Yuya Ishii is one of Japan's more interesting drama directors of the moment. While I haven't seen a truly great film from his hands, the four films I have seen so far are all worth investing in. Fune Wo Amu (The Great Passage) is his latest feature and while quality-wise up to par with his previous efforts, I was quite surprised to find out Ishii was the director behind this film.
Ishii never really conformed to the boundaries of traditional Japanese dramas. He likes to combine dry comedy with bitter drama to form an awkward but positively challenging blend of atmospheres. The characters in his films are usually not the nicest and/or most likeable people, but they do try to earn our respect throughout the course of his films. Well, there's none of that in Fune Wo Amu, which strictly adheres to the rules of the traditional Japanese feel-good drama.
The films tells of Majime, a young social outcast who is transferred to the dictionary department of the print company he works for. There he finds his true calling and as the people around him start to leave the project one by one, Majime overcomes his fears and limitations to shoulder the project himself: create a dictionary for the people of today (which ends up being a mix between the Webster Dictionary and the Urban Dictionary).
The film is helped by a stellar cast. Matsuda shines as Majime (and resembles a young Tadanobu Asano), Jo Odagiri assists him where necessary and Aoi Miyazaki is cast as his supporting love interest. A strong trio that brings the needed depth and subtlety to the core characters. Still, they cannot prevent that the film itself is a tad plain. Visually modest and traditionally scored, Fune Wo Amu never becomes much more than an endearing and warm drama with its heart in the right place. It's a nice film that leaves you with a smile, but lacks that extra something that would've made it truly special. Still, if you have two hours to spare you could do much worse.