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Josee, the Tiger and the Fish — Blu-ray Collector’s Edition Review

Tsuneo and Kumiko (Josee). Anyone who’s ever pushed a wheelchair can see that Tsuneo is doing it wrong.

Anime about characters with disabilities must tread a fine line between fetishising illness and building unrealistic expectations of its subjects’ personalities or abilities. It mustn't wallow in pity, nor can it minimise disabilities' effects on the lives of affected individuals or their loved ones. Too often, anime falls into the “I Want to Eat Your Pancreas trap”, treating the ill person as a mere plot device to improve the life or personality of the main character. I want to see more anime that treats disability with the same tenderness, intelligence and realism as A Silent Voice.

Thankfully, Bones studio’s newest movie Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, their first non-franchise film since 2007’s Sword of the Stranger, succeeds for the most part. Directed by Kotaro Tamura, director of TV anime Noragami (2014) and assistant director for Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children (2012), it’s based on the 1984 short story of the same name by Seiko Tanabe (1928–2019) that was previously adapted in 2003 as a live-action movie, but with a significantly different plot. Josee follows hardworking student and multiple part-time-job-worker Tsuneo Suzukawa as he becomes acquainted with the eccentric and sharp-tongued Kumiko Yamamura, who demands he refer to her as the “Josee” of the title.

Kumiko dreams of freedom.

Kumiko has been paraplegic since birth — she’s never been able to walk, and in order to mobilise, she’s confined to a rickety, unreliable self-propelled wheelchair. She lost her parents at an early age and lives with her over-protective elderly grandmother who severely limits Kumiko’s exposure to the outside world. Understandably, Kumiko lacks social graces, is selfish and demanding, and acts more like a naive child than a fully grown adult. Tsuneo stumbles upon this dysfunctional family unit and somehow finds himself employed as Kumiko’s part-time “caretaker”, or initially at least, more like her court jester. Forced to do stupid, pointless tasks for her amusement, eventually she lets him take her out into the world (during Granny’s afternoon nap-time), where their rocky relationship begins to blossom.

Being a relatively light-hearted comedy/drama, they obviously begin to develop romantic feelings towards one another, but neither seems able to communicate this. Kumiko’s emotional immaturity manifests in her repeated sulking, acting mean, or sending Tsuneo away. She’s hardly a great example of positive disability representation, other than her human flaws are painfully real. During my career I’ve met many people like Kumiko, their lives of shame, frustration and humiliation make them bitter, short-tempered and unhappy.

Tsuneo and Kumiko at the beach, one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, with incredible use of colour.

Kumiko at least has healthy interests in art and literature to fill her otherwise small, insulated life. She insists on Tsuneo calling her “Josee” after the main character of her favourite books by French novelist and playwright Francoise Sagan (1935–2004). Sagan’s books feature wealthy socialites battling with existentialism, ennui and complicated sexual relationships. That Kumiko claims at several points during the movie “to have dated five men at the same time” is surely a reference to Sagan’s Josee, a serial romantic cheater from the novels Those Without Shadows and Wonderful Clouds. Perhaps in Josee, Kumiko sees a free spirit, unrestrained from conventional morality and limitations.

The Tiger and the Fish of the title are referenced in Kumiko’s artwork. She’s an accomplished artist, though lacks the drive or means to do anything with them, until she meets Tsuneo. A picture book she creates is a central feature of the plot, and a replica of it is included with the Collector’s Edition blu-ray set. Kumiko’s art is an escape for her — it lets her imagine the world she cannot see or touch — but like many artists, her relationship with her work is emotionally fraught and volatile, as we see later in the movie. Tigers represent her fears about the world, fierce animals that threaten to chew her up, whereas oceanic fish represent an idealised form of freedom, as illustrated in her striking dream sequence early in the film where she swims (not unlike a mermaid) through the flooded city, her waking limitations irrelevant.

Kumiko the tortured artist

Tsuneo’s dream is to study abroad — he’s long dreamed to swim with schools of a certain orange fish indigenous to the waters near Mexico. His workaholic lifestyle is entirely in service of funding this ambition. While his role as Kumiko’s caretaker begins merely as a means to an end, he finds himself becoming emotionally attached. An uncomfortable love triangle of sorts develops between him, Kumiko and his female co-worker Mai. Kumiko is thoroughly, unjustifiably horrible to Mai, though Mai doesn’t exactly help herself with her attitude that Kumiko and her disability will only hold Tsuneo back. Despite the unpleasantness of this storyline, it does ring very true. Disabled people often fear that they’re a burden to their friends and loved ones. To be so callously and thoughtlessly accused of this by Mai is painful for Kumiko to bear.

I won’t wade far into spoiler territory, but there is a twist later in the film where another character is at risk of permanent disability. I found the attitude of this character — of despair, hopelessness and anger to be very relatable. Their acute reaction made an interesting counterpoint to Kumiko’s grudging acceptance of her limitations.

Whereas my overall impression of the characters in the movie was positive, my wife, who is a wheelchair-user (she’s not paraplegic but is unable to walk far at all), was more critical. She felt that the fiery, quirky, cute Kumiko was an example of disabled people being used for entertainment. She stopped short of calling her a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (unlike Sakura from I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, a movie my wife hated with a vitriolic passion), but questioned the filmmaker’s intentions. I would counter that any film about any subject is primarily made for entertainment, that fact in itself can’t be used to invalidate it.

In between snarking, sometimes the characters do really nice things for one another.

Additionally, my wife fell asleep before the end, so that didn’t help her opinion. (It was very late at night when we watched it.) She felt it was an unoriginal mashup of themes and events from Dicken’s Great Expectations, Coolidge’s What Katy Did, and the movie Me Before You starring Emilia Clarke. Thankfully there’s no meaningless suicide in this story. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed my wife have such a negative reaction to a movie as she did with Me Before You, and she sat through most of Josee waiting for the main character to express a wish to die. SPOILER: this doesn’t happen. Anyway, my wife’s watched many more terrible-sounding movies about sad disabled people than I have, so perhaps that’s why she felt it was more derivative than I did.

Characters and ideology aside, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is a gorgeous movie. Prominently featuring the Japanese city Osaka, every outdoor scene is set in a real place, and the accompanying booklet features an interview with the background artist discussing their process. The included poster, a map of Osaka, points out many of the places visited by Kumiko and Tsuneo during their frequent daytrips — from the library to the zoo, the aquarium to the seaside park — all of these places are depicted in loving, vibrant colour that leaps from the screen, all the better to demonstrate Kumiko’s unbridled joy at the new freedoms Tsuneo introduces her to.

Such a cute, if at times incredibly dense couple.

A soundtrack CD also accompanies the set, composed by Evan Call, probably best known amongst anime fans as the composer of Violet Evergarden’s score. His music is light and airy, filled with soaring strings and classical guitar. Opening song Take Me Far Away evokes Belle and Sebastian vibes (one of my favourite bands), with its fey, ethereal positivity. Its inclusion is a wonderful bonus, and together with the poster and booklets, makes the UK Collector’s Edition by far the best home version, greatly superior to the relatively barebones US release. I would certainly recommend Josee, the Tiger and the Fish to any anime fan who enjoys movies a little different to the average anime fare, and who appreciates that human beings are flawed but beautiful, and disabled people are as human as the rest of us — not saints to be venerated, nor objects to be fetishised.

This is one of the nicest Collector’s Edition Blu-ray sets I’ve seen in a while.

Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
Directed by: Kotaro Tamura (Noragami, Wolf Children)
Screenplay by: Sayaka Kuwamura (no previous anime credits)
Character designs by: Nao Emoto (also illustrated tie-in manga)
Music by: Evan Call (Violet Evergarden)
Based on the short story Josee, the Tiger and the Fish by: Seiko Tanabe. An English translation by Yen Press is scheduled for March 29th 2022.
Production studio: Bones (My Hero Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist)
Runtime: 98 minutes
Languages: Japanese with English subtitles, English dub
Original Japanese cinematic release: December 25th 2020
US Blu-ray/DVD combo release: February 8th 2022
UK Blu-ray/CD Limited Edition release: March 14th 2022
US Distributor: Funimation
UK Distributor: Anime Limited
BBFC rating: PG

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Physician. Obsessed with anime, manga, comic-books. Husband and father. Christian. Fascinated by tensions between modern culture and traditional faith. Bit odd.

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