A Heartwarming Anime Romance And Effective Exploration of Disability
DIRECTED BY: KOTARO TAMURA/2020
What would it be like for a mermaid born on land?
This question is the lens through which Josee, The Tiger and the Fish examines disability. An adaptation of Seiko Tanabe’s 1985 short story of the same name, Josee is a romantic drama produced by animation studio Bones, with US distribution handled by Funimation. The feature directorial debut of Kotaro Tamura, Josee is an enjoyable and well-presented love story, following the trend of similar anime feature romances, at times perhaps following that pattern a bit too closely. The animation is well done, but much like the film’s narrative it largely plays it safe and emulates the aesthetics of previous works. The key point of distinction for Josee is the way it addresses disability, primarily via the female lead and metaphorical mermaid, the eponymous Josee.
Josee opens by introducing us to Tsuneo, a young college student with a passion for diving, as he tries to find a second part-time job so that he can afford to study abroad in Mexico. One night, as Tsuneo is returning home, a young woman in a wheelchair comes barreling down a hill towards him. Tsuneo manages to catch her, and is introduced to the standoffish, wheelchair-bound Josee and her grandmother as he escorts the pair home. After spending the evening at their residence, Tsuneo is offered a job by Josee’s grandmother. She requests that he serve as her granddaughter’s caretaker, which the young man hesitantly accepts, much to Josee’s annoyance.
From this point, the film shifts to the day-to-day of Tsuneo serving as Josee’s caretaker, her initial antisocial response to his presence melting away as they become closer, bonding over their mutual love of the sea. Josee is introduced to a wider world outside her home, gaining a sense of autonomy and freedom despite her restricted mobility, while Tsuneo learns to slow down and better cope with the roadblocks that appear in his life.
The narrative is enjoyable, despite being very familiar to those who’ve watched much romantic slice-of-life anime made in the last decade-and-a-half. The familiar archetypes are there; the straightforward male lead in Tsuneo, his modest friend group, Josee as the tsundere love interest, and her grandmother as the eccentric parental figure. The plot beats too are well worn ground at this point, and there are certainly times in the film’s middle portion where it drags a bit. But, for the most part, it’s a competently told, charming story with a fun-if-familiar cast.
How Josee addresses disability is perhaps its most interesting quality. That initial question, “what would it be like for a mermaid born on land?” allows the film to explore disability in a way that retains a certain fantastical quality without the typical patronizing tone films can take when exploring the subject. The paraplegic Josee is not a literal mermaid, certainly, but she cannot walk in a society being able to is the norm. Josee being shut away in her home, struggling to get around, and being treated like a child is not an inherent trait, but something projected onto her by a society which often looks down on and condescends to those with a disability, and as such it takes time for her to unlearn this sense of helplessness that has been foisted upon her. Hence why a mermaid is such an effective metaphor for Josee’s condition; a mermaid is not inherently broken or lesser than someone with legs, it is simply different.
The film balances this all admirably, always making sure to frame problems that arise from Josee’s paraplegia as how the status quo responds to such a disability. In particular, it mitigates the issues of infantilizing Josee too much by showing how she responds to an instance of Tsuneo being physically impaired, possibly permanently. How she’s able to address his concerns and help him through a fear of losing out on his dreams because of this impairment, using the knowledge and experience she has gained from living with her own disability. This addition is one of the more interesting segments of the narrative, and helps circumvent the film’s potential to talk down to viewers that might have their own physical impairment, giving it a distinct identity in the vast ocean of anime romantic dramas.
Visually, Josee is effectively presented, if not terribly distinct. The character designs aren’t especially inventive, but are still quite solid and expressively animated, with mostly more grounded character animation that occasionally offers more stylization in facial expressions. The backgrounds are largely typical urban realism, and despite some more interesting material under the sea and in dream sequences it’s mostly painterly renditions of city streets and building interiors throughout. The computer generated elements stand out a bit and can at times be a bit distracting, but are fairly minimal and not a major issue.
There are a few visuals that did catch my attention, however. A handful of shots where the camera circles characters are well done and stylish, with very fluid animation. The use of cutaways to a siren are also a distinct visual flourish that stood apart from the rest of the film, adding to the tension and helping to make the sequence considerably more potent than a more straightforward depiction might. Lastly, Josee’s art offers some more interesting visuals, with highly stylized still illustrations that reflect a certain outside artist sensibility, and add quite a bit to her character.
As a whole, Josee, The Tiger and the Fish is an exceptional film, if not for its visual style and overall narrative, then for its ability to have a nuanced look into disability. Managing to weave such a loaded topic into a sweet, albeit familiar, story is a considerable achieve, and its effective and frequently attractive presentation makes it all the more worthy of seeking out. Fans of such romantic fair as the films of Makoto Shinkai should definitely give this one a look if they’re seeking out something familiar with a distinct addition, while those less familiar with the trappings of the genre are certain to find it an effective gateway film.
Josee, The Tiger and the Fish will be screening in theaters courtesy of Funimation, dubbed in English on Monday July 12th and in Japanese with English subtitles on Wednesday, July 14th.