Director Isshin Inudo should be quite happy these days. Recently, he wrote the screenplay for Resurrection (Yomigaeri, 2003) which director Akihiko Shiota turned into a big hit across the country. Now, Inudo's own movie Josee, the Tiger and the Fish has turned into both an indie crowd pleaser and a successful crowd puller.
While Yomigaeri is a fantastic fable about the dead coming back to life in order to settle things with those they left behind, Josee is a much more down-to-earth story about a normal guy falling for an abnormal, physically disabled girl. What is fantastic about Josee, though, is its unique cinematic style and quirky humour that makes it a heart-warming experience.
Tsuneo (Tsumabuki, of Waterboys fame) is in the beginning of the movie an easygoing student who enjoys a laid-back college life consisting of a part-time job at a mah-jong parlour and casual sex with girls from his school. The life ahead of him seems pretty straightforward and predictable. Then he hears rumours in the mah-jong parlour of a strange old woman who pushes a baby carriage around in the neighbourhood. Why does she always bring a baby carriage? What does it contain? While the busy minds of the customers in the parlour ponder over these questions, the manager asks Tsuneo to take his dog out for a walk. Out walking the dog, the baby carriage in question literally bumps into Tsuneo, and his curiosity leads him to peek inside it. That becomes his first encounter with the strange young woman, Josee (charmingly played by up-and-coming Ikewaki).
It is definitely not love at first sight between the two. On the contrary, Josee seems to loathe the annoyingly nosy college boy who disturbs her ride in the baby carriage where she sits due to cerebral palsy. Tsuneo is on the other hand enchanted by the inexplicable charm that Josee possesses. Josee might talk as if she was haughty brat, but she is in fact quite intelligent and she has much more pride and a stronger self-determination than the more flimsy Tsuneo. Having been taken care of by her crazy old grandmother since childhood, Josee has spent most of her life isolated, reading books that grandma has picked up for her from the outside world. Led by his fascination of Josee, Tsuneo soon becomes a regular visitor of grandma and Josee's shabby, worn-down house. Josee slowly lets him into her self-made world, and the two mutually begin to care for each other. But Tsuneo is at the same time dating a girl from college, and the old snoring grandma won't let Josee get hurt.
The story is simple, but the unique world and characters of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish are complex. Chizuru Ikewaki's Josee is strong-willed and frank, but at the same time timid and curious, while Satoshi Tsumabuki's Tsuneo is a very realistic portrait of a Japanese college student. I could swear that I have met Tsuneo during a go-kon (drinking party) somewhere. The chemistry between the two leads was strong enough for Go director Isao Yukisada to cast them opposite each other again soon after, in A Day On the Planet (Kino No Dekigoto, 2004). Besides the two leads, the movie is full of odd, and yet sympathetic characters that make the world of Josee all the more intriguing and strangely comfortable. It all feels like a fairytale taking place in Osaka.
Josee might be a drama, but it never tries to force your feelings the way a TV-drama does. The unique pacing and the warm, mellow soundtrack by Quruli (also responsible for the music in Nobuhiro Yamashita's Ramblers) turns the drama and the world of Josee into a feel-good movie. You probably won't cry, but you will definitely smile and perhaps feel your eyes wet a bit when you see Josee, not to mention the tiger, and especially the fish.