Novel Review: The Great Passage

The Great Passage

This is a review for The Great Passage, by Shion Miura. It’s not a light novel, but I figured why not review it anyways, since people here might be curious about it (given how it had an anime adaptation). The English translation of this released in June 2017, published by Amazon Crossing. It is available as a paperback or ebook, or as an audiobook.

The Great Passage is a story about people making a dictionary. It was a best-selling novel in Japan, and its live-action film adaptation won the Japan Academy Prize in 2013. The author, Shion Miura, is a winner of the Naoki Prize (one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards), and a couple of her works have been adapted into anime. Namely this one, and the more recent show Run with the Wind.

I will also note that the vast majority of reviews I’ve seen for this book are quite positive. So there’s clearly an audience for this–but for me, I can’t say I felt all that impressed with it. I said the story is about people making a dictionary, but surely there is more to it than that, right? Technically yes, I suppose. But in terms of its general plot structure… this story is just all over the place. I never could pin down what the story was actually going for with its characters. I could point out a few conflicts that appear over the course of the story, but each of them felt resolved almost as soon as they were introduced. The whole time I kept wondering what was the point of everything. When was anything interesting going to happen?

For a little context: I graduated an English major, so I feel it’s safe to say I have some interest in words. (Though not nearly as much as some of the characters in this book, of course.) I find etymology interesting, and am intrigued by the ways a word can evolve over the years. Words have their traditionally-defined meanings, and they also have their new meanings that naturally develop as people use the words in new ways in their everyday speech. I also have experience working on editorial teams for things like college journals, magazines, and textbooks, so I was very interested in learning how similar (and how different) the publication process for works such as dictionaries might be in Japan.

So perhaps that all played a part in my finding The Great Passage quite dull, because it never felt like it was diving that deep into the world of dictionary-making. Characters discuss what to write for a word’s definition from time to time, but it’s all rather surface-level stuff (e.g. [paraphrasing here] “Shouldn’t the definition of love be more inclusive than romantic feelings solely between a man and woman?” “Hm, I guess. You can love your cat too, right?”). The characters set out to work hard on the dictionary, and so they do. It’s a lot of hard work, but (SPOILER ALERT) they make the dictionary.

If the characters were more interesting, perhaps I would have still enjoyed the story anyways. Majime is an odd fellow with a lot of quirks (such as his hobby of, uh, watching people go up and down the escalator), but he loves dictionaries and will work hard on them. He falls for a chef lady, the granddaughter of the old woman who owns his apartment. And then they date, and everything works out shockingly smoothly for them. I briefly expected the story to be a kind of romcom, but it was already over before they faced any kind of trial. The other main character at the beginning is Nishioka, a confident rogue who loves The Ladies, and makes fun of Majime’s social awkwardness a lot. But then they become friends, sort of. It kind of just happens? And then Nishioka is transferred to another department. That kind of just happens too. (These things happen in life, I suppose.)

At any rate, later on we get a timeskip, in which we follow a brand new character: a new recruit named Kishibe, who has zero interest in dictionaries but somehow ends up working on this greatest dictionary ever. She decides to work hard on it, and so she does. I guess that’s just how life goes sometimes… You work on stuff. Toward the end I got the impression the story was meant to be a kind of inspiring teamwork/underdog type of story, but… meh?

The prose for this book is extremely simple and straightforward, even more so than a lot of light novels I’ve read. From what I’ve heard it was the author’s intent to release something more approachable than your average work of literary fiction, so perhaps that’s fine. It’s also a short novel–a quicker read than a lot of light novels I’ve read. With that in mind, I suppose I can recommend it to people who have a little interest in the subject matter, but don’t expect to learn too much about it and simply want an easygoing and breezy series of loosely-connected vignettes to pass the time with.

Cho’s Rating: Maybe Recommended… Or Maybe Just Watch the Anime Instead, IDK

2 responses to “Novel Review: The Great Passage

  1. I didn’t read the book (hell, I didn’t even know it was translated until I saw your review – so thanks for that), but I saw the anime. While the story wasn’t all that exciting, I definitely loved Majime and Nishioka and their development. The other characters didn’t get much screentime, probably because the anime only has 11 episodes? It would be nice to know, whether they get more attention in the book or not. But I guess not, since you didn’t even mention them in the review.^^

    Anyway, I’m kind of disappointed that the book didn’t really click with you. I’m not sure, if I should bother reading it – I know the story anyway. All I can say is that I really liked the anime, so maybe you should give it a chance?

    • If the anime decided to focus more on Majime and Nishioka and their interactions, then that’s great. We only get them doing stuff together for like a quarter of the book, and that was the closest it ever got to having an interesting sort of conflict. I actually have to wonder if this was the relationship the author originally wanted to focus on for the story. Chef lady as romantic interest was so bland, and post-timeskip new recruit was completely pointless.

      The book is a quick read, so it wouldn’t take too long to get through it if you do wish to compare it with the anime some time. (And if you like audiobooks, that option is thankfully available.)

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