The anime movie Josee, The Tiger and The Fish, based on the short story of the same name by Seiko Tanabe, was released in Japanese theaters last Christmas, and the timing makes sense. Christmas is celebrated primarily as a holiday for couples in Japan, and this romance anime includes a major scene at Christmas. Its release this summer in America, however, is even more apropos. Much of the film's first act is about the joy of being able to go outside for the first time in ages, a mood that's perhaps more universal now than ever before in living memory.
Josee, an artistically gifted wheelchair-using tsundere woman, has been stuck living at home with her overprotective-to-the-point-of-abusive grandmother. She's named herself after a character from her favorite book. One day, when pushed off her path, she falls into the arms of Tsuneo, a diver trying to make ends meet with various part-time jobs. He's hired by Josee's grandmother to look after her, and while Josee wants nothing to do with him at first, he soon begins sneaking her out to the places she's been longing to go to, including his beloved ocean.
The story takes several dramatic and emotional turns from there, and while only one twist comes as a real surprise, Josee, The Tiger and The Fish still tells a powerful story with its strong characterizations and understanding of disability issues. Josee's first interactions with Tsuneo are rough, and while some aspects could be problematic (the trend of anime making a big deal out of weaponized false allegations is worth criticizing), it's genuinely refreshing that the disabled protagonist is allowed to be a jerk. It makes sense that someone cut off from the rest of the world would have no social skills, and Josee's growth as she reenters society and what's likely her first romantic relationship is well-developed.
Kotaro Tamura's film softens some of the darker edges of the original short story and previous live-action adaptations (for one thing, the grandma's infantilization of Josee no longer involves putting her in an actual baby carriage), but is keyed into just how poorly society accommodates people with disabilities. The story's saddest moment isn't one of violence, death or even romantic melodrama, but of being pushed down by people's limited ideas of what success and independence look like.
Comparisons will inevitably be made between Josee, The Tiger and The Fish and A Silent Voice, the 2016 Kyoto Animation film that has become the go-to reference for anime films about disability. Obviously, the two films are dealing with two very different issues (mobility issues in Josee, The Tiger and The Fish, deafness in A Silent Voice), but the big difference between their approaches to the subject matter mainly stems from the opposing personalities of the two films' leads. In part, Josee's narrative just has a lot less unfortunate implications in terms of disability representation and ableism.
Studio Bones' animation is solid, with extra attention paid to the background art, including Josee's paintings, and a vibrant dream sequence that makes the story's various parallels to The Little Mermaid all the more direct. The character designs are cute but a bit on the derivative side of things -- of course Tsuneo, the guy who's obsessed with the ocean, looks just like a slightly older version of Haruka from Free! The musical score by Violet Evergarden's Evan Call and the two original songs by Vocaloid artist Eve are beautiful.
Some unnecessary love triangle drama pads out the movie's third act, but overall Josee, The Tiger and The Fish stays emotionally gripping throughout. If at times it borders on the manipulative, that manipulation is nonetheless effective, and Josee has to go down as one of the best tsundere heroines in all of anime. Be sure to stick around through the end credits to get the full experience.
Directed by Kotaro Tamura, Josee, The Tiger and The Fish is now playing in select theaters.