I believe The Great Passage is a series that asks a lot of questions about and of the audience. It goes without saying that thematically, this material is at about as far a remove from standard anime fare as it’s possible to get. I don’t imagine there was much expectation that this would be a mainstream hit, but in today’s NoitaminA commercial considerations are far from irrelevant – is there any potential audience left? But I also think it tests the open-mindedness of the audience, because once you dig underneath the premise Fune wo Amu is far more universal and mainstream for anime that it first appears.
Ultimately, The Great Passage more than anything else seems to be about passion. That might seem like a funny thing to say about buttoned-down and rather geeky dictionary editors in an already reserved Japanese society, but it’s true. The series uses the word “Karma” in this way (a slightly unusual context for it to my Western ear) this week, and it really boils down to people searching for something in their life to be passionate about. Matsumoto-sensei and Araki-san have found theirs – Sasaki-san too, probably – but the younger generation is still searching. In Majime’s case he already has the passion, he just needs the outlet – but for Nishioka, it’s more of a genuine void that he’s seeking to fill.
“Passion”, of course, can manifest itself in many ways, and Majime’s feelings for Kaguya are another expression of it. Nishioka seems to be trying to fill his emptiness with passionless romance, but for Majime (as aptly named a character as you’ll find) it’s serious business. So much so that Kaguya can’t even ken the true meaning of his magnum opus of a confession – she suspects it might be a love letter, but can’t really understand its flowery language (and this is clearly a bright young woman). The misunderstanding between the two of them is rather predictable, as is the outcome – but it’s still charming in a rather innocent and old-fashioned sort of way.
The tragic thing for Nishioka is that just that when he’s become passionate about The Great Passage, he’s being forced to leave the project – and to salt the wound, this is as a result of his newfound conviction having saved it. Things are already hard enough for our ragtag club, what with Matsumoto and Araki both looking past the time when they’ll be directly involved and the demands of the revision having been dumped on them. Add Nishioka’s forced departure to the mix and the dictionary editing department is in big trouble – which of course is exactly what the corporate types intended to happen.
There’s another expression of passion in this episode – the Genkai (Sea of Words), the first modern Japanese dictionary. It was compiled as a one-man crusade by the Meiji scholar Ootsuki Fumihiko, who devoted his life to its publication (and that of the follow-up Daigenkai, completed by adoring proteges and published a few years after Ootsuki’s death) – and if that’s not passion, I don’t know what is. It seems one of the messages of Fune wo Amu is that what comes easily is rarely what’s truly worth accomplishing – that it’s the struggle and hardship that tests whether we have the passion to finish the job. That’s surely a worthwhile message for an industry in the state anime is today, though whether there’s anyone out there to receive it is a dubious proposition.