Retrospective: Joze, the Tiger and the Fish (2003)

Joze, the Tiger and the Fish was first released in Korea back in 2004 on just 5 screens, but such was the response from audiences, particularly students, that universities across the country started to host showings, which eventually prompted the distributor to re-release it nationwide. I remember seeing Joze during its first limited run without any prior information on the movie whatsoever, and with a title like that I went in fully expecting another wayward indie obscurity. Afterwards, however, I came out of the cinema completely floored by it, to a degree that felt disproportionate to what was rather an unassuming little film. I remember returning home and dashing off this gushing piece on imdb.com.

The hollow sense of sadness would not leave for weeks, but as my ‘review’ shows, I hadn’t quite been able to articulate precisely why the film had such an impact on me. I would talk to friends and others who watched it, and they shared my reaction: this was a film that tended to leave an indelible impression on people. In subsequent years I was very tempted to buy the DVD and watch it again, but the fear that it wouldn’t feel the same, that I won’t get to experience that bittersweet and melancholy sensation again always held me back. So seven years passed, with me umming and ahhing and the memories slowly fading, until I found that the Sponge House in Gwanghwamun was showing Joze as part of its Japanese melodrama series. It felt safer for me to brave another trip to the cinema, because for some reason I didn’t feel I would watch it properly if I placed myself in control of the viewing experience.

Improbably, the second viewing actually went as far as almost making my chin wobble and my eyes well up for real. Far from being a diminishing return, it was an even more powerful and affecting experience, coming across as better paced and more meaningfully constructed than I had remembered. For some reason I’d always thought of Joze as a little overlong with some superfluous scenes, but that wasn’t the case: every scene is loaded with significance, every transition beautifully timed, every character’s dialogues and actions carrying material allusion and context. In fact, certain moments only revealed their true poignancy on the repeat viewing, particularly the later scenes that foreshadow the heartache of the finale. At this point, I should go into a little more detail about the film’s narrative, so SPOILERS ALERT.

Joze is about a young university student named Tsuneo, who works part-time at a mahjong parlour in the early hours. He’s easy-going and care-free, engaging in casual sex with a friend while lusting after the naive Kanae (played by a pre-fame Juri Ueno). He’s like any other guy his age: legally of age but emotionally still a boy, likes drinking and partying, hanging out in the cafeteria, well-meaning but not yet with any real depth. One early morning, walking his boss’s dog, he encounters a haggard old lady chasing after a pram that’s careening downslope. Inside it is her disabled ‘granddaughter’ named Kumiko, who introduces herself to Tsuneo by slashing a kitchen knife in his direction. As reward for steering the pram back to the two women’s home, the old lady invites him inside, where Kumiko – who calls herself Joze after a Francoise Sagan heroine – cooks him an unexpectedly delicious breakfast. Tsuneo is lured back, first by the promise of another meal, and then increasingly by the person making it. Her physical condition initially, platonically, appeals to his sense of charity, and he is inspired to bring about positive changes to the squalor at her house – starting by bringing food, then fixing her pram, finally petitioning the city council to carry out renovations. Over time, he gets to know Joze better: a charming mixture of wizened wisdom and childlike naivete, her polio-induced disability has caged her, physically in the house, intellectually on discarded books scavenged for her by her grandmother. She is wary and distrustful of the outside world, yet intensely hungry for new knowledge and experiences, and this yearning draws the two together. Joze opens up to Tsuneo because of his kindness, but also for his ability to bring her closer to the world (but the film shows that these two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive); Tsuneo’s genuine romantic attraction is mingled with a sense of pity and the vague, suggested predatory masculinity that senses an easy prey: the scene where Kanae stops him mid-cuddle is contrasted later with Tsuneo’s intrigued reaction to Joze’s barely contained excitement at the possibility that he might obtain for her the sequel to her favourite Sagan novel. At any rate, they begin a relationship and eventually move in together, to the astonishment of his friends and Ryoji, his brother (‘Are you really going to go through with it?’, asks Ryoji, blithely exposing Tsuneo’s unreadiness for a responsibility of this magnitude), as well as the wounded disbelief of Kanae, who confronts Joze in a memorable, uncomfortable showdown.

It goes without saying that any film, in order to be successful, requires a good script that is directed and acted well, but Joze particularly benefits from a wonderfully astute direction by Isshin Inudo as well as two perfectly judged performances from Satoshi Tsumabuki and Chizuru Ikewaki. A lesser movie would have made Tsuneo’s character an overly irresponsible oaf that goes through an exaggerated transformation into a do-gooder, but Inudo and Tsumabuki take care not to embellish him. He’s an unremarkable, ordinary man-child: not a sports jock, nor an alpha male among his friends, but also not a loser or a misfit either. It’s easy to imagine Tsuneo middling through his life untroubled by the bigger questions of existence, and Tsumabuki wisely doesn’t try to act his part a great deal, letting the dialogues and the scenarios speak to the audience in a discreet, generous turn. Likewise, while Ikewaki’s natural attractiveness isn’t well concealed and slightly dilutes the full implication of Joze’s condition, she coaxes her character into life with a marvelously tender and perceptive performance. Joze is deceptively unconventional in that she is not physically aspirational or possessing of disquieting features, has more or less accepted her circumstances and doesn’t rage against them. Her story is not one of personal redemption, and there is no victory to be won against a discriminatory system, a doubting, indifferent society, or anything else that usually acts as antagonistic sources of motivation in films of similar ilk. Joze is a normal – albeit bright – person that has been pushed to the bottom of the social ladder due to her immobility, but a normal person nonetheless. Thus Tsuneo’s and Joze’s story is not too far removed from our lives, and Inudo’s refusal to glamourize his leads makes the film tremendously down to earth and sympathetic.

What really makes the movie work for me, though, is the way Inudo neither panders to its sentimental possibilities nor concedes to its Pygmalion-ian implications. Although Joze for much of the running time beats to the rhythm of the usual rom-com – boy meets girl who’s a little different, they work to reconcile the differences, going through trials and overcoming the odds, and then they consummate their love for one another – the narrative isn’t racing towards a definite resolution, and in between there aren’t neat moments that represent positive character transformations. When Kanae visits Joze’s home during renovation to observe the social care system in action, the inference is clear: a well-meaning ‘day trip’ for Kanae is condescending charity to Joze, and Tsuneo for the briefest moment is put on the spot, trapped between the need to impress the conventionally desirable Kanae and his conscience that tells him to place himself at Joze’s side. He does neither, and Joze makes the decision for him, abruptly closing the door of the closet (that acts as her bedroom) in Kanae’s face. Later, when this incident prompts Joze (who probably experienced jealousy and low sexual self-esteem for the first time) to lash out at him and her grandmother to ban him from visiting again, he turns back in resignation and meekly complies with the old woman’s demands. In neither instance does Tsuneo embark on rousing speeches, admonishing Kanae or proclaiming his support/feelings for Joze, opting instead for bovine passivity. Although the film’s structure is deceptively traditional, at crucial junctures Inudo purposefully avoids set-piece events or unrealistic plot devices.

That’s not to say that Joze is devoid of humour or uplift; on the contrary, for much of the movie the tone is that of the archetypal teen romance, with some low brow comedy early on and jaunty music by the indie band Quruli leavening the film with substantial levity. The doltish Koji, Joze’s foster brother (or son, as she insists), raises a lot of smiles, and the film is full of quirky moments like the scene where Tsuneo, racing Joze’s pram along a riverfront, falls down the embankment to the bemusement of a couple of onlooking truck drivers. So when he eventually moves in with a neat comic flourish involving the owner of the porn magazine (‘Haruki Kanai..!’), you think to yourself: happy ever after. This is where many other films would end, wrapping themselves up with a neat conclusion and the issues all worked out. But Joze keeps going. A jump cut shows a year has passed – they are still together, but the pram is shown rusting by the side of the couple’s house, and Tsuneo is now a salaryman dealing with the vagaries of a quotidian life. The double weight of making a living and taking care of a disabled partner is visible on him. Joze’s constant wide-eyed wonder and old-before-her-age grumpy wisdom are no longer charming eccentricities but sources of annoyance, and this is exacerbated by his chance encounter with Kanae. Working unhappily as an advertisement girl dancing in front of shop windows, she attributes her predicament to her breakup with Tsuneo but doesn’t blame him and professes herself to be happy to see him again – an ironic reversal, it is now Kanae’s lowly social station that appeals to Tsuneo’s masculine pride. The climactic road trip sequence, in which Tsuneo sets off with Joze to visit his home for the holidays, is where this conflict is – briefly – brought to the fore. Borrowing Koji’s tackily souped-up car, they first visit an aquarium to realize another small wish for Joze (a year earlier, she insisted on visiting the zoo to see a tiger with Tsuneo, fulfilling a long-standing resolution that she would see the scariest thing she knows if she ever finds a boyfriend); finding it closed, she reacts with a typically winsome tantrum, but where a year ago this would have been met with an indulgent smile he now takes it badly and snaps at her. To make up, Tsuneo calls his brother to tell him that he is not coming home, and decides to detour to a beach and give Joze a chance to see the ocean for the first time. While this plays out to the rhythm of an endearing genre vignette – another obstacle that the hero will seemingly hurdle – the details betray a relationship that is far more frail and human. You see it in the way Tsuneo cannot answer his brother when asked if he is ‘tired of her’, the way he squares his shoulders and puts on a dutiful smile – with a faint trace of resignation – before scooping Joze up to take her to the sea, the way he, half-asleep, absentmindedly feeds stock answers to Joze’s heartfelt rumination on the bed of the love motel at the day’s end. It’s made all the more poignant for how it’s presented, and for what is to follow. Played to the guitar solo in Quruli’s ‘Highway’, the trip to the beach is a delicately joyous occasion both for the characters and the audience, and but for the sombreness of the post-coital soliloquy seems a sure sign that things are going to be alright.

Then, another jump cut – an indeterminate time passes, and we see Tsuneo leaving the house, Joze sitting behind him to see him out. They do not look unhappy or distressed. The way Tsuneo is dressed, putting on his sneakers, you swear he’s just popping out for a jog. But no: this is the final goodbye, they both know he is never coming back. To see love end like that, not with a bang but a whimper, the casual, mundane nature of what by rights should be an explosive, all-consuming parting, is utterly devastating. When Tsuneo breaks down in the middle of the street, Kanae by his side, you break down with him. You feel his guilt at abandoning Joze, his shame at leaving a disabled woman, and his anguish at the fact that his love wasn’t enough to overcome the daily grind of living with someone who needed him more than he needed her. This is ultimately the message the film has for us: love is great, love is beautiful, but it isn’t all-conquering, it doesn’t take precedence over reality. But you don’t blame Tsuneo for it. Like so many of us, he followed his heart with the bestest of intentions, and eventually could not live up to his moment of idealism. We would feel the way he does, and we probably wouldn’t have been above his cowardice, either.

It’s been pointed out that Joze is a modern retelling of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and indeed the monologue in the motel scene is a moving acknowledgement of the parallels between the two. The significance of this scene escaped me the first time, but watching it again it’s an absolutely central moment: Joze compares herself to a shellfish that had been living at the bottom of the sea, alone in the darkness but content because she didn’t know any better; having risen to the surface (thanks to Tsuneo’s Prince Charming), she is never going to be able to go back to the bottom, to the life she had gotten used to, to the life that was lightless and soundless and still, but a life that was bearable and familiar. Like the mermaid princess who is abandoned by the prince she loved and stranded without legs in a land to which she doesn’t belong, Joze must once again face a life of solitude that is now made all the harder by having tasted real joys of ordinary people.

The final two camera angles will forever stay in my mind: the distant shot of Tsuneo weeping, traffic zipping past between him and us, forcing us to feel his pain from afar but not allowing us to fully share it. It reminded me of the final frames of The Shawshank Redemption, where you see the reunion between Andy and Red on the Mexican coast as the camera pulls away into the sky, except where that was a moment of great joy, this is the exact opposite, a plaintive moment of heartbreak – similar technique emphasizing two wildly different emotions. And the very last shot of Joze preparing her meal, camera staying level to show her empty chair even after she has plopped herself down on the floor, not tracking her (as it did at the beginning of the film) as she crawls to her kotatsu to eat alone, is a harrowing visualization of her shellfish metaphor – the shellfish is unable to go back to her former life, ‘but that’s OK, too’. Then the credits roll, and Quruli sing ‘Highway’, this time from the start. The song sounds completely different when heard in entirety and in different context, and it sings of half-realized dreams, of restlessness that can’t quite be sated, and of the things you want to do and be that are foolish and somehow not foolish at all. It crushed me, listening to it, the image of a crying Tsuneo and a stoic Joze swirling in my head, and writing it now with the song playing in my headphones, I realize that it’s much like the movie itself: a simple, reassuring tune disguising lyrics of great sadness and frustration.

If Joze sounds a little bleak, I should stress that it isn’t. While it’s level-headed and unsentimental, it’s also never harsh: there’s real warmth in the film, and the way it eyes the the fumbling growth of its youthful protagonists is gentle, understated, and rarely judgmental. But precisely because the film unwraps itself so drily and without histrionics, the emotional reveal of the final moments, where we realize that it’s not going to make concessions to movie cliches and instead delivers the most heartrendingly phlegmatic breakup you will ever see, it hits home all the harder. Joze is the one film that moves me the most because it speaks the language of truth without violence or vanity, because, like its characters, its heart is so human, because the love it portrays is so sweet, hopeful, impudent, imperfect; because while its emotions are fleeting, the memories are permanent.

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4 thoughts on “Retrospective: Joze, the Tiger and the Fish (2003)

  1. I’ve been meaning to get this movie on DVD for a long time (I don’t like downloading from the Internet.). People told me this movie would make me very sad and depressed, though. They said it’s not the right movie for a single guy, hahaha. Then again, I think I would need to watch this; your article is very well-written yet persuasive. Hmmm..

    • I’m telling you, hyung… it’s the saddest movie you will ever see. It’s not sentimental at all, though. Just dry, mellow meditation on how fragile young love can be. Anybody who’s ever been in a failed relationship will find something to take away.

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