As it turns out, the modern world is not so different from the feudal after all. After realising that their friend and mentor has passed away, a team working together to create an accurate map of Japan in the early 19th century are immediately worried that their project will be axed as a part of a cost cutting exercise at the hands of the penny-pinching Shogun. Inspired by Shinosuke Tatekawa’s rakugo story, Kenji Nakanishi’s heartwarming dramedy Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Taiga e no Michi) tells parallel tales of hardworking civil servants trying to put their town on the map and Edo-era officials trying to avoid incurring the Shogun’s displeasure so they can ensure their late friend’s life’s work will eventually be finished.
In the present day, the small town of Katori is trying to think of ways to raise its profile but according to junior civil servant Kinoshita (Kenichi Matsuyama) the programme proposed by the tourist board has little to offer in simply imitating the initiatives of other better known cities. As he points out, if tourists want to experience life in olden times there are lots of places they can do that already. Chief of General Affairs Ikemoto (Kiichi Nakai) idly suggests that they try and get local historical personannage Chukei-san, better known as Ino Tadataka the man who completed the first accurate map of the Japanese islands, featured as the subject of a year-long historical TV drama. Of course, Kobayashi from the tourist board (Keiko Kitagawa) thinks it’s a silly idea, but the governor likes it so Ikemoto now has a very difficult job not least because the governor wants him to convince a grumpy writer who hasn’t written anything in 20 years to handle the script.
The reason Kato (Isao Hashizume) retired from screenwriting is that he too was fed up with placating commercially-minded executives and isn’t prepared to work on anything in which he doesn’t have full creative control which might be a problem a civil servant like Ikemoto could sympathise with if he wasn’t so desperate to bring him on board. It can’t be denied that the story of the map’s creation is itself fascinating if only in its technical detail of how these men were able to complete a map which almost perfectly aligns with modern aerial photography using only the technology of the early 19th century. As Kato points out, Tadataka was already in his 70s and the bulk of the work is simply walking all around Japan measuring it step by step. He’d only begun the project because he wanted to figure out the size of the earth by charting the Meridian Arc, but figured that out right away and still went on to work on the map for reasons largely unknown though later hinting a sense of anxiety in the late Edo society in believing that understanding the shape of the nation’s coastlines was the key to national defence in the wake of a Russian attack that had cost two of Tadataka’s local helpers their lives.
Yet the drama idea is pretty much dead in the water after realising that Tadataka “died” three years before the map was completed. Fearing they’d lose their funding, Tadataka’s team buried him in secret and told people he was simply out on location while trying to finish the map before anyone found out knowing that their lives were at risk if the Shogun discovered they’d been lying to him and assumed they’d been doing it to continue claiming Tadataka’s stipend. To ram his point home, Nakanishi has the civil servants taking on the role of the mapmakers in Kato’s putative version of the story as they come together as a team to finish their mentor’s project but are eventually forgotten by history in much the same way as Ikemoto and his team will eventually be even as they too work for their betterment of their nation by taking care of the community. Ikemoto becomes something of a Tadataka figure, deciding to pickup a new skill in middle-age and aiming high in perfecting it (while slightly misleading the boss as he does so). A heartwarming tale of the value of teamwork and the perils of bureaucratic cost cutting, Nakanishi’s historical dramedy implies that not so much as changed in 200 years but that’s not entirely a bad thing as the dedicated team of civil servants do their best to put their city on the map.
Dreaming of the Meridian Arc screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.
Original trailer (no subtitles)
Images: ©2022 “Dreaming of the Meridian Arc” Film Partners