Inudo Isshin is a well-known Japanese independent director who began his career in marketing and advertising. Two People Talking (1995) won the First Prize at the Sundance Film Festival held in Tokyo. Across a Gold Prairie (2000), a film about an eighty year old man waking up one morning thinking he is 20 years old, was shown at the Berlinale's Forum.
Inudo, who has also signed a few screenplays successfully directed by others — Osaka Stories for Ichikawa Jun and Yomigaeri for Shinoda Akihiko —, created All About my Dog, a co-directed film in sections, and Himiko's House, starring Shibasaki Kou, about the relationship between a young woman and her gay father, both in 2005.
Jozee to Tora to Sakanatachi is a romantic drama between two very uncommon protagonists. The boy Tsuneo is a young hedonist who does not care much about the opposite sex other than physically. The girl Kumiko lives apart from society, not only because she is poor but also mainly for being handicapped and confined to the scanty house she shares with her grandmother.
At first sight this story may seem trivial and more appropriate to be turned into another "real life drama". Actually, the characters develop not accordingly to what one might expect of their stereotypes, i.e., a "graduate student" and a "poor handicapped girl". Tsuneo may partially fulfill his but not in the way it is usually portrayed in films.
Kumiko, who introduces herself as Josée, a name she took from a character by French female writer Françoise Sagan (1935-2004), has little contact with the outside world but cherishes a deep passion for reading. Her grandmother gathers the books she reads amongst the neighborhood's garbage. Tsuneo comes across her by accident but moves closer — first out of curiosity and then for finding out she is an outstanding cook.
Kana (Ueno Juri) comes up in the narrative as the beautiful and perfect girl, the opposite of Kumiko. Graduating in social welfare it is only natural she would want to help Kumiko and her grandmother at Tsuneo's request, but the strain builds up to a breaking point as a love triangle emerges.
The most interesting character is of course Kumiko/Josée, but the supporting roles are very well fleshed out. Josée's friend appears at the beginning as a comic relief, a kind of weirdo you might expect to find in an Imamura's film, but his presence turns out to be very important for us to get to know her better.
Kana is a vital character because she is the one forcing Tsuneo to make a choice. It is the kind of character that usually gets undermined — used and dismissed once her mission is accomplished. This is not the case; although hers is a secondary role, she is credible and very human in all her strengths and frailties.
Jozee to Tora to Sakanatchi finds more substance in its characters rather than its text. Their strength gives us the rare experience of forgetting that we are dealing with fiction and just focus on the characters' path, not questioning the screenplay but their choices instead. And this is one of the most satisfying feelings you can get out of a motion picture.