In a time when life is being shaped by swift-moving technology and culture-crashing modernity, it’s refreshing to take a couple of hours to ponder traditional ways and even delve into the question of what it means to be human.
Filmmaker Yûya Ishii does just that in “The Great Passage,” Japan’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, screening at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Palm Canyon Theatre.
Set in the early 1990s, a publisher decides to print a comprehensive “living” dictionary dedicated to the most up-to-date usages of words. Upon assigning his venerable chief editor (Kaoru Kobayashi) this task, the publisher is told he will retire to take care of his ailing wife. A quest for a replacement ensues.
The team ultimately finds a bookish young man from the sales department (Ryuhei Matsuda) who, while bright with a linguistics degree, is shy and, ironically, has a hard time communicating with words. Their mission is to publish a work that will help others navigate the vast sea of words and to ultimately land at the desired destination of communicating in just the right way — hence the title, “The Great Passage.”
In the course of this grand mission, the young man must learn to express himself and develop leadership skills. One day he arrives at work obviously distracted. His co-workers prod him: “Did you meet a girl?” they ask. He in fact did meet a beautiful culinary student (Aoi Miyazaki), the granddaughter of his aging landlady, and is completely love sick. This relationship teaches him life lessons, including traditional arts such as Japanese knife making and sharpening, and paper making.
In the course of the film, which spans 15 years (a conservative period for lexicographers to publish), Ishii guides us through the changes in the world of print publishing, and in society’s never-ending quest for modernity — all in the context of a tender love story.
“I yearn for the way in which Majime lived his life,” Yuya Ishii said via email. “I mean, he found a vocation to dedicate his life to. I hope to be as sincere and dedicated in my work.”
The title of the film and the new dictionary — “The Great Passage” — evokes many metaphors.
“Words are like people,” Ishii said. “They can be fragile, brittle and uncertain. But sometimes words can be splendid. I think man and words exist in a correlative state so when words, or language, becomes petty, we also become petty. I mean, words are absolutely human.”
Stephen Ashton is a contributor to The Desert Sun and the founder of the Wine Country Film Festival in Northern California.
‘The Great Passage’
Length: Two hours, 13 minutes
Director: Yûya Ishii
Cast: Ryuhei Matsuda, Aoi Miyazazki, Joe Odagiri, Haru Kuroki, Misako Watanabe, Chizuru Ikewaki, Kaoru Yachigusa