Miyazaki) and an unlikely friendship with a gregarious co-worker (Joe Odagiri), is a joy to behold.
As the movie leaps forward in time to the dictionary’s hyper-diligent — and enjoyable wonky — closing stages, we witness the inevitable and unexpected changes in the characters as well as in the world around them. But it’s the power of words to enlighten and connect us that remains the constant and gives this charming film its special place on the shelf.
“The Great Passage.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. In Japanese with English subtitles. At Laemmle’s NoHo 7, North Hollywood.