Chasing Chasing Dreams: How “Josee, The Tiger and the Fish” is About More Than Just Disability

Dreams are one thing. Reality is another.’ Josee is sternly told by a member of the local residents’ association sat across the table. ‘You of all people should know that.’ he adds like a twist of the knife, referring to the disability that has resulted in the young woman using a wheelchair her entire life. The jab is undeniably ableist, but in that moment it’s even more of a cheap shot because Josee’s health isn’t even the obstacle dividing opinion: it’s her dream. Josee, whose bedroom is adorned with brushes, rainbows of paints, and walls plastered with the vivid oceans they helped create, wishes to earn her keep as an illustrator. Anyone who has ever thought of pursuing a passion will know the question that always follows, though: ‘when will you get a real job?’ (see: something mundane, but more socially acceptable). That struggle to bargain between chasing one’s dream and the reality around them, is at the heart of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, the latest anime feature film that arrives in UK and Irish cinemas from 11th August.

The film follows the cash-strapped college student Tsuneo Suzukawa, who dreams of diving amongst the tropical fish of Mexico. One evening, a new opportunity literally falls into his arms when he saves Kumiko Yamamura when her wheelchair is pushed down a slope. She’s sharp-tongued, demanding, and insists on being called “Josee” (after a character from Françoise Sagan’s 1961 novel Les merveilleux). However, she’s also been kept indoors most of her life, out of fear of the judgemental “beasts” outside. When Tsuneo accepts a part-time job as her caretaker, however, the pair who want to see the world will discover what they both want from it.

On the surface, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish might sound like another one of those films about an able-bodied person who learns to have compassion for those with disabilities through a fluffy romance, but the film is about far more than that. Josee’s health is ever-present in the film, but it mostly comes to the surface in smaller moments that highlight how things able-bodied people don’t even think about were clearly designed with only able-bodied people in mind, like when Josee is unable to reach a train station’s self-service kiosk. These experiences have moulded Josee into who she is – innocent naivete, barbed tongue, and all. However, her health is far from the central conflict: the film isn’t about disability, but a girl who has one – a distinction that may seem small on paper, but is far larger in meaning. This approach was a deliberate decision by the creative team, who confirmed this during a work-in-progress interview that screened as part of last year’s Scotland Loves Anime, an annual film festival dedicated to Japanese anime films.

What ignites the spark between the ill-tempered woman and the man only there for a paycheck isn’t pity towards her condition or some kind of saviour complex, but a shared passion. ‘I’ve a weakness for anyone longing for the sea.’ Tsuneo tells Josee when she asks why he broke her grandmother’s single iron-clad rule about taking her outside. She desperately wanted to experience (and taste) the sea – how can someone who practically lives in it resist? (fun fact: it’s salty!). Similarly, Josee is captivated by his tales of diving with schools of fish; something she could only see in her mind’s eye. You see, it’s true that there’s plenty more fish in the sea – you just need to find someone who wants them too!

However, Josee, the Tiger and the Fish also knows that it takes more than just having a dream to achieve it. Even when you have the talent, like this film’s protagonists clearly do, it’s still an uphill battle that can be denied at any moment. How many of us dreamed of being in a band or a big shot film director, only to end up in that “back-up plan” for perpetuity? ‘Life got in the way.’ we might say while consoling ourselves with a pint in a small pub lifetimes away from tinseltown, and we wouldn’t be wrong – except maybe for giving up. If there is any “foe” to overcome in Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, it’s life itself. Those twists of fate that we have absolutely no control over but risk to permanently derail our dreams are what Josee and Tsuneo must learn to overcome, while supporting each other through their individual battles.

One lesson that the film also takes to heart, is that no matter our ability, we’ll never succeed without confidence in ourselves. That is Josee’s journey: not to find her place in the world solely as someone with a disability, but as someone with a goal worth fighting for, so we can all eventually all stand proud and say ‘I’m not afraid, for I’m the pursuit of my dreams’.

Josee, The Tiger and The Fish releases exclusively in UK and Irish cinemas from 11th August 2021

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