I’m a sucker for emotional slice-of-life anime films. There is something about seeing the everyday world animated with vibrancy; adding an element of magic to it, while also preserving some of the more banal aspects. Throw in a story about finding love but also developing a sense of identity along the way and I’m all in. Which makes Josee, the Tiger and the Fish (Josee to Tora to Sakana-tachi in Japan) a film I immediately knew I needed to watch. Based on the 1985 short story written by Akutagawa Prize-winning author Seiko Tanabe, the film is animated by studio BONES, directed by Kôtarô Tamura, and features a screenplay by Sayaka Kuwamura.
The film follows an unlikely pair, Josee, a gifted artist and disabled woman struggling to find purpose, and Tsuneo Suzukawa, a passionate scuba diver. The duo comes together out of necessity and finds they have a shared passion: the sea. Through a series of ups and downs, the two begin to see how they can help each other. For Tsuneo, who begins as Josee’s caretaker, it’s showing Josee that the world her grandmother said was filled with “dreadful beasts” is actually not that scary. And for Josee, who begins as a stubborn woman refusing to be someone’s charge, it’s pushing Tsuneo to keep moving forward after tragedy. But while the story is about what they can bring to each other’s lives, it’s also about the independence they develop along the way as well.
If you’re familiar with Japanese cinema, then you know that this isn’t the first time that Tanabe’s story has been adapted into a film, with the first coming in 2003, directed by Isshin Inudo. But I will say that the two vary drastically, with BONES’ animation fitting for all-ages and the live-action made for more mature audiences. That said, Kuwamura’s adaptation shines by showcasing Josee as a character with agency and life, instead of a character who must be cared be cared for.
With disabled characters, it’s easy to craft a narrative of pitty or one where the character only sees themselves as a “burden.” Narratives like these are harmful, in that they devalue the agency disabled people have in the world. In Josee the Tiger and the Fish, Josee is in a wheelchair, but within her home with her grandmother, she moves freely with makeshift steps that help make a nearly inaccessible house, accessible. And while she meets Tsuneo as a woman kept alone and at home, she begins to realize that the restrictions put on her are not reality. Whether it’s getting over her fear of talking to people by reading a story to a group of children, learning her art can be more than a hobby, or that she can navigate the world on her own, Josee is a dynamic character. She has a story of independence and while her disability is central to her identity, it is not belittled or treated as a piece of her to be pitied.
That element is thanks to how Josee’s written as a character, but it’s also because of how Tsuneo sees her. To Tsuneo, even in the beginning when he’s her caretaker, he doesn’t describe Josee as anything other than being stubborn and fierce. He sees her for her and even when a romantic rival says that he was only by Josee’s side, the audience knows that Tsuneo isn’t pitting her. He’s connected to her, he loves her, even if he admitted it yet. Their bond is beautiful not only because of the common romance elements, but because the two are connected by a thread of mutual respect and admiration. It’s what makes their love story one of growth and belonging and allows the film’s third act to hit as hard as it does.
Finally, studio BONES is pretty much shonen animation royalty. 2021 is their year here in the United States. The studio showcased a range of beauty that highlights action sequences in things like Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood and My Hero Academia, or showcases the grandness of kaiju in Netflix’s Godzilla Singular Point, but with Josee the Tiger and the Flower, we get a chance to see the beauty of life itself. From gorgeously animated sea creatures and bodies moving the water, to cold winter nights, and the way a small room can be illuminated by an even smaller lamp, this is where BONES solidifies themselves for me.
Now, I’m not saying the other grand adventures the studio has animated in the past aren’t fantastic, they are. But making an audience sit in awe at a grand battle is one thing. Pushing them to that same space of wonder, but in a world they know, is another. The beauty of the characters, the water, and their emotive reactions are what make Josee the Tiger and the Fish reach out to you. And the backgrounds and landscapes solidify it as one of the best animations of the year so far.
Overall, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is phenomenal. It’s beautiful and charming. While the film is marketed as a coming-of-age story, it’s a love story between adults finding themselves. But it’s also about what it means to lean on others as well as what it means to push towards their own dreams. From the writing to the animation, and the voice acting (which is superb both in the English dub and original Japanese), this is a perfect film.
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is available in theaters nationwide beginning July 12, 2021 — released by FUNimation.
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish
- Rating - 10/1010/10
Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is phenomenal. It’s beautiful and charming and while it’s marketed as a coming-of-age story, it’s a love story between adults finding themselves and what it means to lean on others as well as what it means to push towards their own dreams. From the writing to the animation, and the voice acting (which is superb both in the English dub and original Japanese), this is a perfect film.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.