It’s about dictionaries! About making dictionaries and about selecting words for a dictionary!
For many of us, our first introduction to anime involves magical laser beams, men that can move or destroy actual mountains or fight scenes of robots vs. ninjas. And much like movies or books, in anime, if we stick with it long enough, our interests start to expand. Now and again, we stir away from the childish fantasies we so love about anime and venture into more grounded, more “indie” and mature and wholly human content.
Fune wo amu or The Great Passage is one such anime. It is adapted from the novel of the same name, written by Shion Miura.
When Araki, the editor-in-chief of the dictionary department of Genbu Publishing decides for early retirement, he passes the baton to Mitsuya Majime.
Majime lives a relatively reticent life. He has no phone. He lives in a dormitory in which only he and the landlady live. His idea of fun is observing people getting in the escalator. When he asked to join the department (of 4 other members), his prime worry is that the transfer would involve working with other people.
But he is passionate about words, a wordsmith and a bookworm. When the department supervisor tells his staff what a dictionary means to him, he provides a philosophical, metaphorical definition that greatly motivates Majime.
A dictionary is a ship that navigates an ocean of words. Without words, you cannot express your thoughts or be able to have any sort of deep understanding of others. People board the ship we call dictionaries and find the perfect words to gather the small lights floating to the top of the dark waters. Words are light.MATSUMOTO
The quote above is from Ep. 2, one of the most important episodes. The show takes us through the laborious task of the logistics of creating a dictionary, from gathering the words to building relationships with consultants and clients.
There are two major themes that I cherished in this show.
First is the passing of time. Fune wo amu is a 10-year project. One realizes the heavy ordeal of creating The Great Passage. A dictionary, after all, needs to be no less than perfect. As Araki gives Majime a tour of their office, Araki comments on the decrepit state of their building. Araki informs Majima that their building was the original edifice for Genbu Publishing and that, over time, they have moved on while the dictionary department “remained.” Later that evening, Majime’s landlady, Take, starts their dinner conversation by saying that it is the harvest moon and “how fast time passes as you age.” Majime politely replies that he did not even remember.
Second is the world’s, and therefore human’s, tendency to keep moving. During Majime’s tour, Araki explains to him that dictionaries are, in essence, always incomplete. Words are added and omitted and their meaning changes over time. “But even so, those who make dictionaries continue to try.”
This is again emphasized by the symbolism of the Ferris Wheel. It has it’s ups and downs but is always moving. Even Majime comments that it always keeps moving even if it is hard to see.
The animation in Fune wo amu is top-notch. I was impressed with the kids running to school and passersby (in Episode 3) had an almost Princess Kaguya feel to its sketching. And whenever Majime is thinking his deep thoughts, it is translated into a wonderfully imaginative and metaphorical battle in his mind that the animators present flawlessly.
But then Director Kuroyanagi Toshimasa stumbles upon a sort of snag: How can a Slice of Life and a story as mundane as making a dictionary stay interesting? Of all the anime I have watched, this tackles the most “boring” subject.
My feelings with watching The Great Passage is in the shape of the letter U. It started of with a great premise then dropped down as they faced their drawbacks and trials along the way. I remember watching with polite attention. In the middle part of the series, we are introduced Majime’s love interest and the trials of Nishioka, the character with the most traditional character development. And as the series was coming to an end my interest was raised again.
After watching Fune wo amu, I remember the two types of genres we often read: the short story and the essay. In its most traditional sense, the short story gives us an exposition in the beginning. It then moves on an upward slope to thrilling progression until it reaches the captivating climax then goes back down to a satisfying denouement.
The nonfictional literary essay (traditionally) is like a long river that changes shape before it finally reaches the sea. An essay like, like the river, can move widely, deeply, narrowly, noisily, and silently with each passing stage. Fune wo amu is like this for me but more on the deep and silent side.
The passion is deeply human. The challenges are completely doable. The characters in this show stayed dignified and refined. In many shows where watchers sit expecting characters to develop in some way, I actually loved that Majime stayed essentially the same. There are people like that. This show reminds us that there are people who simply keep moving, much like that Ferris Wheel.
I just want to say there is a big-ass dictionary of 1,854 pages in front of me. I loved it the first time I saw it. I love it even more after watching Fune.