Testing the waters, on the sea of words

I am not a good communicator. I wouldn’t say I am bad with words. Not to be too boastful, but I am fairly good when it comes to vocabulary. It’s just that the words don’t come to my aid when it comes to talking to a flesh-and-blood 3D human (I can talk to the 2D kind just fine). My voice abandons me and I end up averting my gaze, nodding politely, and saying “yeah”, “yes”, or just “hm”.


So when I started watching The Great Passage and saw protagonist Majime respond to everyone with an uncertain nod and a nervous “hai”, I smiled sympathetically.


Majime is an introverted bibliophile with a keen interest in the intricacies of the Japanese language. He works at a publishing company called Genbu Publishing...in the sales department.


Yes. A painfully shy introvert in sales. Talk about bad career choices.


"Who, me?"

Majime is spotted doing some bad business at a bookstore by fellow Genbu employee, the smooth-talking and affable Nishioka. Nishioka works in the dictionary department, where his aging colleagues are looking for the right person to lead the making of a new dictionary, to be called "The Great Passage". After berating Majime, and narrating the incident to his colleagues, the department realises that Majime’s eye for detail and love for linguistics makes him the perfect person to build "The Great Passage".


This may not sound like the most exciting premise. It sounds like the kind of thing that a bunch of boring old farts watch and term “art”. But believe me when I tell you it is not as boring or pretentious as the premise might make it sound. Adapted from a novel by Shion Miura (of Run With the Wind fame), The Great Passage is a remarkably down-to-earth anime. It seeks to impart upon us the authors’ love for words, as well as show the different ways in which people get their ideas across, the ways they connect with each other.


The reality of dictionary work.

For such a show to succeed, the characters must be good, and they certainly are. Majime became ‘my guy’ within five minutes of screentime. His dynamic with Nishioka was one of the highlights of the series. The characters complement each other well. While Majime learns from Nishioka to open up to people better, Nishioka slowly warms up to the oddball Majime after the rocky start to their relationship. Similarly, both Majime and Nishioka learn much from the elderly Matsumoto, the main driving force behind the creation of the dictionary. Matsumoto possesses much wisdom, and listening to him is calming.


The highlight was Nishioka helping Majime confess his love to the woman of his dreams: Kaguya, his landlady’s daughter. What does Majime do? He writes a fifteen-page love letter. Hilarious. I actually knew someone from back in college who did that. Their romance is a sweet one, but I would’ve liked to see more of it. The timeskip cuts this subplot short.


"Professor, I know I'm submitting it late, but please accept my assignment! I need to pass!"

Yes, there IS a timeskip. More than one, actually. Dictionaries don’t get made in months, after all. The Great Passage takes place over a staggering fifteen-year period. In some cases, like with Majime’s character growth, these timeskips add a ton of weight. In other cases, like with the romance, the timeskips interrupt growth. It’s mostly handled well, though.


After the first timeskip, a new employee transfers in: Kishibe, a former fashion writer. I love this character. She once again brings into sharp focus the importance of communication in our lives, and in Majime’s. The way her tentative workplace relationship with her boss Majime slowly grows into a friendship founded on mutual respect is a delight to watch. Seeing her conquer her own insecurities, just like with Majime earlier on, is great. She endeared herself to me despite having a fraction of the screentime of other characters.


Kishibe

Perhaps the best aspect of this show is how competently it weaves in conflict. Slice-of-life shows aren’t known for being high on conflict. This absence of conflict can often make for a boring viewing experience, especially if there’s not a lot of humour to make up for it. Not the case here. The dictionary team faces plenty of issues of varying degrees of seriousness, and the characters have their own personal problems too. It’s not overblown either, as you sometimes see in anime. It’s just the right amount of conflict. Mwah, perfection.


I have few negatives to say about The Great Passage, other than the romance and the occasionally off-model art. Perhaps it plays it a bit too predictably at times, but this is to be expected from such a low-profile realist SoL anime. It is one that will stick in my memory for some time, with its touching moments. And I have newfound respect for dictionary editors. It’s not an easy job. As the show puts it, they are building a ship to cross a sea of words, so that us people on the other side can understand each other better.


Hot off the press!


Scores


Art: B+. Whenever I can’t recognise the name of an anime studio, I start to fear a little for the art quality. Thankfully my fears are unfounded here. Studio Zexcs did a commendable job on this, with sharp art and realistic character designs (no huge eyes or colourful hair!). Later on, however, some signs of budget problems begin to be seen, most notably off model characters. Some creative ‘dream sequences’.


Animation: B+. The first thing that strikes you is the amount of natural movement exhibited by the characters: little turns of the head, flicks of the wrist, and so on. Adds to the overall realism. Again, this starts to decline in later episodes. Good framerate in general. Background characters move smoothly. Some smart use of techniques like cutaways.


Music: A. Surprisingly extensive soundtrack, with good use of music throughout. Lovely music, as well. Sometimes it does get a bit overpowering, though; they could’ve eased up on the music in some scenes. The OP is a bit too energetic for this kind of anime. The ED, on the other hand, is a nice mood-setter.


Voice acting (Japanese): B+. Decent acting. Yoko Hikasa as Kishibe and Mugihito as old man Matsumoto are the standouts here, although Majime’s nervous moments are done well.


Story: A. The fifteen-year saga of a dictionary’s development. The conflict is handled with aplomb, and it has something meaningful to say about communication and being understood. Passionate about the language and the art of dictionary making; this is one for the budding linguists out there. Would’ve liked more romance.


Characters: A. Mah boy Majime, and mah girl Kishibe. The rest are pretty good too. Great dynamics between these characters, both in and out of the workplace. Character struggles are believable and realistic. Some characters benefit from the timeskips, while some have their development cut short.


Overall: A.

You might be tempted to pass on The Great Passage, but I urge you to try it. Rarely has conflict been handled better in slice of life anime.


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