Since it first appeared in Monthly Kadokawa in 1984, Seiko Tanabe’s short story Josee, the Tiger and the Fish has twice been adapted into live action – once in 2003 from Japanese director Isshin Inudo, and again last year as Josée, a South Korean film directed by Kim Jong-kwan. By all accounts, Kōtarō Tamura’s adaptation for Studio Bones, produced in tandem with Nao Emoto’s manga of the same name, is markedly different from previous versions. While the story originally followed a young man working part-time in a mah-jong parlour and featured a downbeat dénouement, this newest adaptation is bright and vibrant, optimistic if shallow and rote.
Tsuneo (Taishi Nakagawa) is a young man with a passion for marine biology, desperate for a place at a prestigious university in Mexico. He splits his time between working on his thesis, scuba diving, and earning money at a part-time job with his friends Mai (Yume Miyamoto) and Hayato (Kazuyuki Okitsu). One night, Tsuneo finds himself in the right place at the right time to save the life of Josee (Kaya Kiyohara), a young disabled woman, whose grandmother immediately hires Tsuneo. Originally sceptical of her new part-time carer, Josee gradually opens up to him and their relationship blossoms.
There is always a danger, in stories where disability plays a major role, of making the disabled character into a burden or prop, a way for the people around them to learn a lesson, or to find new meaning in life. The audience’s role is to be inspired and moved, but never really to care. Josee both succeeds and fails here. On the positive side, it makes a point of exploring the way Josee is treated, from her grandmother’s misguided attempts to protect her, to the way people try to manipulate her at especially vulnerable moments. The film does not shy away from presenting the everyday discrimination she faces, as well as the more overt and insidious kind. However, we mostly experience this through Tsuneo’s eyes. He is there to witness her struggles and help her overcome them. It is because of him that she is able to explore the world, and the effect it has on him is treated as just as important as the effect it has on Josee, if not more than. Of course, this is a romance, so the story develops through the effect the protagonists have on each other as they grow closer, but for a medium as flexible as animation, it is a shame that the only time Josee’s experience feels truly rich and alive is during a dream sequence.
Aesthetically, the film is lovely. From warm, inviting autumnal scenes, to sparkling sea water and fantastical underwater daydreams, Yūji Kaneko’s art direction is easily the standout here. Josee, we discover, is a talented artist, and it is great to see her drawings rendered as lovingly as the world around them. The animation, directed by Haruko Izuka, also shines, but intermittently. The aforementioned dream sequence – wherein the protagonists appear to share a vision of Josee as a mermaid, which foreshadows her interest in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale – features heavily in the trailer and remains one of the most memorable parts of the film. Izuka’s character designs, drawing from Nao Emoto’s originals, are mostly forgettable. Josee is thankfully distinctive, and her design adapts with her character development. Again, despite the flawed writing, it is clear that the filmmakers cared enough to make her feel as real as possible.
As protagonists, Tsuneo and Josee fit together as well as they can in a weak script. Tsuneo is one of those ‘perfect’ characters. He is handsome, talented, driven; he can make and fix anything; and girls love him (though he is, of course, oblivious to this). There is also something heroic about him, not least because he twice manages to catch Josee when she accidentally flies out of her wheelchair. We are told that he is a proficient scuba diver, and that his research is important enough to get him to Mexico, but the film shows little of his hard work. However, it is absolutely endearing when he excitedly monologues about aquatic species on a trip to the aquarium. Josee’s personality is more vibrant. She is suspicious and sarcastic, a voracious reader (she named herself after a character in Françoise Sagan’s Wonderful Clouds and later bonds with a librarian over their shared love of the author), and Kiyohara clearly has a ball voicing her. Having spent so much time either inside or accompanying her grandmother on night-time walks, Josee is very sheltered, and at times seems more like a child than a 24-year-old woman. There is something charming about her wide-eyed wonder when Tsuneo takes her on her first train trip or visit to the beach, but these moments border on the infantilising. Their chemistry is good, though, and their relationship believable.
Sayaka Kuwamura’s screenplay is easily the weakest link. When Tsuneo saves Josee’s life, she bites and calls him a pervert, because this is an anime. Later, she threatens to falsely accuse him of sexual assault if he does not follow her orders, and while the threat is never carried out, the film treats this as a quirky character trait and never addresses it again. Tsuneo’s friends both fit into anime archetypes: Mai, the best friend with the secret crush; and Hayato, the boisterous one who hits on anything with a pulse. Predictably, Mai and Josee become rivals for Tsuneo’s affections, but seeing as Tsuneo never expressed an interest in Mai in the first place (and seeing as this is a romantic drama about Josee and Tsuneo), there is never any doubt where the film is headed. This rivalry, despite some heated, upsetting moments, is ultimately treated as comedic, two silly women having a silly spat. It is frustrating that Josee not only mostly squanders the limitless potential animation offers, but also relies so heavily on boring tropes. It is as if the filmmakers do not trust their audience to enjoy an anime that does not include these familiar archetypes and clichés.
Beautiful visuals and intermittently impressive animation, lovely theme music from Eve but a forgettable soundtrack by Evan Call (Violet Evergarden) force Josee, the Tiger and the Fish to rely heavily on its script. Unfortunately, this is a familiar tale lacking in depth, hurt by heavy-handed messaging and anime pitfalls. At times, it manages to be an interesting and moving film; moments of tragedy are especially affecting. There is nothing here that audiences haven’t seen before, but there are certainly worse ways to spend 98 minutes.