Josee, The Tiger and The Fish

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Isshin Inudo
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Why does one small indie film pack theaters week after week, while others with similar themes play to no one and vanish without a trace? There is no sure-fire formula for success, but there is a kind of alchemy. The philosophers’ stone that transforms base metal into box-office gold is often not just talent, as important as that is, but a knack for knowing what the audience wants — and giving it a bit more.

This week’s example is “Josee to Tora to Sakanatachi (Josee, The Tiger and The Fish),” Isshin Inudo’s romantic drama about an ordinary college boy who falls for an extraordinary girl with cerebral palsy. Since opening Dec. 13 at Cinema Quinto in Shibuya it has become a box-office sensation, scoring a whopping 9.4 million yen screen average in its third week on release. (By comparison the latest Godzilla film, which opened the same weekend, recorded 3 million yen.)

Heroes who triumph over physical disabilities and social prejudice have become a staple of Japanese films, TV dramas and best-selling memoirs — most of which preach uplift and jerk tears as predictably as the waves lap at Kamakura.

“Josee” does it differently. Yes, the heroine is spunky and yes, she finds a measure of love and happiness — how could she not? But her story will not make the audience snatch for its collective Kleenex — the genre’s nearly universal aim. Instead it plays with its own conventions, with an offbeat humor and style that recalls Jean Pierre-Jeunet’s big indie hit of 2001, “Amelie.”

Though director Inudo was born in 1960 and starting making films three decades ago, “Josee” has a youthful feel — it views the world of its characters as they might and not through a nostalgic haze or PC blinders. Also, though Inudo’s approach reflects the long years he spent making TV commercials — particularly in the scrumptious food shots — he has not made yet another TV drama for the big screen and the widest possible audience. Oldsters, including members of Inudo’s own generation, may well be baffled by the ending, which seems to contradict everything that has gone before. But younger viewers, wiser to the ways of their contemporaries, may well find it more convincing. An oldster myself, I was thrown by it at first, but later realized I should have seen it coming. It was a “Sixth Sense” moment — and made me appreciate the brilliance of Aya Watanabe’s script.

The film begins with Tsuneo (Satoshi Tsumabuchi), a fresh-faced college kid, working arbeito (a part-time job) at an Osaka mah-jongg parlor — and listening to the patrons gossip about a crazy old woman who pushes a huge baby buggy around the neighborhood. What’s in it, they wonder. Her secret fortune? Drugs? The mummified body of her grandchild?

One morning, while out walking a dog belonging to the parlor’s master, Tsuneo encounters the old woman (Eiko Shinya) and her runaway buggy, which he tries to stop. Inside is a young woman (Chizuru Ikewaki) who is not happy at being exposed — and flashes a knife at her exposer.

The granny invites him to her rickety little house, where her granddaughter Kimiko — the buggy rider — reluctantly prepares him an omelet. He finds the food delicious and the cook charming, despite her perpetual frown and her distressing habit of throwing herself from her stool onto the floor. Stricken by cerebral palsy as a child and unable to walk, Kimiko has been living under her grandmother’s care, while devouring books in large quantities and accumulating a store of arcane knowledge (including the properties of salmonella and Luminol). A fan of Francoise Sagan, she has taken the name Josee (joh-SAY) after one of the writer’s characters.

Tsuneo soon becomes a regular visitor. His girlfriend (Juri Ueno) does not take kindly to his new interest in the disabled, however. Also Josee’s hot-tempered tough of a friend (Hirofumi Arai) has a seemingly inexplicable grudge against the grandmother. But though the film is well populated with these and other characters, eccentric and otherwise, the story is simplicity itself.

As Tsuneo and Josee become friends, then lovers, her narrow world begins to open up. They go to a zoo to see the tigers and on a drive to see the ocean — both firsts for her. Though the aquarium they had planned to see is closed, she persuades Tsuneo to spend the night at a love hotel where holographic fish swim on the walls. Her happiness seems complete, but then . . .

Watching the film, I thought I could complete this sentence, but I was wrong. I also thought Tsuneo was something of a saint, but I was wrong about that too. Casually confident of his attraction to women that he befriends and beds as easily as he shuffles mah-jongg tiles, Tsuneo is intrigued by the various challenges Josee presents. She is the spicy kimchi to all the bland takuan pickles he has had till now. Josee, however, offers not just an exotic sexual flavor — she is a woman whose dark inner spaces Tsuneo can barely imagine, let alone understand.

Chizuru Ikewaki, who also starred in the Inudo-scripted “Osaka Monogatari (Osaka Story)” and Inudo-directed “Kinpatsu no Sogen” (Across a Golden Prairie, 2000), plays Josee less as a pathetic victim in need of rescue than a tough, wary survivor who has built a private world and is not sure she wants to let anyone in. Her drawling Osaka accent is just this side of irritating, but her Josee is a prickly original.

It’s easy to see why Tsuneo keeps coming back and why Theater Quinto keeps filling. “Josee to Tora to Sakanatachi” is as memorable as its title, if in some ways as puzzling. Where did granny get that enormous buggy? And where is that hotel where the guests sleep with the fishes?

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