“Since the only test of truth is length of life, and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest. Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow. But words, if properly used, seem able to live forever.”Virginia Woolf, On Craftsmanship
For someone who has hard time finding the right words, lacks vocabulary depth (particularly in English) and conciseness, I love words a lot. Not just the words and their context, but the grammatical structure and the relationship between us and the language as a whole. It’s probably the most prevalent amongst the ways we communicate with each other.
As real life keeps getting more draining every day, I find myself looking for calm series to engage with or revisiting series that has already brought me that comfort all the more. Fune wo Amu, or The Great Passage as translated in English, is one of those shows. I’ve briefly mentioned it in my literature & anime post; it’s an adaptation of a literary novel from Shion Miura. She also wrote Kaze ga Tsuyoku Fuiteiru, which again got itself a remarkable anime adaptation. Another blessing is that Fune wo Amu has a manga adaptation, drawn by the brilliant Kumota Haruko we specifically know from Shouwa Genroku Rakugou Shinjuu! Last minute edit: it seems there is even a live-action adaptation!
I’m not the type of person to keep the things I love to myself, on the contrary. However, Fune wo Amu is one of those series that I don’t brazenly recommend to everyone. Solely because I think a 12-episode-long, slow-burn journey towards publishing a dictionary with minimal action wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. That also implies it might be of interest to some of you. Hence I’m writing about it. And it’s spoiler-free.
Genbu Publishing has a department that the rest of the company blatantly looks down upon; the dictionary department. They don’t bring in money, in turn, cost a lot, and it takes too much time to release a new dictionary. That’s the reason behind the current dictionary team having so few people. There is the Chief of the Dictionary Editorial Department, Araki Kouhei, on his way to retirement and looking for a replacement. Nishioka Masashi, who is the energetic and friendly editor, Sasaki Kaoru as the secretary, and Matsumoto Tomosuke is a professor who visits the department periodically as the advisor.
One day, while Nishioka is out doing errands, he comes across a colleague who works in the sales department, Mitsuya Majime. Someone like him working in sales is as unexpected as someone like Nishioka working in the dictionary department; Majime is reserved, looks gloomy with sunken shoulders and dragging his feet, has zero tact and maximum awkwardness when it comes to sweet-talking the clerks at the bookshops. Out of concern, Nishioka decides to give some pointers to Majime, but he turns out to be just the right person for the dictionary department. With the addition of the new awkward editor, together the group starts working on a new dictionary called The Great Passage, which aims to become the ship that aids people on their journey amongst the sea of words, to reach out to one another.
Everything about Fune wo Amu is as adult as it gets; be it the concerns, goals, life or work-related problems, or interpersonal relationships. In episode 4, Kaguya and Majime ride the Ferris wheel that’s in the vicinity, and Majime comments on how the wheel looks unmoving from the inn but one notices it’s spinning once they board on. They exchange their ideas on how that’s similar to both cooking and dictionary-making. That metaphor can also apply to how this series feels as well.
Important changes happen overall the course of Fune wo Amu but at the same time, it feels like we are silently drifting along with a gentle flow. The backgrounds are either the quiet neighborhood of the inn, piles of dictionaries or papers on the shelves and desks in the office, cramped room of Majime, or the usual ramblings of the city as the backdrop. The soundtrack that is mainly consisting of easy-listening classical pieces enhances the delicate feel as well. There isn’t an extravagant movement overall, so animation-wise the show is decent throughout. Close-ups are animated really well, and Fune wo Amu has one thing I dearly love in abundance: little mannerisms. From averting eyes, to head movement, from dishes slightly sliding from the tip of the chopsticks to overall body language are the little details that carry the whole. I watched it in Japanese, and fairly enjoyed the natural tone in the voice acting.
One more detail I wanted to point out, although not directly linked to the dictionary-making, is the granddaughter of the owner of the inn Majime’s living in, Hayashi Kaguya. I won’t spoil anything apart from that she works at a restaurant, aiming to be a sushi chef. Her character and everyday life aren’t fleshed out very deeply, and I wonder how it is in the novel, but I would be very interested in reading a woman’s perspective on Kaguya’s goal.
There are a lot of fields in life that are seen as ‘womanly’ and women are expected to fill out their duties, however, in terms of capital, title, fame and decision-making positions, these fields are still men’s playground. Cooking is one of these fields and sushi is more out of reach for women than any other specialized culinary area. Did you know that there are hardly any notable female sushi chefs? And do you know the reason why? Let me provide the answer quickly: mainly because cis women menstruate and they have warm hands. “In this modern day and age??” you might like to argue, but periods still have these ridiculous myths attached to them, and are more commonly passed around and believed than one would expect. Kaguya’s aim to become a sushi chef is introduced more as a parallel to dictionary making than as a feminist statement on sexism in culinary arts. Both Kaguya and Majime have the idea of striving for perfection at their core, all the while knowing that the outcome will never be perfect. Nonetheless, it would be naive to think the author isn’t aware of the struggle that Kaguya’s gender brings to the table. I feel lucky that the novel is translated into English, can’t wait to read it.
Fune wo Amu has many heartwarming moments, and some heartbreaking ones as well. While it boils down to personal preference, I feel like there is a lot to savor in this series, especially if you’ve stepped into adulthood and tasted its ambiguity, joy, stillness, and bitterness. This may be the palate cleanser you’re looking for amongst the action and screaming-heavy picks in a season. Thanks for reading as always, and have a nice week!
Header image: The Jewel River in Musashi Province by Katsuyushi Hokusai