The easiest thing a director or screenwriter can do is to use a characters’ disability as the centerpiece of a story. How can someone who is sadly disabled become happy? How can we help this person live? How can we show them they matter? How can we show them the light? And what can we and those around this character learn from this special person?
There has been a number of examples where movies have done this, animated and live action. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it sort of works. And sometimes it falls flat on its’ face in the most insulting of ways. Recent examples are 2017 anime film A Silent Voice, 2017 film Wonder, 2016 film Me Before You, and 2021 film Penguin Bloom.
Much of this is opinion as to which is the best to worst movie portrayals of a character with a disability, but in my opinion the most egregious portrayal would have to be Me Before You. When the trailers first came out, I admit I was highly interested. It looked like a beautiful movie portraying life with a character in wheelchair. However, once I learned how it ended, and read more about the book the movie was based on, I was instantly disgusted and lost all interest in watching it even once. As someone who was born with a disability that is similar to the one portrayed in Wonder, I abhorred the message that the story was giving off. “A person with a disability is better off dead than fighting to live a life like everyone else does. It is too much of a burden, after all.” It may not have been the intended message, but that is what I came away with. It was a terrible message with a pretty package.
Hollywood tends to be one extreme or the other. You have Me Before You on one side, and Wonder on the other side. Wonder was not a bad movie. It had a really good message. But there were things in it that made me think: “I can tell this was written from someone who does not have personal experiences”. For instance, it bothered me that they portrayed the boy as someone so insanely smart. Even if he was homeschooled and sheltered by his mom, I just don’t believe he would be as adult smart as he was portrayed. I was homeschooled for a short time. I remember being his age. I know I was no where near as smart as he was. I never won super special awards or got bullied as hard as he did. I never wore a helmet to cover my face. As far as I knew it, life as me was just a part of…. life. It was who I was. And I wasn’t any more special than anyone else. His character was treated as extra special. I guess that’s what bothered me about the movie, even if it did have a good message overall.
And so with those examples, how can a story strike a balance with a character that happens to have a disability? Well, I am happy to say that there is a very recent movie that excels at just that.
Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish (Jose to Tora to Sakanatachi) is an anime film that came out in Japan in the second half of 2020. It is based on a short story written in 1984 by Seiko Tanabe. Seiko Tanabe attained the honorific nickname of the “L.M. Montgomery of Japan” after she died in 2019. L.M. Montgomery is best known for “Anne of Green Gables”. In 2003, Japan released a live action adaption of Josee. In 2020, South Korea released their own live action film that was based in part on the screenplay of the 2003 film. The anime movie was just released on Blu-ray/DVD in the U.S. on February 8th, 2022.
The anime film was directed by Kotarô Tamura, best known for directing the anime series Noragami. The movie was animated with the company Studio Bones, best known for many anime movies and series such as My Hero Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Wolf’s Rain, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie, Snow White with the Red Hair, and too many others to list off here. The music was composed by Evan Call, who has done work for anime’s like Dance with Devils, Violet Evergarden, and Tokyo ESP.
Although originally written in 1984, careful consideration was given as to how to adapt the story to modern times. Research was done on what it’s like to travel around in a wheelchair (Tamura traveled around Osaka city in a wheelchair for a day to get a feel for what it’s like, as well as interviewing different people who use wheelchairs). They also used many real life location references around Osaka, Wakayama, and Kobe, Japan.
The summary of the story is about college student Tsuneo working hard towards fulfilling his dreams. One night, he encounters a girl in a wheelchair, and is eventually hired to be her caretaker.
I liked that there were many parts that did not explain in expositions. Show, don’t tell. Right from the opening scene. You’re smart enough to understand what is going on and what the character is like without words. And oftentimes that can be the best kind of way to move a story forward. Even throughout the movie, a character didn’t have to say a word, the way they move as other characters are talking and interacting can tell you what this silent character is feeling.
It is not simply about having a disability. It’s about communication. Being brave and strong enough to stand on your own feet, while also having supportive people around you, and to be supportive of those in return. After all, life isn’t just about you. And to strive towards dreams, whether they actually happen or not. Having people who support you and vice versa is so important. It’s not good to be completely alone. As important as it is to be able to stand on your own, it’s just as important to have each other.
As the director says in the included interview extra:
“The movie is the theme of independence. Being independent is not the same as being isolated. What does it mean to grow up? What does it mean to be an adult? What does it mean to be independent? What does it mean to be considerate of others? What does it mean to understand?”
The animation is beautiful to watch and the attention to detail is impressive. Most of the background buildings and scenery are hand painted using watercolor and other art mediums. Because this is not a fantasy movie, thought was given as to how to make visually interesting animation sequences. And I think they excelled in doing that.
I’m not trying to hype up this movie too much. Although it is hard not to! Some people might find fault in how cheesy some scenes are or how some plot points are a little too convenient. Although Director Tamura insists he left some things out to give it more mystery or to leave it up to the viewers imagination.
This movie is a rarity because it strikes the balance of giving us a character with a disability that is not one extreme or the other. It is a story of hope for the future for everyone, disabled or not. If you are looking for a movie that leaves on a hopeful note, I recommend checking this movie out. It’s the kind you could probably watch with those who are not typically fans of anime because of how grounded it feels. It doesn’t play with your emotions or try to manipulate you to feel one way or another. It respects you as a viewer and it respects the main characters.
I honestly had no idea what to expect from this movie. All I knew before watching it was that it was about a boy and a girl in a wheelchair, and the basic storyline of Tsuneo in college and becoming a caretaker. That and the beautiful looking art and hearing such positive reactions overall was enough for me to check it out. Sometimes, the less you know, the better the experience. I don’t even think I watched the trailer first.
If you’d like to see the trailer before watching the movie, see it here. Although there are only subbed trailers, the movie is available to watch in English dub, if you prefer.
If you do watch this movie, you’ll want to stay for the credits, as the story continues during the credits, with an extra scene at the very end. Then you can tell us what you thought about the movie. What did you think? Do you think Hollywood could take a few pointers from the kind of story-telling this movie did?