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Meditations on Yuya Ishii’s The Great Passage (2013)

It’s painful to read reviews of this film. The Los Angeles Times gave it a few paragraphs on how the film showed the power of words and the relevance of printed books in an age of technological explosion. Variety may have scratched the surface when it said that the film ‘movingly testifies to the ways in which dedication, focus and extreme attention to details can achieve something of lasting value’. Another unmentionable online reviewer said the subject of the movie is dull. On Rotten Tomatoes, it is under-reviewed but highly rated. Enough people have been charmed by the gentle pacing, the sympathetic characters and the great performances in this film but let me add my own piece on how to read this movie (beyond winks at ‘the power of words to make a difference’) by understanding one of Buddhism’s key concepts known as dharma.

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Without going through so much of the complexity of the term, dharma to put it ‘gently’ means ‘cosmic law order’ which includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues or ‘right way of living’ (definitions from Wikipedia). Also sometimes called “The Way”. Before we subject the film on this philosophical lens, a short summary.

In Yuya Ishii’s The Great Passage, we first meet two senior staff of the Dictionary Department of a big Japanese publishing company as they receive the signal to undertake the compilation of a new volume of dictionary. Through a series of incidents, Majime, a painfully shy, bookish and mis-fit sales executive from the same company became part of the. Why make a new dictionary when the market is already saturated? What use is a physical book in the ‘wrong era’? Good questions, all of them. A few instances in the movie may satisfy those interested in those kinds of questions. But ultimately The Great Passage is as unassuming as the protagonist of this film, it wouldn’t assert a definitive answer just as there will never be a definitive dictionary, only a ‘dictionary of the moment’.

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A better question would be, why would a person choose to laboriously create a dictionary for years (decades even) without knowing if it will matter in the end? It’s not even profitable. Some people even die before that end, and it doesn’t actually end at all. After the completion of a dictionary, you will have to start compiling again for a revised edition. In the film, Majime decided to dedicate his whole life on making dictionaries despite other worthy causes in life. He chose it as his duty, a raison d’etre in a world that may render his efforts irrelevant. If we look even closer and more intimately, we can understand how easy that decision came for Majime. He understood that sticking on this path would be fulfilling. He knows that making dictionaries until he dies is the only way for him.

Seen through Buddhist philosophy of dharma, we begin to open new interpretations and insights on how precious the simplicity of The Great Passage is. Do we need another movie fixated on high-stakes and world ending scenarios? Here is a more immediate concern that The Great Passage asks of us: how should you spend the rest of your short life? What is your dharma? What is your own ‘right way of living’? Some of us could be Majime at the beginning of the film, unfit in our line of work waiting for someone to discover us. Or we could be the sushi chef Kaguya, his wife, unsure about our chosen career.

In 2013, The Great Passage was Japan’s official entry to the Academy for Best Foreign Film category. It is an odd choice, or is it? The Great Passage depicts the passion of the Japanese and the work ethics that propelled their nation to become one of the world’s super power. I think it’s only natural for them to make films like this.

Unfortunately, The Great Passage suffers limited distribution. It’s not available on Amazon Streaming (Asian Region), or Iflix, or Netflix for that matter. You can order the Bluray on Amazon though. It’s also circulating on film festivals so seeing it may bit challenging. But you should see it on that rare chance you get.

I know I haven’t been posting for a while now. Working on some projects that require all my mental faculties. Will tell you all about it when I get my platform straight. 🙂

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