Kotaro Tamura’s process for finding his next project was simple.

“Kadokawa handed me a bunch of novels,” he said at the Variety Streaming Room presented by Funimation and moderated by Jazz Tangcay. The Kadokawa Daiei Studio had known they wanted to produce an anime film adapted from a work of literature and decided Tamura was the right man for the job. Thus, “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish,” based on Seiko Tanabe’s 1984 short story of the same name, was born. The film tells the story of Josee (Kaya Kiyohara), a wheelchair user whose grandmother keeps her at home for most of her time until she meets and falls for a boy named Tsuneo (Taishi Nakagawa).

Tamura drew from unorthodox visual references when figuring out the art style of the film.

“I’ve always loved watching commercials on TV,” he said. “Short films that you make to try to convey what the product is all about, and trying to sell a product through these short stories. I really like the challenge that comes with that. One of the types of commercials that I was really inspired by were makeup commercials. Commercials with makeup have a lot of this sort of watery, hydrated feeling to it — which I thought was a really good fit for this type of love story.”

The film’s focus on college students also had a visual impact: close-up shots and blurred backgrounds are used to mimic the narrow perspective of characters who are “still learning about the world.” Additionally, Tamura chose to use hand-drawn animation instead of digital specifically because the characters’ reluctance to say how they feel out loud required extra precision in the emotions displayed by their facial expressions.

Tamura also explained how “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish” approaches disability differently than stories he was used to seeing. 

“Josee’s disability is actually a birth defect. She was born without being able to walk, and a lot of movies out there that showcase people with disabilities are usually about them losing their ability sometime in their life and then having to adjust their lives around that disability. Whereas in this film, she was already born with this. We didn’t really need to focus on how she was going to adapt to life with this.”

Instead of using Josee’s disability as a device for character growth, her character arc emerges like anyone else’s. “We decided her growth is going to be from the inside of her mind, as personality growth,” Tamura said.

Watch the full conversation above.