“An anime about making a dictionary” sounds more like a sleep aid than entertainment, but The Great Passage defies such expectations. It heavily humanizes its story through its characters’ emotional journeys, but it also provides an interesting perspective on the fundamental role of dictionaries and how much we can take that role for granted.
The Great Passage tells the story of Majime Mitsuya, a young and awkward sales rep for Genbu Publishing who gets recruited by the company’s Dictionary Editorial Department. While his shyness and lack of people skills made him terrible for Sales, Majime shows an immense love of the nuanced and myriad ways words can be used. The department’s goal is to release a new dictionary, titled Daitoukai (“The Great Passage”), that would be ideal for modern users to have a robust understanding of how words are used in the here and now. Along the way, Majime makes friends, falls in love, and devotes his life to making Daitoukai a reality.
Majime has a certain magnetism deriving from the fact that while he’s extremely knowledgeable about words, he’s also bad at expressing himself, as if the sheer range of possibilities overwhelms his brain. This irony provides the backdrop for many of the relationships that develop throughout the series, and I appreciate that the story focuses on such an introverted character. The series isn’t subtle about this character trait at all—even stating it outright—but it’s still a very effective portrayal. The central friendship of the series, between Majime and his gregarious and sharp-witted co-worker Nishioka Masashi, sees two very different people with different strengths and weaknesses find ways to lift each other up.
In terms of the depiction of dictionaries, The Great Passage expends as much energy as it can to wax poetic about them. Dictionaries are likened to ships that help guide humans through the darkness, and it’s emphasized repeatedly that no two physical dictionaries are the same. They have to determine which words to keep and how to define them, and this results in different “personalities.” It implies that dictionaries are influenced by the priorities and biases of those who make them, even as they attempt to remain as objective as possible. In a sense, it brings the idea of reading multiple sources for news to a realm commonly considered rather staid and neutral.
Towards the end of the series, there’s also an examination of the ups and downs of privately versus publicly funded dictionaries. While the series doesn’t delve too deeply into it, it does factor in ideas about the risk of government control over words versus the perils of being beholden to capitalism and the market. Brief though this comparison may be, it’s probably the closest The Great Passage gets to explicitly taking a difficult stance.
A more subtle yet nevertheless present point I find in the series is that it implicitly argues that “having kids” isn’t the be-all, end-all of adult life. There are a handful of couples throughout the series, and a decade-plus time skip halfway through shows where they end up. While one character is shown with children, another character’s situation quietly highlights how two people in love with each other but also possessing their own passions can find fulfillment in dedicating their lives to their respective endeavors.
The Great Passage is ultimately a charming series that takes an elegant approach to an unusual topic. Whether intentional or not, it makes for some impressive marketing for dictionaries, but much like Shinkalion does for bullet trains, it’s hard to fault something so inherently beneficial. The anime often plays it safe in many ways, but there are shadows of more daring positions and beliefs that result in a quietly complex work.