舟を編む (The Great Passage): The Virtually Unsinkable Ship

It is as different and unique as any of the Pirates of the Carribeans sequels we never wanted.

Call Me Ishmael

You are lost in the ocean of words. Each word sounds pretty and you are always tempted to use all of them, but you know you aren’t allowed to do that. And there are words that are a bit more complicated to use: when is it appropriate to use much or more? What about lay vs. lie? You can’t help but drown in confusion. You feel pushed back and forth through the waters. You swallow some water. You need to breathe. If only there is something to hold on and make sense in this world.

You reach your hand and try your darndest to latch onto something. You feel something. You claw your hands into it. You bring yourself up from the waters, bubbles into your face. And  you use every muscles in your body and lift yourself to the center of this object. Your drenched hair is dripping water on this red thing. You wipe the water droplets blocking the words away. It reads, Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. It is this lifeboat in the middle of the ocean of words that has saved your life.

This is the meaning of the title: 舟を編む. A dictionary posing as an ark (or ship if you’re not the Biblical kind) in the middle of this chaotic terrain of words.

The explanation is brought up by the owner of this small dictionary company. He wants the dictionary to be different from the other Japanese dictionaries (your 大辞林 and 広辞苑). It is a specialized dictionary for the people. Majime, the protagonist, is a fan of this dictionary and the owner’s philosophy. But he feels a bit down from his relationship issues and his work. The owner gives a pep talk to his employees, especially Majime who he sees has a bright future. Making dictionaries isn’t some job you can do in a year. It takes more than three years — maybe longer than that. You are dedicated to it and you have to think about the reader in every step. This is what their latest edition of the dictionary, 大渡海, will be. It will be the ark that will save everyone from this ocean of words. Hence, 「辞書は言葉の海を渡る舟、編集者はその海を渡る舟を編んでいく」.

And everyone applauds. Majime’s spirits are revitalized and he feels ready to take on the daunting job of defining words with easy-to-read definitions. Maybe he’ll find a way to talk to the cute girl next door. Whatever he’ll do, it seems like he is taking a step to a brighter future.

This all happens somewhere in page 23 by the way.

The Queen of the World

This is quite an uplifting scene to put in the beginning of the book. A bit clumsy and cheesy, but I never expected it to be something great. On Amazon, reviewers who have negatively reviewed it often derided it as a rom-com, a light novel (oh MY), a manga, or something silly like that. I wanted something fun to read and this looked like a good book to read before I sleep. So my expectations were pretty low. As long as I had a good time, it would be good.

You also can’t avoid this book and the writer. The book was first serialized in a women’s fashion magazine Classy. from 2009 to 2011, the year it is finally published in tankobou form. In 2012, the book won the 本屋大賞 (Japan Booksellers Award) and 三浦 しをん, its author, is making headlines as a successful female writer. Sales and discussion exploded when it was adapted to the silver screen in 2013. And soon, before I turn 23 in this very month, the anime adaptation will air on noitaminA.

It’s a success story no matter how you see it. The writer has always been moderately successful (before, it was 風が強く吹いている) but this was the book that meant business. She’s a writer you have to read at least once if you want to understand today’s Japanese popular literary culture. Much like Stephen King in the West or Yoshimoto Banana in Japan.

That’s what I thought until I finished this book.

Sank Like Lead into the Sea

This book is going to be hard to explain. The thing is: God knows how different the anime will be and I hope it’s entirely different. Maybe the mistakes done by the book will be rectified in the anime adaptation. The writers have to be creative because the structure of the book doesn’t make sense there and it definitely won’t make sense in the anime adaptation. Nothing past page 23 of this rather decent-sized book is good. But the anime trailer makes it look like it will be more faithful than it should be. And that’s horrible. So before I go any further to express my disappointment with the book, I want to make something clear: This is not a book about dictionaries.

The in-universe dictionary which is barely used.

This fact is going to be tough to swallow, especially when the West is bombarded with advertisements of Majime drowning in words. Speculation has been raised in several accounts of what the anime might be through comparing the film and anime trailers. It is a commendable effort…

But marketing lies.

It lies so bad you want to fall down to your knees and cry.

So I realistically doubt the anime adaptation will be any different from the book. Focusing on the “romantic comedy” aspects may have worked for the film, but those parts are shallow to begin with. There’s probably a lot of original content to fill up that screentime.

Actually, let’s slow down a bit.

I don’t know how to explain what this book is supposed to be. Let’s put aside discussion of genres are bad for now: there are times random labels can help put us in the right direction. With this book, trying to label this with genres would show you how absurd this book really is. It certainly is not “literary fiction” because the writing sucks (more on that later) and it doesn’t have any trace of ambiguity — everything is blunt and you even have didactic lessons about hard work like it’s a nuclear family sitcom. The closest approximation is romance comedy, but that’s not right. It’s not funny and the romance begins and ends very quickly. So that’s not the phrase I am looking for. At this point, you want to use a dictionary and look at all the usage notes.

But I don’t think anything can adequately define what this stupid, stupid, stupid book is supposed to be.

The Mississippi River Will Have Its Own Way

Maybe we should look at the structure of the book before we try labeling the book with a genre. Majime is the protagonist, but he is not the narrator you stick with all the time. Instead, most chapters have you following a character who is a coworker of Majime.

In fact, the first chapter does not start out in Majime’s point-of-view. It’s by someone else who doesn’t really appear in other chapters. He’s just a worker who finds Majime an oddball.

But you’ll stumble over the first chapter for a while. The narration is third-person, but it sometimes goes into the narrator’s thoughts. This isn’t very clear in the first chapter if you think you’re reading in Majime’s perspective. And even then, anytime you see 俺 you just stop and wonder why the sudden intrusion into introspection? When introspection is needed, it is told and not shown. Most of the events I’m about to tell you are just told and you won’t experience it that differently from reading the actual book.

It almost feels like reading a synopsis to be honest. You just never are in the scene, just an observer of the “action”. And the thoughts that you do grab don’t do anything but slow down the story.


You finally get into Majime’s head in the second chapter. You learn that he really likes books and words. His favorite books are dictionaries. Fascinating guy. He can tell you etymologies of words and so on because he has read dictionaries a lot.

(And by the way, his name is indeed Majime/馬締 — as in 真面目. And he is quite serious. The film’s marketing slogan isマジメって、面白い。)

He has a boner for this cute (ruby: bland) girl who is the granddaughter of the landlady. As he has no charisma or social skills, he has no opportunities to talk to her. Except when the cat comes into his apartment and she’ll come right in. It makes him sexually frustrated and he can’t concentrate on his work. The owner of the company asks him to relax. Why not find a date? His friend Nishioka gives him some tickets to the carnival. So you get to read about his dating adventures with this girl on the ferris wheel. You never get what he feels at most parts. He’s a blank slate of mind except when it comes to dictionaries. That’s his real hard on. During this date he finds himself lurching for a word in the middle of a conversation. He realizes it’s the word 恋愛 and then proceeds in excruciating detail how much he can research into its etymology and other aspects of the word to find a way to define the word because he finds it quite exciting. This goes on for a while until the girl bothers to wake him up. They have a fun time somehow and then, he writes a love letter expressing his feelings. She falls in love and bangs him. Yeah, she bangs him. Not him banging her, she bangs him.

The third chapter involves his best coworker friend, Nishioka, who is a sex fiend. He’s the bromance guy you see in the anime PVs. I’m sorry to say that he is very straight and doesn’t appear even friendly to Majime in the book. He has the most “personality” of the narrators in the book because he just fucks and drinks without giving a damn. That’s as much character as we can get out of the guy and I’m not sure why this chapter exists. All you read is him fucking and drinking and thinking maybe he should settle down.

The fourth is about some kouhai who has some dumb shoujo narration. She wants a boyfriend and is jealous and confused that Majime is engaged to the girl he dated in chapter 2. Actually, I agree with her: How did they get engaged? I guess those two people are soulmates in boredom. She learns how to improve herself from observing Majime, but I can’t tell what you are supposed to learn from a guy who has no soul.

And the book finally returns to Majime happily married and learning some lessons.

The three non-Majime chapters are rarely talked about in reviews, but they should be because they are really unnecessary. There is so much pointless exposition about the narrators’ dumb lives that you never get to see Majime grow as a person. When you return to him at last, scenes that are supposed to show his growth don’t just end up flat — they too are told in passing. It gets weirder when there is clearly something dramatic going on and it’s still told as if it’s nothing special. Some one line about crying and the story moves on. There is no such thing as “lingering in the moment” so to speak; you are reading nothing more but a synopsis.

And this isn’t helped by the structure. It is haphazard at best and you don’t get a feeling what this book is supposed to be. Even if the writing is the ultimate tell-no-show work, something structural can help you understand what it should have been. But no hints are provided. For example, the romance comedy part begins and ends at chapter two. It boggles my mind that Majime and that boring girl got married in the middle of the book instead at the end. Sometimes, it’s like the book has ditched the formula in order to be something original — and yet, it tries to be one of the works that fit in the genres it’s trying to reject. Or something. I don’t know if I make sense, but this book makes no sense.

The author seems to have realized she is just rambling on and on, so she capped it off with a weird “happy” ending. It is what people imagine Disney films to be. It’s the happy ending everyone lives happily ever after crap that we all think it’s a joke. And people love it. It’s the type of ending that pats you on the back and says, “Good job, you read a book about hardworking people. I hope you become another hardworking member of the community.”

This ending is horrible.

What’s worse: the dictionary theme — the reason people bought this book — gets revisited no more than six times and the writing drags on and on and on. Why did the book not give me what it promised me?

All I can tell is that it’s just a marketing ploy. It doesn’t matter if the book isn’t about dictionaries as long as it sells. And if it sells because you can market it as a book about dictionaries, why not?

You almost wonder what do people see as “beautiful” in this work. For many fans of the book, it is the love letter I offhandedly mention. You get a glimpse of this love letter in the second chapter, but the full thing is in display at the end of the book. Written by Majime to the woman he later marries, it is supposed to be this cute extra bit and you have commentary from the different characters at the bottom of the pages. The romantic elements throughout the book should have culminated into catharsis when you read the love letter. For many Japanese readers, that seems to be the case. People do like the love letter and would quote it in their Bookmeter reviews.

But there are two things that make it difficult for me to have feels. One is that Majime is literally autistic. The best way is to show this little screencap that I hope Japanese readers find amusing:

Majime is not just unlikable, he’s not human. I have no reason to empathize with a guy who literally does not see any difference between loving a wife and a cat. This scene also appears after it is apparent he is married to the boring woman.

The other difficulty is the letter itself. For those who can’t read the Japanese, you are fortunate. It reads as if a middle schooler has access to a thesaurus. It is indescribably bad. The sad thing is: This is the part where you can tell the writer actually wrote something instead of telling it. Actual effort has been placed. She wants it to be good because this is the real ending and you are supposed to walk away from the book like you’ve watched a good movie. But it reads like total shit. So if this is the prowess of said writer, I am happy to never read any of her works ever again.

With Strange Aeons Even Death May Die

There will be people who will realize this anime is airing this month and think, “Ah, a different anime. Something I need after all that garbage K-ON stuff they’re airing since the Moe Genre was created. And lookie here, an anime about dictionaries. It must be interesting.” I have a feeling this anime has a relatively good chance of being popular in the West for the same reasons it is popular in Japan.

What it “succeeds” in capturing the audience is hooking the reader/watcher with an interesting premise, dragging them up out from their usual routines, and pampering them with the unfamiliar things clothed in familiar ideas.

This is not a bad thing. Many great TVB dramas use a random occupation to spin some familiar drama plot everyone knows and they have done this well for a decade. It isn’t “literary”, but it goes to show how similar we all are regardless of occupations and social level. This is one of the easiest way to talk about the elusive human condition in media without clutching rhetorical devices or something of that accord. You learn this is the architect’s life and you realize how much you have the same daddy’s issues as this character does. Therefore, we connect. Or the owner of the restaurant has artistic aspirations and we connect that way too. It is partly why we love humanizing works and why we find empathy so strong in the arts. We look for connections with people in any field and we are drawn to people who we can empathize. It’s a simple device that pretends to be unfamiliar but is really familiar.

In the hands of 舟を編む, this unfamiliar familiarity of a dictionary world is used only to bait the audience. You are promised that this will be a work on dictionaries, but it becomes some weird misguided romance mashup thing that drops the pretense that it is ever about dictionaries — it’s about the Language of Love. When the book becomes a book about people, it presents this idealized world where hardworking people who love their work will get a happy marriage and grow up. It isn’t exactly self-help, but it almost feels like those candy-sweet cold medicines you had to take when you’re like six.

And people love that kind of syrup for a reason. They think they are going to be better with this wonderful book, but they’re just eating sugar.

There’s nothing humanizing about a guy who only loves dictionaries. He is beyond eccentric. He is practically inhumane. Who in the world can like him? Or dislike him? He’s a robot that has no human qualities. How are you supposed to empathize a character who is supposed to be empathetic? Tons of people do connect with Majime for some unknown reason and I am curious to why.

Because I feel like this book has the guts to say that people who work hard can succeed in love and life when the protagonist is not a human being — this frustrates me to no end. I suppose this isn’t just the audience eating sugar but rotten, bland sugar and they pretend it’s all fine.

Because it’s different.

What is Any Ocean but A Multitude of Drops?

The Great Passage is a strange translation choice, but I’m guessing it refers to those attempts to discover passages through the world when the Americas were still called a “new world”. The one most people probably remember is the Northwest Passage, prominently featured in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Shelley, a romantic, conjures the horrors of being passionate about your invention without thinking of the consequences. She parallels Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the Creature with an explorer who writes to his imouto about seeking a route through the Northwest Passage. If you discovered a passage during that time, you’d be creating a whole new trade route and getting a lot of money. But it’s freezing in the Arctic and many explorers died there. The ending of Frankenstein is a cautious tale on the nature of inventions — and certainly, in the context of the Northwest Passage, what you seek may not be what you want.

This is a funny connection to make with 舟を編む and you can make many others because there are so many books about oceans. Everyone knows the seas are a dangerous albeit exciting place to visit, but writers and thinkers have a premonition that trying to challenge the seas might be suicidal. There is something deeply humanizing and psychological about the sea. Trying to be “great” in this cosmology of the waters is suicide. All you see is a primordial, chaotic horror that never ceases to frighten the wits out of everyone and this image — this archetype — reflects in our subconscious.

But 舟を編む suggests all we need is a boat (or a dictionary) to make through this metaphoric beast. But has anyone survived writing anything with just the help of a dictionary? You need time and practice with that kind of stuff. Seafaring is crazier. A boat is definitely not enough.

Being “different” and “unique” isn’t a “different” and “unique” thing. When we say that every work is doing its own unique thing, we are still using our familiar experiences to shape the work. Some weirdo has said that books are mirrors to our own soul and subconscious and, to a certain extent, I agree. We participate in the reading process and mold the scenario together with the writer. The unfamiliar is the familiar in so many cases when it comes to plot.

You don’t have to feel the need to find another way to the Northwest Passage to understand the perils mentioned in Frankenstein, despite being a unique situation. Certainly, in a world where dictionaries breathe, you should be able to connect with the characters because they and we share one similar trait — we are human.

In the case of 舟を編む, there is a huge disconnect between the reader and the characters. In this unfamiliar familiar world of dictionaries, you see nobody worth cheering for or booing against. Everyone is made of styrofoam as far as I am concerned.

However, I think people, especially the oncoming surge of Western anime fans intrigued by the “different”, will be too enchanted by the prospect of the book’s anime adaptation. Maybe they’ll see this styrofoam characters as something unique, something Japanese. In their head, it is a revolutionary way to present characters. The atmosphere is engaging because they have never seen it before. It’s all unique.

After all, this is a new passage so it must be great.

If extremely bad writing, poor characterization, and awful usage of setting are the new great passages people want, then I hope they’ll be happy to freeze to death up there in the Arctic. The fetishized search for the unique has always been (and will always be) fruitless. A shitty bestseller book will not be the exception. Uniqueness will never be an excuse for bad writing, no matter how apologetic their fans try to be.

舟を編む is the wolf in sheep’s clothing and there is no going around that.

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6 thoughts on “舟を編む (The Great Passage): The Virtually Unsinkable Ship

  1. tereya October 2, 2016 / 5:34 pm

    zerodewanai

  2. Frog-kun October 3, 2016 / 12:27 am

    Well, that sucks. I did get the impression that The Great Passage was more a love story than a story about dictionaries (or, more precisely, that it was using the dictionary metaphor to frame the love story), but I didn’t think the novel would be so bad.

    I do think that the anime will have to be different from the book, though, if only to spread out the content over the length of a cour. And I still maintain that it will likely be an anime for the seiyuu, which explains why Nishioka actually seems to do stuff in the anime. But if it keeps the same bland characterisation for the MC and his love interest, there’s not much that can be done to salvage this ship. Majime seriously seems like a terrible character.

    Okay, I’ll quit it with the dumb puns.

    By the way, the movie trailer makes out that there’s a plot about saving the dictionary project from being scrapped. Is this present in the novel at all?

    Also, I doubt that the anime will be all that popular with Westerners since it has received little hype so far. What you’re saying may apply to some Western critics/bloggers, maybe, but there aren’t too many of them around, relative to the rest of the fanbase. I think most of the anime viewers who want something “different” yet familiar will lean more towards March Comes In Like a Lion, which has that shogi motif.

    • Kastel October 3, 2016 / 12:41 am

      This review may not exist if it was a love story framed by dictionaries. From my understanding, that is the route the film has gone with and may explain why it has won quite a number of Japanese film awards. It was also the entry to the Oscars, but a romance comedy would never survive in the serious world of the Academies.

      My guess is the same as yours: This anime has a star-studded cast and Nishioka may be the only character who can be different in the adaptation. I’d probably watch the first episode to see if that matters, but I doubt it will be a great change. There is no running away from Majime x whatsevenhername because that’s the central plot.

      When it comes to the dictionary project being scrapped, that’s probably about how dictionaries and, in general, the publishing industries have been failing to get traction. It is probably mentioned in the novel, but very briefly. Reviewers who have read the book knowing the state of the industry are quite annoyed by the lack of it. The companies that deal with specialized dictionaries have been struggling and I know one academic publication that does great translations has folded up. It was something I wanted to look for myself, but there are Amazon reviewers who actually can pinpoint you where to look for better sources.

      I am sure this will not be “popular” with the majority of anime fans. I will probably watch Brave Witches with them because I have a fond affection of butts. But I think 舟を編む has a good chance of being “critically popular”, a bit like すべてがFになる’s adaptation for a while. People were digging that show until the hilarious twist happened and now pretended they never liked the show in the first place. There are still folks who defend the show like it’s the real deal.

      It is just getting tiring to see “literature vs light novel” debates when bad novels that aren’t LNs are being adapted once per season nowadays…

  3. sd October 3, 2016 / 12:22 pm

    I liked 月魚 😦

    • Kastel October 3, 2016 / 4:32 pm

      That novel was going to be a next read since classic books and gays are my kind of weekend reading. But I’d need serious convincing from people that the flaws of 舟を編む are not in any of the writer’s other works.

  4. Correct Opinions December 19, 2016 / 8:48 am

    I watched like halfway through the anime. It’s pretty boring and unrelatable.

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