Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, directed by Tamura Kotaro, is the latest adaptation of Seiko Tanabe’s short story of the same name. While the film doesn’t exactly break new ground with its themes and storytelling, it nonetheless makes for a heart-warming watch and is elevated by its gorgeous animation and realistic exploration of serious issues. This review will be spoiler-free, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, don’t sweat it!
Falling within the romance-drama genre, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish follows the lives of Tsuneo and Kumiko (who prefers to be called Josee). Tsuneo is studying marine biology while working at a local diving shop, and is saving hard for his dream of scuba diving overseas. In a dramatic chance encounter Tsuneo meets Josee, a young paraplegic woman who lives with her grandmother. Josee’s grandmother asks Tsuneo to work as Josee’s caretaker and, with his savings goal in mind, he agrees.
Two other adaptations of this story exist; the first being a live-action Japanese film from 2003 and the second being a live-action South Korean film from 2020. The latter starred popular K-drama actors Nam Joo-hyuk and Han Ji-min. Both adaptations differ greatly to this latest remake.
Tsuneo is the character through which the audience experiences the film. For the most part, we view Josee’s life through his eyes. He’s fine as a character, if not a little bland. Josee, however, is quite compelling. She’s not a particularly likeable character at first. She’s stubborn, demanding, and acts generally unpleasant to everyone around her – particularly Tsuneo, who she treats as her own personal doormat. But like every good tsundere, underneath Josee’s prickly exterior is a heart of gold. It was incredibly sweet and satisfying to watch her show more warmth and vulnerability towards Tsuneo throughout the film’s duration.
I would also argue that Josee’s petulant disposition is somewhat understandable given her predicament. I refer here not to her disability, but to the way she’s been raised by her grandmother, who instills in her the idea that the world is too scary and dangerous for a person like her. As a result, Josee is essentially a prisoner in her own house. Despite the fact that she yearns to go outside, she’s inherently afraid to and is prevented from doing so by her grandmother. It takes Tsuneo coming into her life for her to finally carry out the experiences she’s yearned of having.
While this damsel-in-distress archetype is perhaps not the most progressive depiction of disability and it would’ve been nice to see Josee have a bit more agency, it’s made pretty clear that her grandmother is the one responsible for her sheltered way of life. Through this, the film also highlights an important issue for the disabled community; independence.
Although Josee is an adult capable of making her own decisions, her primary caregiver infantilizes her, robbing her of autonomy. As such, it’s quite gratifying to see the happiness she gets out of gaining some freedom.
Some of the story beats in Josee, the Tiger and the Fish feel quite melodramatic – especially during the final act, with its forced conflicts. However, other aspects of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish felt more grounded and truer to life.
For example, the difficulties attributed to navigating the outside world with a disability. Many areas are simply inaccessible for Josee, with obstacles such as stairs popping up seemingly wherever she goes.
Even simple tasks like boarding a train require a ramp and the help of an employee. The hustle and bustle of the train station further creates difficulties for Josee, as busy travelers fail to show consideration for her disability. But although the chaos of the outside world overwhelms Josee at first, she soon begins to realize all the beauty she’s been missing out on.
The animation by Studio Bones (My Hero Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist) is another highlight of the film, with its dreamy, pastel color palette that reflects the sentimental nature of the film. Of particular note is a short-lived scene where Josee imagines herself fully mobile and swimming freely amongst the ocean life, in a city engulfed by water. The added detail and gloss in scenes where Josee experiences happiness, or her and Tsuneo share a romantic moment was also a nice touch.
The film’s score is appropriately moving and does a good job at tugging the viewer’s heart strings during emotional scenes. The film also closes with two beautiful songs from Japanese singer Eve; “Shinkai” and “Ao No Waltz”. Both songs are fittingly uplifting and poignant.
Ultimately, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is a film about dreams. Once Josee opens up to all the possibilities life has to offer, she begins to reflect on what she wants. Tsuneo has aspirations too, and both of them deal with fears and obstacles in their efforts to reach their goals, just as we all do at some point. That we should try and persevere beyond such barriers is the overarching message of the film. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking message (especially within the anime medium) but it’s nonetheless a touching experience to watch Josee and Tsuneo help each other through their struggles.
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is a film that met my expectations in every way. It’s the perfect example of how a film doesn’t need to be innovative to be highly enjoyable. Sometimes predictability is a good thing, especially in the romance-drama genre, which many seek out as a source of comfort. This film definitely succeeded in making me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. If you enjoy heartwarming, romantic stories with pretty animation, then it’s absolutely worth your time.
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish has already premiered in select countries. Funimation will be distributing the film in select North American theatres from July 12-14. It will be available to watch in both Japanese and English dub. Have you seen the film yet? If so, let us know your thoughts in the comments.