Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
2021, NR, 99 min. Directed by Kôtarô Tamura. Voices by Howard Wang, Suzie Yeung, Dani Chambers, Zeno Robinson.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 9, 2021
Kumiko’s life is not her own. In a wheelchair from an unnamed disease or accident, she’s basically housebound by a grandmother who confuses love with control, and who hires a college student, Tsuneo (Wang in the English dub), to act as babysitter while she goes off to play pachinko. The term may sound insulting, but it’s how Kumiko’s grandmother sees her, as incapable of lasting five seconds in the outside world. It’s Kumiko (Yeung) who declares that Tsuneo is her caretaker and tells him that she’s not Kumiko. She’s Josee (an homage to her favorite author, Françoise Sagan, and her caustic view of love). While Josee, the Tiger and the Fish begins as Tsuneo’s story, this is all really about Josee’s perspective, her combativeness, her durability, and her learning curve about relationships.
Thank goodness for that, otherwise this third adaptation of Seiko Tanabe’s 1984 short story could have fallen into manic pixie dream girl tropes amplified by the narrative of a protagonist with disabilities being rescued by some good guy. Tanabe’s critically acclaimed light novel was praised for its rounded depiction of Josee, and this anime version is a radical reinvention that softens many of the harsher elements that have been highlighted in those earlier adaptations (for a start, Josee actually has a wheelchair, and is not hidden in a baby carriage by her grandmother, nor does she flash a knife at Tsuneo on their first encounter).
It’s a far more conventionally romantic narrative than Tanabe’s more-bitter-than-sweet view of love and change. Instead, it leans into scriptwriter Sayaka Kuwamura’s background in televised romantic dramas, adding a whole series of complications and details that may make fans of the original, bleaker text wonder about how freely it’s been adapted. However, this iteration is just as determined to find the complex layers of love and connection, even if it spells them out a little more straightforwardly and abandons ambiguity in favor of a more pleasingly soapy feel. There’s even something closer to a happy ending (definitely stick around for a post-credits goodbye). However, Kuwamura and first-time feature director Tamura give Josee true agency throughout, rather than depending on her caregiver. It’s all summed up her dreams of the ocean, not Tsuneo’s deferred dreams of becoming an oceanic biologist, even if a few key metaphors become less central and impactful. Sumptuously animated and more optimistic than the source material because it is aimed at a broader audience, this version of Josee definitely swims in its own direction.
Opens July 12.