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Josee, The Tiger And The Fish (2020)

The central relationship in Josee, The Tiger And The Fish starts, as they so often do in anime, with the female lead landing literally on top of the male lead. Unlike in saucier anime, she is at least fully clothed and there's no accidental groping going on- not that that prevents her from calling him a pervert anyway. The girl in question is Kumiko (who prefers to go by Josee, after the main character in her favourite book) and she is launched from her runaway wheelchair into the unsuspecting Tsuneo, who was walking home late at night.

Josee may be ungrateful, but her grandmother (her sole carer) is a different story. She invites them back to their house for dinner as thanks. When she discovers that the student is short on money, she offers him a job taking care of Josee. This is the start of a relationship that will change both of their lives, forever.

Josee, The Tiger And The Fish is the feature directorial debut of Kotaro Tamura, previously director of TV series Noragami as well as episodes of series including Michiko and Hatchin and Negima!? The screenplay was written by Sayaka Kuwamura, whose previous work had all been for live-action TV and film. It is based on a short story by acclaimed Japanese writer Seiko Tanabe, which was also previously adapted as a live-action movie in 2003. The animation was produced by Bones. 

The film premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, before opening in Japanese cinemas on Christmas Day, 2020. It was also selected for South Korea's Busan International Film Festival, Germany's Stuttgart International Festival Of Animated Film and France's Annecy International Animation Festival. Following a limited release from Funimation Films in the US and Canada in July, the film screens in cinemas in the UK and Ireland from August 11 via Anime Limited and National Amusements.

After such an inauspicious beginning, their relationship gets off to quite the rocky start. Josee is unwilling to accept Tsuneo's help and is not exactly welcoming. Mischievously, she sets him incredibly long-winded but pointless tasks to keep him out of her way. He's on the brink of quitting when they make a breakthrough, After tracking her down after she goes out alone, he offers to take her where she wants to go- despite her grandmother's assistance he should not take her out alone.

Tsuneo is very much the picture of a decent young man, a hard worker holding down two jobs outside his studies (he also works at a local diving shop) to save up for his dream of studying abroad., He hardly seems deserving of Josee's initial hostility. It's to the story's credit that Josee is not depicted as some sort of perfect demure angel, just because she's in a wheelchair, Instead, she's spirited and impressively spiky. While that could make it hard to warm to her initially, it's also pretty clear that she's lashing out due to emotional pain.

Josee's grandmother worries about her safety and has her confined to the house as a result. Her desire to break out and discover the world is relatable- and takes on a whole extra dimension after we have all experienced the same (albeit for different reasons). As Tsuneo helps her to explore and to open up her world, Josee's barriers begin to break down- she even finds a friend in a local librarian. These sequences are a joy. Seeing her in awe of what is so mundane and routine for most people is really heartwarming.

The success of these sequences are helped by the quality of the animation. With Bones involved, you can usually be sure of a visual feast and it's true here. Some really beautiful backgrounds and landscapes manage to capture the beauty in the everyday. Tsuneo and Josee share a passion for the sea. Underwater sequences tend to work well in animation, and while the diving scenes here- some real, some in fantasy- don't have quite the wow factor seen in the recent Children Of The Sea, they're still quite beautiful.

The character designs here feel fairly atypical for a Bones production, with a much looser, sketchier style than we see in most of their anime. It blends well with the backgrounds and creates a distinctive visual style. It's not Bones most attractive work, but it still looks a lot better than most of the anime out there.

The film tells a novel story that is quite unusual as the basis of a romantic drama. It's a refreshing way for the characters to meet and having college-aged leads is also a nice change of pace- having actual adults involved and hardly a sailor suit in sight. 

With the exception of Tsuneo, who does suffer somewhat from 'perfect protagonist syndrome', the characters are depicted as real humans complete with flaws. Josee is stubborn and sharp-tongued. Mai the rival for Tsuneo's affections (a friend and co-worker from the diving shop) is at times selfish and cruel, while the grandmother restricts Josee's freedoms. Every one of them are ultimately good people, but it's good to see characters who aren't just idealised and one-dimensional.

The film isn't shy about being honest about the challenges of living with a disability, either.  It doesn't paint a completely rose-tinted view of life and depicts a world that can be hostile and "full of beasts". But that it's also full of love and friendship and not devoid of hope.

Be prepared to be put through the emotional wringer, as a third act swerve sees events take a dramatic turn. Your heart will soar one minute, then sink the next. By the time you reach the credits (stick around for a post-credits coda, too) you'll feel like you've been on quite the journey. 

Ultimately, Josee, The Tiger And The Fish is a real heartwarmer- a gorgeously animated warm-hug of a film about overcoming the worst that life can throw at you and reaching for your dreams. And for one of the first anime films to be released in cinemas since they reopened, what more could we ask for?

[UK] Tickets and Showtime here.


IN A NUTSHELL: A captivating and visually stunning romance with a difference.