The Great Passage – Episode 1

The Great Passage opens with an evocative shot of a ferris wheel suspended over a great sea, an expanse the narrator describes as the “vast ocean of words.” Our thoughts are imperfect instruments with no inherent vessel, and so our natural state is to be stranded on islands of misunderstanding. Words give our meaning form, and allow our thoughts to connect across this sea. And dictionaries are the ships that cross it, offering clear and sturdy definitions to master the tides.

It’s an arresting metaphor, but most of this episode is fascinating in a very different way. In spite of its lofty framing of words and dictionaries, The Great Passage’s premiere mostly excels when it comes to small, specific details. The clutter that composes an untidy apartment. The small gestures we use to convey meaning without language. The loaded specificity of a precisely chosen phrase.

The show’s first major scene introduces us to two men who’ve spent their lives working in service of dictionaries. Editor Araki and his senior Matsumoto reminisce fondly on their first dictionaries, and on the various books they constructed together. The scene accomplishes two central narrative goals: articulating the inherent difficulty and artistry of constructing a dictionary, and establishing the immediate conflict of Araki needing to find his own replacement. It accomplishes both those goals gracefully, but also demonstrates The Great Passage’s excellent grasp of the finer details of communication.

It’s odd to think a show about the power of words would be noteworthy in large part for its mastery of body language, but the body language does indeed tell much of the story here. Araki’s sense of regret at having to leave his job is palpable in his expressions – you can clearly see that this is not a decision he made lightly, and how much it pains him to “disappoint” his mentor. The camera understands where to focus, as well – just as Araki raises the subject, we see his hand tighten on his pant leg, firmly implying the greater sense of frustration he’s holding back. Araki is clearly established as a passionate and romantic man forced out of his chosen duty by circumstance.

Other visual delights include this episode’s strong use of backgrounds and excellent color design. While a couple backgrounds here lean on flatly precise rectangles, sets like the hall outside Araki’s office and salesman Majime’s apartment are full of lively details. The overall brown-yellow color palette reminds me of Hyouka, and establishes a similar tone. Colors like these speak to long and familiar afternoons, hours spent in rooms marked by dog-eared books and dusty shelves.

The direction is also no slouch. Our first introduction to Majime is one of the episode’s most visually aggressive sequences, as we see him hesitantly take in the scope of a subway station. The framing of the shot, consistently parallel to the tracks, emphasizes Majime’s sense of reluctance before we even learn why he’s hesitating. There’s even a brief jump into letterbox framing, a visual indulgence later matched by a panel-in-panel segment detailing Araki’s search for a successor. The overall effect establishes Majime as a man defined by hesitance, seemingly uncomfortable in his own role.

The next pair of scenes demonstrate why Majime is hesitant, and what he’d be better off doing instead. Majime’s conversation with a local bookseller is again defined by body language, as Majime’s clumsy movements and the vendor’s hurried responses establish him as an inherently terrible salesman. When he’s confronted by a superior from the dictionary department, he briefly comes alive, seeming to float away as he ponders alternate definitions of an idle phrase. Then the moment passes, and his perpetual slouch returns to frame him as a man who’s never quite the right size for his own suit.

Even Majime’s brief return home seems laden with inferable drama. Majime’s room seems to cradle his whole personality, overstuffed with books to the exclusion of all else. His landlord claims she made too much food, but it seems clear enough that Majime is just the kind of helpless person you can’t help but fuss over. And her cheery gossip seems to speak to another truth – like a forgotten dictionary in the age of immediate, digital gratification, this old lady just wants some company.

If it seems I’ve neglected narrative here, that’s intentional. Basically every element of this first episode’s story is a classic genre beat, from the changing of the guard, to the buddy cop dynamic already emerging between Majime and his soon-to-be partner, to the way Majime is framed as some kind of savant of dictionary-making. It’s all perfectly well-articulated, but there’s little to dig into there. What brings The Great Passage to life is its terrifically executed voice.

That voice comes through clearly in the final act, where Araki and Majime finally come together. The buildup to their meeting demonstrates more excellent character acting by Araki, as the need to enter the dreaded sales department sees him taking breaths, steadying himself, and walking with a pronounced hunch like some kind of fatigued cowboy. His actual connection with Majime is a visual feat that frankly outreaches this show’s grasp – the spinning shot that introduces him to the sales room is ambitious, but looks awkward in action, emphasizing the separation of characters and background. And then they’re off, Majime’s thoughtful dissection of Araki’s dictionary quiz setting him a path to sail that great sea of words. I only hope the show can stay half as beautifully executed as this.

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