Published by the Alternate Dream
Directed by Yuya Ishii
My rating: 4 out of 5
This review is dedicated to Megumi Kubo who happens to be Japanese, gorgeous, a geek of literature and amenable to falling in love with fellow geeks, all at the same time.
If films are supposed to answer our most pressing questions, Great Passage answers at least one. Can you make a great 133-minutes romance-comedy-epic that one watches gainfully and with passion, all set around the story of writing a Japanese dictionary? The answer is affirmative. Ishii has just done that.
This fresh talent, previously known for his indies, proves that Japan continues to boast the by far best cinema in Asia-Pacific, as it churns out great films year after year. It also proves, once more, that when indie-directors cast stars and make blockbusters good things can happen. The film is not only critically acclaimed and popular, it is also Japan’s entry for this year’s Oscars.
One of the reasons why cinema was invented might be geeks trying to paint their dreams where they actually get to be with gorgeous woman. Great Passage’s main character is also a stereotypical student geek. Mitsuya is a weirdo always-looking-down, room-full-of-books, can’t-talk-to-girls ‘loser’ type that would be suitable for the tedious task of collecting all the words and devising a dictionary from scratch. Only he, of course, ends up making this very task cool, mostly by including cool and trendy words in the dictionary.
Mitsuya, you knew it, also finds love with a beautiful girl who finds his weirdness interesting. The playboy dictionary-hating colleague of Mitsuya (from the business wing of the Genbu Publishing House) doesn’t think Mitsu he will ever get the girl he loves. The punishment? The successful playboy who secretly lives with his girlfriend ends up writing the definition for the word ‘uncool’ in the dictionary, using himself as an example. These are the wonders that can happen when geeks happen to be the one writing the script and directing the film.
The film was shown in the “laugh” category and it’s indeed very funny, as the recurrent outbursts of the audience at its late-night showing in ICA cinema proves. Despite its long length, it remains very watchable and not once you hope for it to finish sooner. It is also a romance that could occasionally tear you up or bring to you whatever feeling it is that you get when you watch great romances. Yet, it is also an epic as the 240-000-words dictionary takes more than 14 years to complete and many things happen during this time with Mitsuya’s transformation away from the unsocial geek being only one example.
It is obvious that the Japanese speaker would get much more from the film. But, unlike so many films from East Asia, the subtitles are so well-done that the film is not any less watchable because of it. In fact, if there is one film that makes you want to be cultivated in the beautiful language of the Land of the Rising Sun, this must be it. This is a great example where a blockbuster rom-com could also be a film dedicated to letters and literature.
The humorous comments your correspondent made about the clash of the cool and the uncool in the film weren’t just meant as being silly. Clashes between the traditional and the modern, the always-newly-arriving cool and the old ideas of the proper, have been at the centre of the Japanese life for a good couple of centuries. Additionally, the film is set during the period from 1996 to 2010, when world saw massive technological shifts that continue to cause anxieties for publishing and literature. The film treats these matters intelligently and not-too-directly (in a way a film should do.)
One of the beautiful supporting personas is a trendy, mini-skirt-wearing employee who starts out treating Mitsu and co as “weirdos.” She too changes and falls in love with the whole dictionary business. If in the beginning, she only drank champagne, now she gulps up cup after cup of the tough Japanese beer too. If Ishii didn’t have a passion for the Japanese literature, he wouldn’t make this film and this character could show his hopes for its promotion among the youth of today. Maybe Ishii wants to tell us the following: Just like Mitsu’s beloved made every effort to read his love letter, written in the style of Samurai days, and fell in love with him and his books, so could the today youth of Japan fall in love with the wisdom of their ancestors. But if only Mitsus start being more social and less “weird” as our Mitsuya did. That would indeed be a great passage.