Anime love comedies have hit upon a successful formula: Boy meets girl. One has obvious issues and the other less obvious (or developing). A severe obstacle—medical, fantastical, metaphysical—gets in the way. Love overcomes, but can it overcome the deeper issues within? Add fantastic animation, variations of the same soundtrack (including catchy song to play over a montage of the would-be couple spending time with one another), and of course, varying character and plot details, and voila, you have your film!
Of course, there’s more to it than that. Even if romantic films often follow a similar trajectory, they still must present the audience with a heartfelt and thrilling experience. Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, which is receiving a domestic release from Funimation from July 12th through 14th, is nothing new in the sense that it follows above-mentioned pattern—but does it provide fluttering excitement and and intriguing story necessary to separate it from Ride Your Wave, Weathering with You, and the like?
Well, it certainly tries, and mostly succeeds—beginning with the characters and performances.
Tsuneo, a student who works part-time at a scuba-diving shop, first encounters Josee, a young woman with a disability, through an unusual extreme circumstance, after she’s been pushed by a passerby and comes whipping uncontrollably down a slope, with the boy breaking her fall. Despite Josee’s extreme irritability and immediate dislike of the young man, her grandmother hires him to do whatever she asks of him, which to his displeasure means menial tasks like kneeling outside her room for as long as possible or counting the stripes in their tatami mat.
If that sounds petty, it’s meant to be. Josee is mean, bitter, and a tsundere, but a complicated one. She’s also a sensational character. Her tough exterior, layered by her disability, leads the audience into uncomfortable territory. Is it okay for me to dislike Josee for the way she treats the amiable Tsuneo? It is, and it’s important for us to do so as we subtly see her transformation occur across the film’s 90-minute runtime. Kaya Kiyohara, the voice behind Josee, brings the same quality to the role as she does with Hina in March Comes in Like a Lion—vulnerability, rawness, fear. It’s a fantastic performance.
Tsuneo, on the other hand, is more of a stock character, the “normal but actually incredibly handsome and admirable” type, though the script tries to more complicate his personality by showing Tsuneo at his worst as well, including a notable change later in the story, and by focusing on his passion for the titular fish, which is particularly vital in emphasizing the film’s theme about chasing one’s dream despite obstacles that get in the way.
At first, Josee’s most obvious barrier seems to be her paraplegia. However, this adaptation—I’m not familiar with how the original short story treats her disability, or how the 2003 live-action film does—tends to focus on how Josee moves and adjusts despite the challenges. It’s part of who she is, and in a most sensitive and interesting way, isn’t shown to be what presents the largest obstacle in her life. Josse’s grandmother keeps her indoors in part because of her paraplegia (little detail is actually given—not an unusual choice for this film), which seems to have an impact on her ability to be socially adept. It’s her fear of speaking with others and interacting with the world in general that affects her most. Tsuneo functions, over the course of the film, as one who helps her manage and deal with these issues and her insecurities.
The characters and story are quite lovely, but the entire film feels like it’s blurred, like you’re seeing it at 90% visibility rather than in its fullness. Instead of physically blinking as if that would help my vision, my mind kept thinking back to earlier drops here and there in the film, remembering, “Oh, I guess that little aside mattered” and, more often, “I guess that one scene or line meant or inferred such and such.”
While subtlety often enhances films, in Josee, I would describe the script more as lacking information or the proper elaboration about characters’ pasts or thoughts. So for instance, when Tsuneo reacts with anger and depression at a major event late in the film, it took him actually saying as much to realize that it was connected to his passion and dream. There wasn’t suitable emphasis earlier in film to understand his character change. The same goes for other characters as well.
Still, the directing and screenplay matters when it counts the most—at the film’s climax. I watched it twice in the original language and once in the English dub (I should mention here that Howard Wang and Suzie Yeung shine as Tsuneo and Josee, respectively and particularly during scenes where they express their dialogue through tears)—and it delivered the goosebumps and butterflies that one should expect of a romance film each time, and further, in a way unique to these kinds of anime and exactly fitting for the characters in this piece.
A second, longer climax and denouement follow, one which is perfectly lovely but about which I wondered, “What if they went the other direction?” as I had expected it to. I discovered that fans of the 2003 film may be as surprised by the final development as I was. I think if his movie matched that movie’s ending, the themes expressed within may have been more fully realized, and the movie would have been better for it.
But even as it is, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is a heartfelt and beautiful film. The animation is stunning, as expected from the studio (Bones), particularly with certain scenes (those featuring falling autumnal leaves and a zoo scene showing a tiger) featuring a powerful watercolor look that somehow blends in perfectly well with the rest of the film, and in small places, like out-of-place strands of hair on Josee’s head. I also particularly liked the looks of the characters, especially the heroine, as crafted by my favorite character designer, loundraw.
While it doesn’t rise to the level of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (also featuring loundraw’s designs) and certainly not one of Shinkai’s recent films, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is so unabashedly vibrant with lovable characters, admirable themes, and gorgeous animation that the flaws don’t detract much from it, especially if the heart of the film matters more than perfect execution.
And when it comes to romance, is there really anything more we could ask?
Funimation will be screening Josee, the Tiger and the Fish in select theaters from July 12-14.