The Great Passage is a bestselling novel by Shion Miura (serialised publication in 2009-2011), an award-winning Japanese live-action film (2013) and a Fuji TV Noitamina TV series (2016) that was also bought and simulcasted by Amazon. All this sounds good. I'll soon be watching the 2013 film, for which I have high expectations. It's about dictionary editors, you see. Our heroes edit a dictionary. They sit in their grungy old dictionary-editing office and edit a dictionary called 'The Great Passage' for eleven episodes... and that's it. Really.
Obviously this is a bit different. "Different" is good.
The great thing about drama is it shouldn't matter what your heroes' goals are. A great writer could keep you riveted with a story of idiots trying to build a shoelace collection, whereas the movie industry regularly bores us with aliens, death rays and explosions. This is an example of that. Our heroes are thoughtful, intelligent people who are working together to achieve a goal they esteem highly. (Some do so more highly than others, admittedly. Not everyone immediately sees that dictionaries are beautiful, whereas people like Majime and Matsumomo-sensei get so absorbed in word-collecting that one wonders if they're interested in much else.)
The protagonist is Majime, a pretty hopeless case. We first see him as a disastrous salesman. He's the kind of man who can split hairs about the meaning of a million words, but can't say any of them in the presence of a girl. A more worldly-wise editor called Masashi Nishioka observes that such a personality might be suited to a decade of dictionary-editing in the company of cobwebs, so Majime gets a job offer!
He joins a small but dedicated team, editing 'The Great Passage'. These people can discuss the personalities of past dictionaries, of course including the classics. Did you know that dictionaries have personalities? Well, you do now. This anime is educational. Unfortunately their publishing company calls them the "money-eating insects", because dictionary-editing is labour-intensive, intellectually demanding work that requires you to slave away for ten years or more... but at the end of it, all you'll have is a dictionary. Sounds thrilling. Will a dictionary make you rich? Will your customers read it cover to cover? In fact, in the age of the internet, is there any guarantee that it'll sell at all?
Nonetheless our heroes know that they're doing a necessary, important job, so they plough on.
Obviously this isn't a flashy show, but it soon becomes lovable. I soon found myself charmed by Majime's hopelessness, which could make me laugh in unexpected places. He's adorable. No one writes a love letter like him, for instance. The show's basically eleven episodes of getting to know all these characters and the unexpected ways in which their lives are fluid. Marriage, birth and death will happen quietly offscreen, while we aren't looking. I think it's simply that I became rather fond of Majime, his gap-toothed elderly landlady, the academics, the unlikely colleagues, the new recruits and everyone else. This isn't done through melodrama, but simply through spending time with these people and getting acquainted with their failings, their eccentricities and the ways in which they're thoughtful.
You might ask why a story like this needed to become an anime. Well, I suppose there's the time span. We're told at the beginning that it will take ten years to edit 'The Great Passage', but in fact this is an underestimate. We'll still be with them at the end, though. Telling this story through animation makes it easy to convey the passing of all these years in a natural way.
There are also non-naturalistic bits. Every episode has an interlude of chibi cartoon dictionaries talking to each other, while also every so often the characters will perceive a literal sea of words. Japanese writing will wash around their ankles, or threaten to burst through the walls. It's a lovely visual metaphor, which I want to describe as "poetic" even though that surely can't be the right word.
The pace is quite slow. It's based on a single novel, after all. It's a much more minimalist, understated story than, say, Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu, to name another dull-looking 2016 anime that's very much for mature audiences. That covered nearly a century's worth of history and was adapting a ten-volume manga. Furthermore the storytelling here is deliberately en passant, eliding many of the obvious big dramatic scenes and keeping a simple focus on dictionary-editing. That's what its cast are working towards. Big story beats (when they come) are more likely to be about something like a missing word definition. Our heroes' lives change quietly, in the background, which is capable of surprising us when we eventually notice.
This story is charming, as are its characters and indeed its music. (I never skipped either the opening or closing credits.) Good luck trying to get anyone under sixteen to get past the story premise, but I see why Amazon snapped it up.