July’s Year of Anime entry is finally here! Excuse the mess, a lot has been happening. Princess Jellyfish seemed like a good entry for the summer, and while it delivered, it also has a ton of little criticisms and comments that I didn’t anticipate when I took it on. Let’s look into them!
Princess Jellyfish is a 2010 anime from Brain’s Base, adapted from the manga of the same name by Akiko Higashimura, which ran from 2008-2017. The story follows Tsukimi Kurashita, a hopeful illustrator with an intense love of jellyfish, which remind her of her late mother. Tsukimi lives in a girls-only apartment building called Amamizukan in Shibuya with other otaku, who each have their own obsession, and call themselves “the Sisterhood.” One day, Tsukimi saves a jellyfish from certain death at a pet store with the help of a beautiful girl who is later revealed to be a cross-dresser named Kuranosuke, the illegitimate son of a wealthy politician. With very strict no-boys rules in her building, Tsukimi negotiates friendships, potential romance, and the looming construction project that threatens to take her apartment away with Kuranosuke’s help.
Character Goals and Story
Princess Jellyfish is mostly a character study, focusing on the gradual changes to Tsukimi’s social life, however it didn’t seem to me like this was any of Tsukimi’s doing at all right up until the last few episodes. At the start, we get to hear about her backstory, as well as her motivations, potential goals, and her relationships with others, and almost immediately, the anime steers us in another diretion to show how much growth she really needs. This happens primarily through Kuranosuke and his family, but Tsukimi makes some discoveries on her own. Some of the initial setup was integrated later but for the most part, the character development is guaranteed a set endpoint, while how the anime chooses to arrive there is anyone’s guess. I felt strung along by the whims of each episode without any clear idea of where I would end up. This was exciting, but also worrying since I was keenly aware of how short the show was the whole time.
While the idea of a jellyfish dress was in the show from the get-go, its inclusion near the end took me by surprise because Tsukimi’s character looked like it was going somewhere else. Up until that point Tsukimi is pretty passive, allowing her circumstances to move around her, and this attitude made the plot somewhat hard to follow, because it was never clear what she really wanted. Princess Jellyfish’s strength lies in its uninhibited interactions at the Sisterhood, where all of the quirky residents are shown living their lives in a sort of wacky harmony. This exploration of character was charming, genuine, and gave a glimpse into how otaku interests work when they aren’t tied to the obvious “manga, anime, video games” tendencies. The obsessive interests of the Sisterhood meant that Princess Jellyfish operated in order to allow each character to play a part in upcoming episodes. The girls’ interests were all incorporated into the anime’s challenges, and I wish that we’d seen more of their collective antics – which is a weird thing to say since the story revolves around Amamizukan and all the goings-on that affect it.
Gender Trouble (Judith Butler Strikes Again)
Ok, film theory jokes aside, Princess Jellyfish deals heavily with the idea of performativity; how you act a certain way in society, negotiating yourself to fit the needs and wants of others, and the tensions that rise from that. Performativity correlates heavily to gender in the film scholar Judith Butler’s sense of the word in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble. She argues that gender is seen in how we dress, talk, socialize, etc. Princess Jellyfish really runs with this concept, evident in Kuranosuke’s crossdressing, Shu’s virginity, Tsukimi’s “not-like-other-girls” hangups (same goes for all of the sisterhood), and the family histories of both Kuranosuke and Tsukimi relating to love, marriage, and identity. The use of gender in Princess Jellyfish actually explains my issues with the characters, since it can be read as characters clashing with performativity –the characters are forced to reconcile themselves with how society sees them –though this still doesn’t sit well with me for how abruptly the plot circles back to the jellyfish dress near the end.
The portrayal of gender in Princess Jellyfish was definitely…of its time. For all of its questions about societal expectations, and the potential for questioning gender and how it wraps up with personal histories, it still seemed quite off. It’s a little looked down upon, for instance, to imply that Kuranosuke and Shu’s sexuality is informed solely based on ‘daddy issues’ – especially Kuranosuke, who also seems to be subconsciously emulating his mother by crossdressing, slowly becoming more heteronormative as he continues to hang out with Tsukimi and develops feelings for her. Nowadays, psychoanalysis doesn’t sit so well with discussions of gender, since it tends to sap it of its emotional side. All this to say that I wasn’t entirely on board with how out of the way Princess Jellyfish went to justify the behaviours of its characters.
Tsukimi and Worth
Piggybacking off of gender, Tsukimi’s growth is worth it’s own point. Princess Jellyfish is ultimately the story of an insecure girl coming out of her shell and making friends. At first, Tsukimi is shy, neurotic, and generally looks down on others for appearing “hipster.” As she befriends Kuranosuke, she slowly becomes more comfortable with makeup and fashion, however the insecurity at her core never truly goes away. Similar to Sophie Hatter in Howl’s Moving Castle, Tsukimi has to find something deeper than the approval of others in order to truly change, however this didn’t seem fully realized in the anime, and left her at a crossroads of possible attitudes.
Tsukimi’s self-image issues aren’t just because of her resistance to being “normal.” Even once she starts to open up to more feminine looks, she’s still shunned by her friends in Amamizukan, and even has a mistaken identity subplot with her crush, Shu, who doesn’t know who she is unless she’s in makeover mode. Navigating rigid stereotypes goes both ways, since Tsukimi also judges herself harshly for wanting to put in effort or veer away from her norm. This is very similar to themes explored in Watamote, where Tomoko would berate others and herself in equal measure for daring to try and look good for others (and herself), but in Tsukimi’s case, it’s more a matter of her naivety than anything. Tsukimi just doesn’t get life experience if she holes up in her Sisterhood. Princess Jellyfish shows her becoming confident as she gets out into the world.
Pacing and Stakes
Princess Jellyfish, while enjoyable, feel-good and sweet, had a ton of pacing issues. There are several plotlines competing for attention in the span of only 11 episodes, and to make matters worse, the plot that ends up happening feels completely coincidental. It felt very surreal, just watching things unfold with little understanding of why they happened. Between the land development deal (and Shu’s sexually manipulative business rival), concealing Kuranosuke’s gender to allow him to mingle with Tsukimi, the fashion show, and Tsukimi’s love of jellyfish (which intertwines with missing her late mother), there was just way too much going on. I desperately wanted the anime to pick a struggle, but it seemed like there was too much potential in each plot to consider dropping any of them.
Many of Princess Jellyfish’s plotlines could very well have been consolidated and still achieve the same outcome, but that’s just this reviewer’s opinion. The manga very well could handle these plots better with its longer runtime. Given the anime’s reputation, I’m surprised at how rushed the whole thing felt to me, and I’m sure that adaptation had something to do with how I feel about it. Luckily, Princess Jellyfish does a good job of patching up these issues with heartfelt moments, so most of the time the realization that things didn’t make too much sense came after the fact. In other words, the anime emphasized subtle emotions but seemed to rely on an overflow of events to draw those emotions out.
Princess Jellyfish took a while for me to review properly, and a huge part of that was because I was at a loss for how to talk about it. I had heard really good things but ultimately felt let down in the end because of the show’s rushed handling of what should’ve been important emotional beats, and questionable attention to plots that weren’t worth it in the long run. Don’t get me wrong, Princess Jellyfish was still enjoyable, but I found that its surprisingly heavy discussion of gender and society was so unique that the rest of its plot fell away and didn’t manage to pick up the slack. Weird, that!
I feel that somehow, the anime I look forward to the most in my YOA schedules end up giving me mixed feelings and strange results. I wasn’t expecting Princess Jellyfish to go in the directions it did, but expectation alone wasn’t responsible for my overall thoughts. This anime had a ton of potential, invited discussions among my friends, and had such a gorgeous style to it, however I found that these qualities didn’t help me understand the anime the way I needed. Princess Jellyfish offered some compelling ideas and hints of deeper development, but I felt that these things never really came into their own. The anime does a wonderful job of capturing adulthood when it feels like you’re a little behind in the world, and I wish that this part of Tsukimi’s arc could have been explored more. I still think it’s a great anime, just maybe not my thing. And that’s ok!