Once in a while, there comes an anime series that is a cut above everything else. A rare gem that you’ll either love or hate, even if you’ll probably never know exactly why. A series that is so deep its real value comes not from any immediate success and viewership rates, but from the impression it will leave in the viewers’ minds, the emotions it will make them feel, and the place that it will hold in their hearts. An anime that it’s really difficult to review; an anime like Fune wo Amu, noitamina block’s choice for Fall 2016.
Majime Mitsuya (CV: Sakurai Takahiro) is a shy, introverted man with a passion for words and an innate difficulty to express himself verbally. He wastes his talent working as a salesman for a publishing company called Genbu Shobo. When a veteran editor of the company’s dictionary department, Araki Kouhei (Kaneo Tetsuo), decides to retire, he goes out in pursuit of the perfect successor that can help the rest of his team conclude their magnus opus, a modern Japanese dictionary called ‘The Great Passage.’ With the help of another editor, Nishioka Misashi (Kamiya Hiroshi), he finds Majime and recruits him in the team. The anime follows the dictionary editorial team as they work hard to create a dictionary that will help people express themselves in this modern age.
Plot & Story
I’ve always found prescriptive analyses of themes more valuable than flat descriptions of story and character traits, and that’s why I strive to write each article not as a review, but as a friendly conversation with the reader who has just asked me ‘What did you think of X anime?’
Fune wo Amu is difficult to describe in either way. It’s the kind of anime that is difficult to go unnoticed because it takes a seemingly boring theme and manages to make it profoundly interesting. It’s also difficult to describe it in terms of story and characters because the real essence of the anime doesn’t lie in the creation of the anime or the characters as individuals, but instead on the ‘why’s of the dictionary creation and the dynamics between the limited cast.
Fune wo Amu is a rare example of an anime that goes beyond what we expect from the medium. I recently had the same revelation about a Japanese show called Spark, a TV drama that plays with time and meaning in a refreshing, appealing, yet peculiar way that seems enticing but you can’t really put your finger on the reasons. Maybe the fault can be found in my scarce vocabulary, ironically enough. But maybe it’s just as simple as that Fune wo Amu is transcending our preconceptions of what an anime is and becomes something meaningful and transformative – it becomes art.
On the surface, Fune wo Amu is what I described in the synopsis: a slice-of-life (that’s more of a whole pie than just a slice) anime about dictionary editors and the process of creating a modern Japanese dictionary. The premise is simple and the characters likable and realistic. Nothing really extraordinary happens, the hurdles they go through are not extravagant and their conversations are lifelike and convincing. You will not find any special powers (unless your definition of ‘special’ is the same as mine) no fan-service, no pools of blood, no accidental nudes. You won’t hear any pompous speeches, vows of revenge, or shouts of camaraderie. This is life, simple yet complicated, played by a talented cast of voice actors who had the luck to perform some especially well-crafted characters. Fune wo Amu’s purpose is not to entertain, but to lure the viewer into a deeper level of meaning where the anime explores themes that philosophers have struggled for millennia: love, romance, friendship, mentorship, human connection, and so many more. Fune wo Amu touches all those themes in a very personal and realistic level that we seldom encounter in anime. It asks of the viewer to connect with her personal psyche and trigger her emotional intelligence. It almost demands of her to stop and run her own thoughts on the same slow pace of the anime. ‘Think’ it seems to say, ‘empathize’, ‘listen’. ‘Listen to these characters who are just like you or someone you know. Listen to these imperfect beings who strive for meaning in the same world you inhabit.’
And unlike the majority of anime which sacrifice substance in favor of salability, Fune wo Amu manages to deliver this level of quality in a narrative that is complete in just 11 episodes. In my opinion, it could have been 10. Like any good story, written or otherwise, it quietly builds to the greatness that is the last episode (and a half before that.) Like a slow, refreshing river making its way through your soul, throwing its meaningful waters into the vast sea of your mind.
Art & Music
It’s difficult to talk about the art and sound of Fune wo Amu without correlating it directly to the story. I truly believe that anime and videogames are the most complete storytelling forms because they can embrace every facet of art: prose, film, acting, music, and so many more. Thus, most of the times, the completed work is judged by looking at the sum rather on each individual component. Yes, a title might have amazing music and less than amazing visuals, or a boring story but excellent directing (though I can’t see how that’s possible) but in the end it’s the work as a whole that either makes the cut or not.
Under that scope, both the art and music of Fune wo Amu were exactly what the story needed in order to shine. Clear character expressions, adequate background drawings, and great allegorical scenes. The music direction by Ike Yoshihiro made sure that the right tunes were placed at relevant scenes. The voice acting was amazing, and in unison with the realistic facial expressions and the exemplary writing, gave the characters the necessary lifelike attribute that the story demanded.
The opening song Shiokaze was catchy enough to keep my interest, and the ending song I&I wrapped up each episode with a piano tune that I might sit down and learn at some point.
Themes & Trivia
Word of the Episode: Each episode is titled after a single word that also serves as the theme. At the end of the episode the word is given in dictionary form, complete with meaning and example sentence.
Dictionary Half-Time: The half-time breaks feature a group of different anthropomorphized dictionaries who give a small lesson about dictionaries and how each one of them is different from the other. As the little dictionaries say themselves, ‘Every dictionary has its own personality.’
Boat Making: The English title that shares the name of the in-anime dictionary, The Great Passage, is not a direct translation of the original Japanese. The Japanese title of the anime, Fune wo Amu (舟を編む)means ‘Assembling a Boat’. It refers to one of Araki’s quotes from the book and the one of the first sentences spoken in the anime:
A dictionary is a boat to carry us across the sea of words.
Movie and Book: Fune wo Amu (The Great Passage) is based on the best-selling novel of the same name, written by Shion Miura. The film version of the novel was released in 2013 and has been selected as the Japanese entry in the 86th Academy Awards (2014) for Best Foreign Language Film.
One very peculiar complaint I’ve read online about Fune wo Amu, and one you might notice if you decide to watch the anime, is that the dictionary department is not using computers. They write word-cards by hand, and have a huge file room, both indicative of the past while the show has explicitly expressed that it takes place in contemporary times.
It’s funny to mention this in a spoiler-free review, but I think that the decision to make the department computer-free was deliberate. Simply because they could have used computers doesn’t mean that they should have had, and lately I myself have struggled with how much dependent I’ve become to my laptop and smartphone. I thought it was a nice touch that, like the rest of Fune wo Amu themes, made me reflect on my own life decisions.
Meticulous Story about Dictionaries and What it Means to be Human
Great Voice Acting
Smooth Narrative Flow
Not for Everyone
A Love for Words
I’ll cut to the chase: See Fune wo Amu. It’s very likely that it will bore you out of your mind, especially if you are used to fast-action series and/or overly cute SOL moe spectacles. On the other hand, there is a strong possibility that you’ll love it so much that it will make you wonder what kind of shit series we get every season just for the sake of Blu-ray and merchandise sales. Fune wo Amu may not sell many disks or have an extensive range of merchandise, but it will certainly be one of those rare anime that truly had something important to say.
No matter how you’ll feel about it, I can guarantee you that by the end of it you will have enriched both your vocabulary and yourself as a person. Always remember: The truly important things in life are timeless.