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► Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is in UK cinemas now.
The Japanese animation Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is set in the city of Osaka, where a male college student meets a girl who uses a wheelchair. The film is presented with the expensive gloss that today’s anime film fans expect; its disability story is tasteful and gaffe-free; and much of the time, it’s numbingly routine.
The boy student is called Tsuneo, who collides with the girl in the most literal way possible. Walking home at night, he sees her careen helplessly downhill in her wheelchair, and he catches her when she hurtles through the air towards him. The girl’s called Kumiko, though her preferred name is the un-Japanese ‘Josee’; it’s the name of a character in a novel by the French author Françoise Sagan, whom the girl adores. Josee reacts to being saved by flushing scarlet, biting Tsueno’s hand and calling him a pervert. In other words, she’s a typical anime girl.
Naturally, Tsuneo ends up taking a job from Josee’s grandma to supervise the girl, with instructions not to take her out of the house. Equally naturally, the youngsters’ hostility thaws, and they start chastely bending the rules and going out. When it comes to creating conflict, the film turns to love rivalries, with Josee butting heads with Tsuneo’s girl-next-door best friend, while the boy stays dully oblivious. But many television anime handle such stock situations with more humour and freshness.
Indeed, there’s little fresh about Josee. 2018 anime film I Want to Eat Your Pancreas had a more problematic take on disability – in that film, a bubbly, terminally ill girl latched onto a charmless boy – yet it was deeper felt, and engaged with the girl’s perspective more than Josee ever does. In this film, there’s a pivotal scene where Josee visits a beach for the first time, burying herself in sand and surf, but it’s all framed through the able-bodied Tsuneo’s eyes.
How much more powerful the scene could have been, had it been expressed though Josee’s perspective, using the pliability of animation. Instead, Josee only gets one rather cutesy dream scene, when she imagines herself swimming beneath the ocean. The dream links to a subplot about Josee rewriting The Little Mermaid and later performing her version to an audience. This performance is one of the better scenes, but that’s because of the strength of the fantasy story, not of the risibly heavy-handed metaphor that the film pushes.
After the hyper-detailed anime Tokyo in Weathering With You (2019), Josee does much the same for another Japanese city, Osaka, with the same fast-cut density of mundane life and its furnishings. On screen, it’s plush and immersive enough that you can almost forget the weak story and enjoy Josee as a Covid-era travelogue. The character designs are mostly rote – I’d forgotten what Tsueno looked like minutes after watching the film, while the ‘rival girlfriend’ character looks glassy eyed. At least Josee herself has pepper, with her hazel hair and extra-stretched eyes, through which this story would have been better told.
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By Nick Bradshaw
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