I first read Miura Shion’s The Great Passage ((舟を編む, Fune wo Amu) back in 2020, right after I watched the film version, but reading it meant I skipped a lot of it. Unfortunately, this is what I tend to do when I read a book for the first time. It takes me several reads before a book is truly read. So, if I read a book just once there’ll be a lot of it that I’ll miss. Anyway, I recently decided to listen to the audiobook on Scribd. Audiobooks force me to pay attention to every word although I sometimes zone out. When this happens I usually rewind the narration. Somehow, I am more likely to do this than reread a paragraph.
Audiobooks aren’t always the answer if the narrator decides to put on hammy accents or simply if their voice grates on my nerves. Thankfully, Brian Nishii, the narrator of The Great Passage audiobook (published by Brilliance Audio), is close to perfect. His surname suggests he’s Japanese and so his pronunciations of the characters’ and other proper names, and also Japanese phrases, doesn’t sound awkward or forced. Plus, he has a pleasant, likeable voice.
The story is about a group of lexicographers at a publishing house, called Gembu, and their latest project, ‘The Great Passage’. At the start of the book, the editor, Akari Kohei announces that he has to leave to care for his sick wife. The director of the department, Professor Matsumoto, says that he will never find another editor as good and devoted to dictionary making as Akari is. This makes Akari determined to find a replacement before he leaves. It seems like an impossible task given that you come to realise that it would take as it becomes evident that it takes a rare type of person to live up to Akari and Professor Matsumoto’s exacting standards. To add to the challenge, Akari has to make his selection from the existing employees of the publishing house: Although a large company, most of the staff view making dictionaries as boring and a waste of time.
It’s hard to put a finger on the type of person needed to take Akari’s place, but one of his tests is for possible candidates to define the word ‘right’. The way an individual approaches this task and their answer will reveal how suitable they are for the job. To prove his point, Akari asks Nishioka Masashi, one of the team working on ‘The Great Passage’, to define ‘right’. Nishioka fails and Akari isn’t terribly surprised. Nishioka is a rather feckless young man who sees himself as an irresistible Don Juan. He’s not terribly interested in making dictionaries, but does his job because he has to. Nevertheless, he is able to recommend Majime Mitsuya as a possible new editor.
Majime is a twenty-seven-year-old, socially awkward linguistics graduate who is doing dismally in the sales department of Gembu. Majime rents lodgings from Take, an indulgent elderly woman, who lets him fill her home with secondhand books and shares meals and her cat with him.
Rather predictably, Akari is satisfied with Majime’s definition of ‘right’ and the way he comes up with his answer. The young man is transferred to the dictionary department where he eventually takes Professor Matsumoto’s place as director. Majime also marries Take’s beautiful granddaughter Kaguya, a talented Japanese chef. Not bad for a shy, messy-haired introvert!
It’s not even that Majime blossoms after he becomes a lexicographer. Indeed, this job allows him to become even more of the person he started out as. Fortunately for him, looking permanently disheveled is not a problem when you’re a dictionary editor; and neither are being a quiet and shy. These qualities might have been a hindrance in the real world, overshadowing Majime’s thoughtfulness, his patience and kindness, and his sincerity and earnestness, but they hardly matter in the dusty remoteness of the dictionary department. It’s really a kind of serendipity, how he ends up in a job that suits him perfectly, and how his landlady’s granddaughter is exactly the kind of woman (probably the only woman) who would fall in love with someone like him.
This highly romantic aspect of The Great Passage is one of the reasons I adore the novel . It is a story of love — Majime’s love for Kaguya, and also his, Akari and Professor Matsumoto’s love for words and their devotion to lexicography. Do people like these three men exist? Perhaps, but I have not met them. Then there is the somewhat more realistic Nishioka and his transformation from frivolous, faithless rascal to a passionate man of principle.
You could say that Nishioka is the true hero of The Great Passage. He is the one who makes things happen, the one responsible for the major developments in the novel: He saves Akari and the Prof by finding Majime for them. He pushes Majime to court Kagoya. Although he is transferred to another department, he plays an important role in the dictionary’s success by leaving behind a list of useful tips that help Majime handle the troublesome specialist contributors needed to write the definitions of certain words. So much would not be possible without Nishioka, but still, The Great Passage is not meant to be a realistic story and while, Nishioka is an amusing and admirable character, the comfort the novel offers me as a reader is because it is an idealistic fairytale, shining with the threads of Majime and Kabuya’s love story; and Majime, Akari and the Professor’s heroic journeys in pursuit of the ultimate prize: the completion of ‘The Great Passage’, in the face of real world challenges like budgets, indifference and mediocrity.
The Great Passage gives me the same kind of feels as The West Wing, the American TV series that’s set in the White House and focuses on a highly intelligent and principled POTUS and his brilliant but goofy and eccentric senior staff. The idealism of President Bartlett and his senior staff and that of Professor Matsumoto and his editors is the stuff of fantasy and just what I need I feel bereft of hope and in want of encouragement and inspiration. Being overly optimistic is still preferable to feeling nothing but doom and gloom and bitterness when it comes to my job and life in general.
The novel is translated by Juliet Carpenter and, like in other English translations of Japanese novels, the characters are named using the Western style of first name followed by surname name. I have never understood why Japanese naming conventions are not used in a Japanese novel. After all, shouldn’t translators stay true to the cultural practices of the characters and their settings? Do publishers think Western readers will be confused or put-off if they encounter something unfamiliar? Surely when you read a novel set in a foreign country you should expect things to be unfamiliar and different?
That aside, The Great Passage is an easy, smooth read. Of course, as I can’t read or speak Japanese so I can’t give a truly accurate assessment of the translation, but I’m guessing that it’s decent enough given how I was thoroughly immersed in the story.
As the novel deals with the making of a dictionary, there is quite a bit of discussion about words and definitions and I like how some Japanese terms are retained — this must be because of the absence of an English equivalent.
I also find The Great Passage really funny book, not because it’s filled with gags and witticisms but because of the way the characters think and behave. For example, the Professor’s idea that the love triangle in Soseki’s Kokoro be re-enacted by Majime, Nishioka and Kagoya!
This book goes on to my list of favourite books and I see I’d put it on my list of Desert Island Books, and that was before I’d listened to the audiobook! To be sure I will be re-reading this many times, whether or not I get stranded on that island.
N.B. I also like the anime and the manga of The Great Passage, although the anime is almost identical to the live action film and seems pointless. The live action stars Matsuda Ryuhei as Majime, while Odagiri Joe and Kobayashi Kaoru play Nishioka and Akari respectively. If you’re an fan of Midnight Diner you might recognise them from the series/films, in particular Kobayashi who plays the owner of the diner.