"Princess Jellyfish": This One's Dedicated to All the Fangirls in the Anime Club
I think a lot alternate titles and taglines could be floated for Princess Jellyfish. It’s Welcome to the NHK (Ladies Edition). It’s Densha Fujoshi. It’s Reverse Genshiken. It’s Ikebukuro@Deep. However, I think even in an era where anime is at least occasionally honest enough to be directly reflexive and self-analytical, it’s refreshing to see the same viewpoint applied to the oft-neglected female otaku culture.
Don’t get me wrong, Princess Jellyfish may run on the only animation block in Japan, FujiTV’s Noitamina, that actually seems to give a care about animating josei titles and preserving variety in anime in general, with fantastic titles like Honey & Clover and (sadly still un-licenced) Nodame Cantabile being the direct result of Noitamina’s commitment to providing variety in an ever-narrowing, moe-rinsed animation scene in Japan. However, it seems like a series like this was almost over-due. I shouldn’t complain, though, as good things come to those who wait: Princess Jellyfish has all of the delicious otaku introspection and humor of Welcome to the NHK with an even more realistic bend, yet with a warmer, bittersweet feel. It’s almost impossible not to connect with it as an animation fan, and there is something brilliant about that.
Our story opens with Tsukimi, an aspiring illustrator who has just moved to Tokyo from the suburbs. She’s everything you’d never expect about a female lead in anime these days: an adult, socially awkward nerd who isn’t anything close to pretty. Her hair is unkempt and unfashionable, her eyebrows are bushy, her freckles detract from her complexion, and her fashion sense is absent. Her friends are similarly realistic, if not so over the top as to border on parody. Otaku aren’t a pretty bunch, and if anything it underlines that even the relatively realistic settings of shows like NHK and Genshiken still pandered a tiny a bit at the end of the day by having relatively cute female cast members. Anyways, Tsukimi’s got some very bittersweet bits of tragedy in her past (some of which comment caustically about the treatment of women in Japanese society), but which is thankfully balanced by her over-the-top neurosis in regards to stylish people. It’s a line the show consistently pursues: bittersweet drama surrounded by near-slapstick and occasional parody. The resulting emotional gumbo is just endearing.
You see, she’s part of a motley crew of fujoshi who live together in the same apartment complex, and as they are all sans-boyfriends, they call themselves the Sisterhood. You know, like a nunnery. They are all intensely awkward: they gasp in horror at the thought of Tsukimi visiting the terribly stylish and fashion-forward Shibuya, even though all she wants to do is see an aquarium’s jelly fish exhibit, and they very, very proactively attempt to keep this bubble they live in absolutely perfect by making sure no one else moves in who isn’t a similarly prime specimen of fujoshi-dom. Or, to put it another way, there are no boys allowed.
Then things get flipped, when, after a failed attempt by Tsukimi to warn a shopkeeper than he’s put the wrong kind of jellyfish together in the same tank, she stumbles into Kuranosuke, someone so perfectly cliché in her shoujo manga beauty that Tsukimi refers to her as a princess. Thanks to Kuranosuke’s intervention, the jellyfish is saved as she easily, yet firmly convinces the shopkeeper to just give Tsukimi the jellyfish since it would be dead anyway otherwise. They take it back, and after an awkward run in with one of the other socially awkward tenants, Kuranosuke ends up crashing on Tsukimi’s floor, much to her dismay.
Oh, and I shouldn’t have been using female pronouns to describe Kuranosuke.
Ah, just when the nunnery couldn’t get more bizarre, it’s time for that classic shoujo manga staple: a cross-dresser. This also means there is a man in the girls-only clubhouse. Additionally, he’s a politician’s nephew and comes from an old political family, and he’s not going to have a thing to do with politics. He wants to be in fashion. Huh. Look at the time; it’s comedy o’ clock.
From there on, it only gets sweeter, darker and weirder. From a hot pot party turned into a social train wreck (then a delicious feast) thanks to the girls’ complete inability to cope with fashionable people, to saving the apartment building from becoming the victim of redevelopment, which pits the Sisterhood against a manipulative business woman/date rapist, the show runs the gamut of emotion, and does so effortlessly. At the same time, the various subplots gives the title more texture and depth than a pure comedy would have. Kuranosuke’s motivations for why he’s a cross-dresser, and for why he’s suddenly entranced with the girls of the Sisterhood make what would be in many other anime a weak, one-note character much more interesting and complex. The Sisterhood should seem fairly stagnant as well, but ultimately, even though they are trapped by their particular otaku motivations, be that jellyfish or trains or kimonos or the Three Kingdoms, they are ultimately shown to be strong heroines rather than pitiable clichés.
Alas, in the midst of all this boldness and freshness are some cliché moments. Pulling the most overdone possible page out of the book, Tsukimi is made over in one episode by Kuranosuke, and of course, thanks to his able fashion skills, she’s just stunning, and that is very old hat. Yet, it’s somehow really satisfying. Maybe because it’s not as simple of as the old, take-the-glasses-off-and-she’s-gorgeous-bit; it takes some effort. Maybe it’s because it’s quickly twisted into another fun trope, with Kuranosuke’s budding politician brother being the first admire the now hopelessly gorgeous Tsukimi, which has its own savory repercussions. Maybe it’s the childish but honest misunderstanding of Kuranosuke’s intentions on the part of Tsukimi. Maybe it’s because as much as it’s a love-letter to fujoshi and otaku, moments like the one mentioned chastise their self-isolation, and by extension the general isolation of any sort of grouping that starts to say one should dress like this if they’re into this or that, otherwise that person is some how outside of the culture. Probably it’s that last one, because as a huge nerd who enjoys some deathly unnerdy things myself, I can relate to it. I’d venture that’s something any nerd can say, yet it’s a conflict that’s not often addressed, showing perhaps that even during its most clichéd moments, Princess Jellyfish ultimately still breaks ground.
I won’t go into the rest of the story, but it’s really quite good, and there is no reason I wouldn’t recommend it to anime fan on that basis. In fact, titles like this, that deftly balance humor and pathos, have been less common, so I really recommend it on story and characterization to long-term fans. This title will probably hook you in more ways than one, and it’s something you’ve probably not seen in a while. Just when you think you’ve worked out a character fully, another little tweak will make you love them or loath them just that little bit more. Just when you’ve think it’ll be madcap, you’ll be crying along with the characters, and then you’ll be laughing again. Just when you think they are going to simply fall back on a trope or sentimentalism, it’s grounded by something much richer and anti-traditional. Even the denouement, which is perhaps not even that explicit in its resolution of certain plot points, is great. The series will totally subvert those plot threads it has led you to think will be the most important.
Of course, we otaku can be pretty nit-picky about the technical details, but those are delightfully in check as well. FUNimation did a bang up job on the subtitles as they are readable on anything from a mobile device to a large TV, and while it would’ve been a dream to have it up streaming in 720p for those with set-top boxes or HTPCs, the 480p stream is quite crisp. The animation is mostly fluid, with very nice little flourishes in the background that truly set it apart from other josei titles, and the episode pacing and direction are brisk, semi-episodic and downright fun. The music isn’t particularly notable during the show, but the opening and closing have a delightfully indie rock touch to them, with vocals that haven’t been autotuned and processed to death as well.
Frankly, I would buy this show right now if I could; Princess Jellyfish is that fantastic. FUNimation would be foolish to not release a hard copy as it’s something they could use to hook the fandom they locked down with Fruits Basket and Ouran High School Host Club, especially as they get out of high school and into adult hood. I think they could do an absolutely dreamy dub for it as well, and it’d be a great complement to other titles running on the linear FUNimation Channel if not something they could maybe sneak on a women’s network like Oxygen. Alas, it’s only available for free on YouTube, Hulu and FUNimation.com. The only caveat is that it’s sub-only, but I imagine for the target audience of this program that isn’t a hang up.
So, I guess that means you should just watch the show. Hop to it.