Japanese anime films usually succeed or fail based on two key factors. The first is the sense of wonder. Even if a film doesn’t have a fantastical or magical angle to it, the best anime works spark the imagination in unique ways, forcing the audience to think outside their normal parameters and paradigms as to what constitutes a satisfying story. The second is the character focus. You can have a completely gorgeous adventure filled with eye-catching artwork, or a story grounded in normal reality, but if the characters are flat, the movie goes absolutely nowhere. Lead characters have to stand out, even if there’s nothing out of the ordinary about them. If that crucial development is missing, then they just sort of blend into the background, even if they’re wearing a demon mask or have five arms.
Animator Kôtarô Tamura, who has worked on several successful anime shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, Sword Art Online, and My Hero Academia, gets his first bite at the apple as a feature director with Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish, and I’m happy to say he rises to the occasion. In this relatively simple young adult romance, he never misses an opportunity to make the film’s scale feel much larger than it is, and the characters are treated with an extreme degree of empathy, even if they do fit neatly into anime archetypes.
The story focuses on the relationship between Tsuneo (voiced by Taishi Nakagawa in the original Japanese and Howard Wang in the English dub) and Kumiko (Kaya Kiyohara in Japanese, Suzie Yeung in English). Tsuneo is about to enter his last year of local college before accepting a scholarship to Mexico to study marine biology. He’s also an avid scuba diver, and works in a diving equipment store with his friends Mai (Yume Miyamoto/Dani Chambers) and Hayato (Kazayuki Okitsu/Zeno Robinson). Kumiko is a shut-in, living with her grandmother Chizu (Chiemi Matsutera). Born without leg function, Kumiko is wheelchair-bound and insists on being called “Josee,” after a character from the book Wonderful Clouds by Françoise Sagan.
If you’re a fan of anime, or really even a casual viewer, each of these characters will feel very familiar, because they all fit standard types. Tsuneo is determined but passive and shy, a classic anime protagonist. Josee is a textbook tsundere character, initially cold and even mean to others, especially Tsuneo, before eventually softening. Chizu is the guardian with a foul mouth and the most assertive sense of humor, Mai is the somewhat jealous ingenue, and Hayato is the bombastic best friend who gets himself into good-natured trouble more often than he should.
None of these are revolutionary, and in less caring hands, these run-of-the-mill character types could honestly doom the film. Thankfully, outside of a few fan service jokes (Josee and Mai high-fiving and then immediately turning away from each other in a huff, for instance), Tamura and screenwriter Sayaka Kuwamura are committed to giving the cast more dimensions and depth, turning a slight, grounded story into something much more endearing and mature.
Tsuneo is a prime example of a poor college student. He’s brilliant, and earns scholarships, but he still has to work multiple jobs and lives in a closet of an apartment eating cup noodles every night to save whatever cash he can (though he’ll occasionally splurge on a beer with his friends after a dive). Walking home one night, he literally catches Josee, whose wheelchair is speeding down a hill out of her control. Before he can even ask her name or if she’s okay, she slaps him and calls him a pervert. Chizu, however, is thankful for the save, so she invites him to stay for dinner, and hires him to keep watch on Josee, as she feels the young lady needs to stay inside where it’s safe, and Chizu can’t monitor her all the time. Tsuneo reluctantly agrees, though Josee is very much against the idea.
One day, Josee manages to sneak out of her house, causing a frantic search. Tsuneo discovers that she’s a budding artist who loves the sea just like him, and eventually tracks her down. He then takes her to the beach to allow her to feel and taste the ocean for the first time, causing her to finally open up to him and dub him “Caretaker.” From then on, Tsuneo’s influence causes Josee to slowly shed most of her insecurities, make friends, and experience a bit more of what life has to offer, something she didn’t think possible because of her disability. This late bloom is against Chizu’s rules, but in true anime grandma fashion, she’s actually relieved that Josee’s finally coming into her own, allowing her to relax at last.
If the movie ends here, it probably goes down as a half-pleasant bit of swoon distraction, inoffensive, but ultimately meaningless. Thankfully, Tamura takes this happy moment and turns it into a legitimate personal conflict, one that many people have faced, but adds in the unique perspective of his heroine to give it a more profound feel.
As Tsuneo and Josee become closer, it’s clear that some decisions will have to be made. Josee’s in a position where she has to start making moves for herself in terms of job and livelihood, while Tsuneo begins to question the nature of their relationship and if he’s willing to delay or even sacrifice his dreams of going abroad to be with her. All of this is centered on Josee’s perception of how the world sees her as a disabled woman. Some people treat her like she’s less than a person, while others take pity on her. Either way, she can never be defined by the outside world as anything but a woman in a wheelchair, even by those who look past it and learn about her as she truly is. This makes her question her own validity as well as whether she’s holding Tsuneo back. The titular tiger is the physical manifestation of that fear and social anxiety, and it works to great effect.
This hit home a bit for me, because my last girlfriend was disabled, and this was a factor of our relationship that was always at the forefront. It was a truth that we had to deal with. She was at times very self-conscious about people judging her based on her handicap, and while I did my best to accommodate, I fully admit that there were times when I handled things in a very insensitive manner. It was never intentional, but there was definitely more than one occasion where my inability to fully understand the world she lived in led to shouts and tears. But in the end, I’m grateful for the experience, because it helped me learn about perspectives I’d never considered, to the point that I called her while writing this to make sure she was okay with me sharing these details.
Tamura seems to understand this unique dynamic, and deals with it in straightforward and empathetic terms. Tsuneo is never depicted as a bad person when he can’t handle things, and sometimes Josee’s attitude is dismissed because in the real world she can’t always play the “handicapped” card to get a pass on inappropriate behavior. But what really sells it is a climactic moment that forces both parties to reconcile how they’ve been dealing with the situation and one another, and it’s treated with remarkable emotional honesty. There’s no magic solution to the problems they face. In fact, there’s very little “magic” at all, outside of one dream sequence early on and allusions to “The Little Mermaid” (the actual story, not the Disney film, this isn’t Luca). These are two adults who have to deal with things as adults, and it’s wonderful to see how Tamura illustrates this progression, both figuratively and literally.
As a feature debut, this a tremendous effort in terms of story and character. The actual animation is fairly standard, though there’s some great shadow work, and the design on Josee is spectacular. But again, a great anime doesn’t have to always have that Miyazaki level of fantasy and wonder. A good story with excellent character development can send your imagination soaring just as easily. And while the central figures here start off coming right out of the anime trope playbook, Tamura and the very able voice cast expand and evolve them into some of the most realistic characters you’d see in any modern animation. If that’s not art, what is?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you looking forward to any other anime films this year? What did your past relationships teach you about yourself? Let me know!