The late great film critic Roger Ebert referred to movies as being “like a machine that generates empathy.” The best films transport us and allow us to understand the lives of people who have vastly different life experiences.

“Josee, The Tiger and the Fish” is one such empathy-generating machine. Through it, I was able to better understand the struggles and joys of a young woman unable to use her legs, and the feelings of those around her.

Films that portray well-rounded characters with disabilities are rare enough, but in anime, they’re practically nonexistent. Last year’s “Ni no Kuni” was a rare exception, but that fantasy film quickly transported its wheelchair user to an alternate world where he could walk, run and jump.

Josee, The Tiger And The Fish (Joze To Tora To Sakanatachi)
Run Time 98 min.
Language Japanese
Opens Dec. 25

In “Josee, The Tiger and the Fish,” there’s no magical world to which our protagonist escapes, aside from her own vibrant imagination. That protagonist is Kumiko (Kaya Kiyohara), who prefers to be called Josee, a character from one of her favorite books. Unable to use her legs from birth, Josee, now in her early 20s, is cared for by her loving but controlling grandmother, who forbids her to leave the house except on short walks.

It’s on one of these walks that Josee loses control of her wheelchair and careens down a steep hill. Luckily, her fall is stopped by Tsuneo (Taishi Nakagawa), a university student who lives in the area. An aspiring marine biologist, Tsuneo works multiple part-time jobs to save enough money to study abroad. The night Tsuneo inadvertently saves Josee, her grandmother offers him a new job with better pay than most: to look after her granddaughter.

At first, this involves just sitting around Josee’s home. But soon, the two begin taking advantage of grandma’s afternoon naps to venture farther from home: to movies, amusement parks, aquariums and even the ocean. Josee begins to emerge from her shell, sharing with Tsuneo her passion for drawing and her ambition to become an artist. Soon Tsuneo begins to understand all the complexities of life without the use of one’s legs, from navigating train lines with a wheelchair to simply cooking a meal at home.

Based on a 1985 short story by Seiko Tanabe, “Josee” was produced at studio Bones (known for the “My Hero Academia” series), delivering some of the best animation I’ve seen this year. There are no flashy action scenes in this small-scale drama, but the characters — humans, tigers and fish alike — have a real sense of life and lots of detail. The film also blends 2D and 3D (always a risky proposition) well, pulling off some tricky camera moves to great effect.

“Josee” is the feature film debut of director Kotaro Tamura, who shows a deft touch that often eludes far more experienced directors — it didn’t surprise me to learn he once worked under director Mamoru Hosoda (“Wolf Children,” 2012). That deft, snappy direction occasionally falters in the second half of the film, though, which veers into melodrama and an overreliance on music. One subplot involving an injury — going into any more detail would put us into spoiler territory — felt particularly over-the-top.

Still, for its missteps, “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish” is an impressive debut feature. And it fulfills that most crucial function of cinema: to help us better understand the other humans, as Ebert put it, who are “sharing this journey (of life) with us.”

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