The Great Passage and Championing the Mundane

The Great Passage (or Fune wo Amu) is available on Amazon Video, as well as in book form.

One of the things I’ve loved about anime for such a long time now is its broad reach and willingness to focus on just about any subject. While you do see patterns like the unrelenting stream of “transported-to-another-dimension” plots and a bottomless well of rom-com-drama series, every single season we get a new lineup of shows whose concept falls more off the beaten path. Tolkienesque fantasy and urban fantasy are almost equally abundant at this point, there are shows focusing on just about any niche hobby or vaguely sport-like activity you could name (except maybe ice hockey… get on that, guys), and your protagonists range from literal children all the way up to the elderly.

Unfortunately, not all of these sound great when framed as a thirty-second pitch, and so it’s astounding that certain shows like Yama no Susume (three-to-twelve-minute shorts of middle schoolers going on day hikes) or Spice and Wolf (a slow-moving drama largely focused the economics and politics of mercantilism) get made in the first place, yet alone garner critical acclaim and produce multiple seasons worth of content.

Then you have something like The Great Passage.

Now, The Great Passage was always going to be at a disadvantage with regards to its popularity outside of Japan, being licensed exclusively by Amazon at the time when their ill-fated and much-maligned Anime Strike service was in operation, causing many potential viewers to never give it a second look. But that’s not helped in the slightest by the synopsis of its pilot episode:

“Nishioka is in a book store when he spots a salesman named Majime from Genbu Books doing a poor job. Meanwhile, the veteran dictionary editor Araki is searching for a successor as he prepares for retirement. Nishioka mentions his encounter with Majime. Araki heads to the sales department to meet this Majime. Upon meeting him, Araki sees Majime’s potential and recruits him on the spot.”

That’s right: The Great Passage is an eleven-episode television series entirely about the process of editing a dictionary.

And it’s absolutely among the most fascinating show that premiered in its debut season – possibly that year – even when stacked up against the likes of Inuyashiki, My Hero Academia, Mob Psycho 100, and Bananya.

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He is a cat. Yet also, he is a banana. Riveting.

And I think a large part of its unique draw lies specifically in the fact that it’s focused on a topic that we don’t see dramatized very often. Which, to be fair, makes complete and total sense from a marketing perspective. If you were to name the most boring things you could think of right off the top of your head, I’d imagine “writing out the dictionary” ranking only a few notches below “watching paint dry” and “being on hold”.

But on the other hand, I can’t even begin to list the number of dramas centered on a detective (particularly where homicides conveniently happen with weekly regularity), the eleventeenth nuclear sitcom family, or villain-of-the-week action-adventure anime starring Generic High School Kid #394. When you set it next to the range of tried-and-true topics getting set through the show-producing machine yet again, The Great Passage is almost blinding in its uniqueness.

And rather than use it as a backdrop for another workplace drama populated by spritely, larger-than-life characters, the writing chooses to lean hard into the process of dictionary-making and never think twice about it. The confidence in doing so clearly pays huge dividends, and The Great Passage squeezes tension, drama, and thoughtfulness out of every single moment that a different story would have glossed over.

Notably, there’s a scene featuring intense scrutiny over the minutiae of how paper is constructed, and the resulting trade-offs between thickness, weight, tactility, and readability. At first, it’s played through the viewpoint character to be as trivial as that last sentence may make it sound, but the show immediately doubles back to another character’s viewpoint and invites the audience to seriously consider how small details can ultimately make a huge difference to a given experience.

Then there’s what many consider to be the “hook” in the climax of episode one, where leading man Majime is asked to define the word “right”.

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Think, think, think.

That should be a pretty short exchange, you would think, but rather than hop to a quick and elegant snippet that would push the conversation forward, Majime instead stops its momentum cold and takes his time in consideration. He methodically works through the tiny, easy-to-miss traps in its etymology, from its homonyms (the direction, as opposed to the ideology), to the problem of using inexact or mostly-true ways of discerning direction (one’s dominant hand or typical anatomy). Being about dictionary-editing, the attentiveness to detail in the show moving forward will be crucial, and here the show instantly drags the audience into that mindset by pointing at a rock that everyone’s come across a million times and revealing the little cracks and characteristic divots in its surface that we never think to notice.

But wait – there’s more: this scene is pulling double-duty as a second character-establishing moment for Majime. While we meet him earlier as a bumbling salesman, here we see him in his element, taking an idea and dissecting it, turning it on its side and re-examining its exact nature. He’s shown to be a thoughtful, measured sort with a hidden tenacity, all in a sixty-second window, and in a way completely befitting of his character. It’s like seeing one James Bond’s signature action openings or watching Iron Man suit up for the first time, except that not only would someone like Majime exist as an actual human person, but he’s taking an active role in pursuing the same professional success that most of us chase every Monday through Friday.

The show goes on to visit quiet-yet-pivotal moments like this time and again, letting itself get caught up in the corporate politics of a financially-dubious project, how teams grow and wane over the course of many years and corporate restructurings, and the instigation and subsequent stress of crunch time. Its slower, more careful pace lends itself to making The Great Passage maybe one of the most authentic representations of what it’s actually like to work in an office full of adults all applying their skills, struggling day in and day out over the course of more than a decade.

And I think it’s a shame that we don’t have more truly down-to-earth shows like The Great Passage. Without the fanciful scenarios of more comedic shows or the big, exaggerated personalities you find in other animated personalities, the characters and their stories are some of the most believably human in a the last few years of anime dramas – even of any serialized dramas I’ve seen recently. Ultimately, that’s part of what makes this show so uplifting: it’s not in spite of, but because of its relative drudgery. A small group of driven co-workers all pitching in on a shared long-term goal, one with the same stakes and challenges as any desk jockey sees in their own nine-to-five job.

The Great Passage deals in the understated process of making champions of those who work on something most would write off as too mundane for a show.

Which is exactly what makes it so inspirational.

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Plus, it features an edutainment corner with anthropomorphized books. What’s not to love?
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2 thoughts on “The Great Passage and Championing the Mundane

  1. When I first heard about this show, I remember asking myself “Who is this for?”. Now I know. 😝

    Is the dictionary being edited in English or Japanese? I can imagine this show being tricky to localize.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, it’s a hard sell, to be sure.

      All the dictionary work is done in Japanese, but since they’re focusing in on common words and definitions rather than grammar or sentence structure (and the main character isn’t super-eloquent in the first place), both the novel and the show come across a lot more cleanly in English than I expected.

      Like

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