In the mood for a sweet anime romance film that’s firmly grounded in the real world? Nick and Nicky recommend Josee, The Tiger and the Fish for everyone who missed the film’s original theatrical run.
This film is streaming on Crunchyroll
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, it’s not often an anime will tee up the perfect terrible pun for me, so let’s just skip the pleasantries and… DIVE right into it!
Really, though, this has been me for the past two years waiting to finally see and/or talk about this movie, so I’m ready to roll right into things.
Okay, okay, while we’re still wading the pool for interesting things to cover this season, Crunchyroll
recently began putting up a bunch of animated films. Including one very special 2020 animated romance flick by Bones. This week, we’ve been holding our breathes to talk about Josee, The Tiger and the Fish
Like I said, I’ve been waiting a looooong time for this. From the moment I saw the first trailer—and learned it was being helmed by Noragami director Kotaro Tamura—I’ve wanted to see the full thing. But you could not have paid me to go to a theater during 2021, and my Blu-ray player busted just as it hit home video. So CR’s announcement that they were putting Josee up for streaming was about a million times more exciting than the 50 different isekai shows they announced at the same time.
The premise by itself is interesting enough to warrant a look. Based on a short story of the same name by Seiko Tanabe
, Josee is about a 22-year-old college student Tsuneo who becomes the caretaker of the 24-year-old wheelchair user heroine, Kumiko, who calls herself Josee after the character who appears in Françoise Sagan’s novels Those Without Shadows
and again in Wonderful Clouds
I’ll admit part of my interest in the movie is just that, in a sea of anime romance films made to ride the your name. coattails, it was nice to see a romance story that had neither high school students nor hamfisted supernatural metaphors for adolescence. And it’s not even that I dislike either of those things! It’s just that sometimes it’s a breath of fresh air to get back to the basics of solid, meaningful character drama that doesn’t involve magic meteors or time travel.
It’s also quite rare that we get romances that focus on disability. Attitudes in Japan towards disabled peoples seems to be a bit of a growing topic for us to get a mainstream-marketed anime movie about it. However, it also feels like a great departure for Bones, which doesn’t do many original films, and especially one with such a grounded premise. Manga artist Nao Emoto
did the character designs for this movie, and if I didn’t recognize her style from O Maidens in Your Savage Season
, I would’ve misattributed this movie as a product of Kyoto Animation
or Studio Colorido
. It’s got a similar idyllic quality.
You could argue that this movie is simply another attempt to eat some of Makoto Shinkai
‘s lunch, but with the giant shadow of Ghibli no longer dominating the world of anime features, seeing studios like Bones try to break into the theater scene feels more refreshing than watching a whole industry die out.
Oh, the film is drop dead fucking gorgeous. After watching this season’s TV offerings for weeks, sitting down and seeing this movie simulate god damn rack focus was like a nacho cheese dorito blowing my medieval peasant brain out of my skull.
Like, oh yeah, animation is a really cool medium, and when you give artists the time and resources without crunching to meet a deadline you get some real cool shit.
I’d argue this film looks modest next to a Shinkai or Ghibli production, but it’s definitely a movie with a delicate touch that will be sure to stroke the hearts of many people.
I’d argue that neither Shinkai nor the Ghibli ouvre have a cute boy who loves fish. And no, Ponyo
The backgrounds are particular are gorgeous. Background art is definitely the hidden MVP of anime but especially for films. Josee
takes place in the real world, but as a romance it maintains that kind of fuzzy soft lens of being in love. I especially love the look and feel of Josee’s own art that she strives to create.
There’s actually quite a bit of nigh-perceptible CG in these establishing shots.
And of course it’s worth mentioning the wonderful depictions of aquatic life as it’s a central theme of the movie.
They even gave a shout out to my homies!
They even have BIG cat too! Though this guy’s less cute for thematic reasons.
There’s a lot for animal lovers, but it’s ultimately a story about a few humans. Tsuneo is trying to make money while studying marine biology at university. He works part-time at a diving shop and gets along with his two co-workers, but he’s still quite poor and will need funds if he ever wants to reach his dream of studying abroad. One night while walking home, he manages to literally catch Josee after her wheelchair rolls rampantly downhill.
She is, of course, thankful for his unexpected assistance and thanks him like a totally reasonable person.
Basically, she freaks out because she has never really been in close contact with a boy her age before and was momentarily on top of a particularly cute one.
It’s a wacky anime meet-cute, but also winds up being an important bit of characterization. Despite being older than Tsuneo, Josee has next to no experience socializing outside of her family. She visibly struggles to interact with even the most accommodating of strangers throughout the first half. So having an errant pedestrian and the cruel laws of physics literally fling her headfirst into a strange guy sets off her fight or flight response.
Her grandma Chizu is a little more open and invites Tsuneo for dinner, but you can definitely see that Kumiko gets her negative viewpoint from her. Because her parents died, her grandma is her sole guardian and source of support. She’s barely allowed outside in fear of her safety as both a young woman and a disabled person.
And that’s kind of the crux of the whole story, really. It’s framed around a central romance, but the actual meat of the story is about Kumiko’s relationship to the outside world and her struggle for personal agency. Even the Sagan allusion is part of it, as she takes on the name Josee from Wonderful Clouds
, a story about a woman taking action outside her allotted station in life. Though this Josee does considerably less fucking or drinking. Despite what she’ll tell you.
It’s also why this isn’t another story set in high school. Kumiko still being treated like a child even as an adult woman is an important part of her growth. It’s unfortunately common for disabled people to be infantilized from good intentions in such a way that hurts them. In the beginning, Josee lives exactly like a fish in a small bowl. Her grandma takes care of all of her needs, but this leaves her lacking in crucial experiences. Chizu even turns a social worker down when he brings up opportunities for her to work.
However, after she attempts to run away, Josee accepts help from Tsuneo and they become intimate for real. He takes her to places she’s never been to, she meets new people, and he even builds tools to help her become more mobile around the house, allowing her to cook for herself.
It’s a complicated topic, but I think the movie handles it way better than most media about disabled characters. And it also acknowledges that Josee’s grandma isn’t worried over nothing. The fact is a lot of society can be passively hostile towards people with disabilities, visible or otherwise. The story still says granny was wrong, but it’s not interested in making her a villain.
Also, points for realism here because I have witnessed this shit in real life. Next time you’re out shopping somewhere, pay attention to how other people react (or rather, don’t) to anyone in a motorized cart. It’s like they’re invisible until somebody hits them with a shopping cart.
Even granny is surprised and feels enlivened by Kumiko’s newfound energy. She never reprimands her for sneaking out “behind her back” and instead compares her to the Glico running man, saying she always seems like she’s ready to run off out of sheer joy, despite not having a pair of working legs.
Meanwhile, she’s sneaking out to go on dates that neither she nor Tsuneo will admit are dates, and accurately portraying me watching the back half of their own movie.
They’re super sweet!! I especially love Josee’s first time seeing the ocean.
Absolutely one of those trailer shot moments, and it’s totally earned. Something I appreciate about the central love story is that, while there’s eventually a truck full of drama, the establishing moments are just infectiously fun. Tsuneo and Josee are playful with one another, and casually vulnerable in a way that really sells their connection.
I also like that her companionship with Tsuneo enables her to open her horizons, it’s not really a savior narrative for him. These are things she could’ve done by all by herself if she really wanted to. She still struggles in social situations and gets upset comparing herself to him or to other girls her age, but it makes her realize that there are more things within her own reach than she thought. Take her own art for example, completely the product of her own hard work that she never considered having any value towards other people.
Similarly, the romance feels well balanced for both characters, but it especially balances Kumiko’s well. The original short story has way more focus on her sexuality, but even in the movie you still understand her struggle of desiring someone when society deems you undesirable.
And while I’ve only mentioned all the things Tsuneo does for Josee, I think she offers him a lot in return. His story about his parents’ divorce and the Clarion Angelfish, a small fish often found swimming in schools in Mexico, reveals the heart of a person just as lonely and in need of companionship as she is.
There’s also some important tension: Tsuneo’s dream involves going overseas for a good long while, and it’s set to happen really soon. He feels torn between pursuing it or staying with Josee, and once she finds out about that, she convinces herself he’s only staying with her out of… well, the movie goes with “sympathy” but you can tell she sees it as pity.
This is also told to her in an incredibly petty way by Tsuneo’s friend and co-worker Mai, who has a crush on him.
It’s a real dick move, but like Grandma, the movie isn’t interested in making her an outright villain. Rather, she thinks she’s acting in Tsuneo’s best interest, going behind his back to “encourage” him to follow his dream. Still a an absolute asshole maneuver, though.
This is also about where the film hits a big swerve, first when Josee/Kumiko’s grandmother passes, leaving her unable to pay Tsuneo and forcing her to try and deal with things on her own. This causes Tsuneo to worry about her, and they fight over her future. The outcome is a messy turn of events.
It’s a pretty shocking twist and I think the execution could definitely conflict a lot of people about the movie. I’m a little mixed on reverse situations because out of context it sounds like something out of a hallmark movie and it’s contrived. Even though I totally expected a wrench in Tsuneo’s dream plan to study abroad in Mexico like he so desperately desired.
I was more forgiving on my second watch because it represents a complete reversal of power for Tsuneo and Josee. Before, Josee was in desperate need of Tsuneo’s physical and emotional support, but now Tsuneo is the one who needs some lifting.
It even gives Tsuneo’s fuccboi friend a chance to be cool!
His friends being here helps a lot too. Josee even has her library friend help her write a story, but instead with the intention of motivating her to go after him instead of trying to push her into giving up. It’s sneaky but really it shows that even she is capable of being selfless for the sake of someone she cares about.
I love it because not only does Josee encourage Tsuneo to keep doing what he dreams without worrying about being weighed down, it proves how much she internalized what she learned and how capable she really is now thanks to his support. And how there’s nothing wrong with needing support or wanting to support someone else, even when it doesn’t benefit you.
Maybe someone should warn the zoo? Lol. Anyway, part of the reason others look down on people with disabilities is because they are reliant on others for support. But in truth, everyone has certain things they can’t reach and often require help from others in order to do so. Tsuneo was unable to get out of his rut without Josee’s help. He had lost sight of his own future and capabilities. Even Kumiko at the end mistakes independence as true strength, so we are surprised when we see Tsuneo’s pledge to keep supporting her as a partner in-between chasing after his own dream.
And love really is just about supporting there and being there for each other when you need it. No one should ever feel bad about that!
It’s a simple moral, but also the perfect capstone to the whole thing. Love won’t solve all your problems or change the world, but it can give you strength when you need it most. The grounding really makes it stand out from its peers for me.
While this movie isn’t super radical about its approach towards disability and is mostly a simple feel-good romance film, it’s fairly solid and stands out enough from its contemporaries that I would recommend giving it a watch. It’s a great movie to watch even with other people who aren’t super into anime but can tolerate a certain amount of drama.
What can I say? I’m a sap for romance anime, and this one hit every one of my buttons. It understands that love is unconditional. Love is given freely. And love is savagely dunking on each other.
Amen to that! Here’s to more quality anime films in the future!!