Josee, the Tiger and the Fish is a beautiful anime film that is now available on Blu-ray. ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to director Kotaro Tamura about the emotional coming-of-age story.
“With dreams of diving abroad, Tsuneo gets a job assisting Josee, an artist whose imagination takes her far beyond her wheelchair,” says the synopsis. “But when the tide turns against them, they push each other to places they never thought possible, and inspire a love fit for a storybook.”
When did you first hear about Josee, the Tiger and the Fish? Was it from the short story or one of its adaptations?
Kotaro Tamura: My first experience with this title is the novel. There were talks about making one of the literary works that Kadokawa has into an animated film, and I chose that title. I had read many of the candidates for this project and Josee, the Tiger and the Fish was one of them. Before that, I think I just remember hearing the title mentioned before.
What was it about the relationship between Tsuneo and Josee that you found so compelling?
The perfect amount of distance they have in their relationship. Seeing the trust that they have for each other through their witty interactions is very comforting.
A live-action adaptation of the original short story was released in 2003. The two films differ quite a bit. If you’ve seen it, can I get your thoughts on the live-action version and how both movies have different approaches to the same premise?
I wrote the script without watching the live-action film, so it’s not like I was trying to create an antithesis for the live-action film. When I read the novel, I got a very bright and eloquent feeling from it. Despite everything that Josee had been through in the past, she is able to feel fulfilled in the present through the time that she is spending with Tsuneo. But even then, it appeared as though she was still feeling some anxiety. What is this anxiety? When I thought about that, I figured out the themes that would be appropriate for a feature-length film. The first is that Josee only has fleeting dreams in the novel like wanting to see a tiger or wanting to go to the aquarium. Another is that I thought that Josee’s only way to connect with society is through Tsuneo. That’s where Josee in this film starts off at as well. But because she starts to go out more because of Tsuneo, she makes a friend named Kana. Though it’s not a huge leap, she’s able to become a bit more sociable. The introduction to the film is “eventually, Josee will…” The original novel was written in 1984. Currently, the societal conditions for disabled people have changed dramatically. Though Josee is physically disabled, I think everyone has something big or small plaguing their hearts. I tried to find a more current answer with this film to the theme that the original novel had pondered. Just like Josee opened the doors to a new world within this film, I hope that the audience is able to face their own tigers and fish and take a new step forward.
Eve has two great songs in the film, “Shinkai” and “Ao no Waltz.” Can you speak to that collaboration and what the songs add to the film?
The first time I heard “Ao no Waltz” was with the demo and I thought it was a wonderful song. I knew that it would be a masterpiece. Eve wrote the lyrics and composed the song and I had given him the storyboards for the movie to give him a better idea on what direction he wanted to take this song. He was able to delicately take the story of the movie and dissected it so that anyone who heard the song could understand the lyrics. Of course, he didn’t just write the plot of the movie into the lyrics. It’s arranged in an exquisite way. Once the lyrics were done, I was in awe at how amazing every single word was. I actually came up with the Japanese tagline for this movie, “Kindness, tears, admiration… All of it,” because I was so moved by some of the lyrics. There’s even a scene in the movie where Josee is shouting, “All of it, all of it!” and I think the other lyrics were influenced by the script, as well. Because of this, we established a flow of the movie inspiring the theme song which then inspired the tagline. Also, the art at the end of the movie where “Ao no Waltz” plays was also inspired by the lyrics. For example, when the word “tears” plays in the first half of the song, I had Josee smiling at that part. It’s the scene where Josee sends Tsuneo off with a smile as he heads off to Mexico. Because the sad lyrics play at that part, I think her smile ended up meaning so many things. I was hoping that people could see that even though she’s sending Tsuneo off with a smile so he could head off to Mexico without a worry, her heart was actually filled with various emotions. I didn’t have the lyrics match the visuals exactly. I had them timed slightly differently so that could produce an interesting interaction in the ending. Once again, we have the movie influencing the theme song, and the theme song influencing the movie quite nicely.
As for “Shinkai,” I actually didn’t plan on having an insert song in the beginning. We actually talked about adding one when I met with Eve, and I told him what scene I was thinking about using it. I think “Shinkai” ended up fitting in quite nicely, and I really love the intro. I can feel my emotions rising. In the scene where the song plays, I wanted some intense breathing. Taishi Nakagawa’s acting there was great but, in the end, I wanted the music to shine, so once the song starts playing, you only hear the song.
Josee has a great penchant for art in the film and we get to see her own art style represented in the movie. What was the process of making it so her own drawings had a distinctive style that differed from the animation in the film?
The art pieces that Josee draws and paints in the movie were actually done by the picture book author Nanako Matsuda. Because Matsuda-san’s pieces are so abstract, I wasn’t worried that they’d end up blending in with the backgrounds of this film. The lines and colors she uses in her art have a very artistic quality, so I think they can attract adults as well as children. With the first piece in the movie, she added onto later by connecting other pieces and I think that expressed how Josee was feeling very well. I didn’t give her a motif for any of the pieces. Most of the ideas came from Matsuda-san herself. I hope that the audience will also check out some of her picture books if they have a chance.
The film is quite touching and has received great reception not just in Japan but internationally through screenings. How rewarding is it for your art to be resonating with a worldwide audience?
I am very grateful. It’s definitely not a flashy movie and I was a little worried about if the emotions expressed in this film would get through to an overseas audience, but it was definitely worth all the trouble.
In recent years, anime has been getting more mainstream recognition in North America and fully appreciated as art by many critics. What do you hope western audiences take away from Josee, the Tiger and Fish?
I tried to make this film as genuinely as possible without making it seem too eccentric. I believed in the audience’s imagination and approached this film believing that people would want to see complicated expressions of emotions and multitiered meanings in this film. I’ve left little hints on how to understand how the characters are feeling, so even if you don’t immediately understand what they’re feeling, it would make me happy if the audience would try watching it again years later. I think as the audience gains more life experience points their ability to understand the message within this film will go up as well.