Thursday, May 17, 2012

Princess Jellyfish: Ambiguity and Fashionable Geekdom

I love this series because it is sweet and entertaining, but it's also got depth, refusing to offer simple scenarios or simple answers. Also because it hits a little too close to home in both a good and bad way, and far more directly than any other anime that I can make that claim about.

Tsukimi Kurashita is an eighteen-year-old girl who moved to Tokyo to become an illustrator. However, she has not gone anywhere yet, and is living in a small apartment block with "The Sisterhood": four slightly older women, and one female manga artist who is never seen and communicates with notes under the door. All visible members are "otaku", characterized by obsessive focus on a single thing, and with the typical social awkwardness and unfashionable dressing this suggests.

For Tsukimi, her "thing" is jellyfish, which are also connected to nostalgic memories of her deceased mother. When she makes the regular trip to the pet shop to talk to her jellyfish friend, "Clara" (a play on "Kura", as in "Kurage", the Japanese word for jellyfish), she sees Clara's tank now has another jelly species whose secretions are poisonous to her/it. Tsukimi tries to muster up the courage to talk to the hip clerk in the closed shop, but can't succeed…before a glamorous girl shows up and demands Clara for Tsukimi. Shocked at the kindness of one of "The Stylish", Tsukimi takes Clara home with the girl in tow.

This girl is actually a boy: Kuranosuke Koibuchi, the illegitimate son of a powerful political family. Kuranosuke regardless lives with his father, and cross-dresses to come off as too crazy for politics, and to reconnect with the glamorous mother who was pressured into giving him up. Kuranosuke genuinely likes living with the Sisterhood, keeping up with a disguise that only Tsukimi knows is false, which is good, because the apartment is a "nunnery", with no male tenants allowed.

Kuranosuke also wants to be the one to get them dressing better and acting better, especially because their apartment block is threatened by redevelopment, and they need to become respectable to protest it. Furthermore, they are going to try to raise money to buy the building. They start out with the flea market, and end up trying to create a line of jellyfish-themed dresses for sale. Oh, and in the middle is a very awkward love triangle between Tsukimi, Kuranosuke, and Kuranosuke's older ("legitimate") brother, Shu.

Shu catches sight of the first made-over Tsukimi and is immediately smitten, despite their being over a decade of age difference (Shu is thirty). It takes a long time for Shu to realize who Tsukimi is, seeing her several times in her regular sweats, and assuming the made-over Tsukimi is a different girl. The age difference is, I guess, supposed to be overwritten by different cultural standards, and the fact that Shu is a virgin who's never been kissed or been on a date, putting him on a "young" level and equivalent to Tsukimi's inexperience, but it's still a little creepy.

There's a fourth person who has the potential to get with nobody but Shu: Shoko Inari, a woman involved with the area development. She slips Shu a mickey and tries to convince him they had sex, in order to blackmail him into supporting the project to Shu's father. There are some genuinely poignant moments at first, when Shu comes staggering home with his clothes rumpled, and then goes to Tsukimi's just to hold her hand, but the rest of the story is played mostly for comedy.

Inari fancies herself a femme fatale and expert manipulator, but is prone to explosive, cartoony rages and behaving like a child. When Inari starts following Shu around to get her blackmail, it's played as comedic rather than disturbing. To make it worse, it eventually looks like Inari might be falling for Shu genuinely. Neither the anime nor the manga has anything happen between them, but the direction creates further discomfort. It's not entirely okay for Shu to be in love with Tsukimi, but this isn't the best alternative.

A series about female geeks, in large number and without male counterparts (though one could argue that Kuranosuke is a "fashion geek", and his family has a chauffeur named Hanamori who is quite obsessed with his Benzes), is something unusual. That it's unusual is not surprising, given certain perceptions of gender, but it's good to have something different, anything that demonstrates that female characters can be flawed in that very real way, without pulling back. Though Tsukimi has the most development, you would know people like every "Nun" if you hang in geeky communities. The only exception might be Mayaya, obsessed with the Three Kingdoms, who becomes a "cartoon" by yelling her sentences and making vaguely martial-arts poses and hand movements.

Of course, few pieces of popular fiction remain static as their story progresses, and these characters must change from what they were. The use of makeovers does mean the story is simply about the female characters learning to be "normal", however. There are many layers to the presentation, so that the audience is not left with a simple understanding of what Tsukimi "ought" to be.

Sometimes there is the sense that Tsukimi should break free of her otaku bubble, with her friends being potential dead weight because they have weaker characterization and less ambition. The major exception is Chieko, invested in traditional Japanese dolls and clothing. Her mother owns the building and she functions as the "den mother" and is also a wizard at sewing, meaning she has some skills and practical intelligence to offer. Chieko helps to make sure Tsukimi's friends aren't just obstacles to her becoming "normal".

Yet at the same time, Chieko is not as complex as Tsukimi, and the rest of them (Bamba, Mayaya, Jiji), are far less competent. They are eternally reluctant to help out and easily distracted, by their obsessions, their laziness, some good food, or by their fears and persecution complexes in regards to the fashionable elite. So the picture is not rosy either.

Tsukimi also keeps switching back and forth in her appearance, and Kuranosuke in fact surprises himself by being happy the first time he has seen Tsukimi changed back. Tsukimi's musings also include questioning of whether women truly do need to become "princesses" to be happy.

Kuranosuke also starts to perform his technique on all the other "outside" girls except for Chieko (whose signature kimono can blend in with the fashionable), and they continue to be unchanged in other ways. When Kuranosuke takes them all out to a cafe, Bamba is watching for trains and Jiji is watching for old men, their respective obsessions. Furthermore, Tsukimi's love of jellyfish, the main characteristic of her geekdom, becomes fuel for artistic creativity, meaning that not everything about her needs to be changed. The popular presumption that a makeover will make a character automatically more poised is therefore challenged, but it could go other ways than just to make it so that fashionable dressing is no big deal.

Before this, it is also made clear that the Sisterhood has a persecution complex/fear of "The Stylish" that at first seems ridiculous once we meet the friendly and glamorous Kuranosuke, whom everyone but Tsukimi are unjustifiably abrasive towards when they first meet him. Yet Inari and others also confirm their implied fears, that "The Stylish" are not only different from they are, but predatory and nasty.

This is what I mean by Princess Jellyfish offering no easy answers, and audience reaction to it is bound to be equally complex. While a story isn't obligated to be politically correct, it's always harder to get viewers on your side if a story has the already-looked down on groups of society do as they are already encouraged to do in real life. And where is the line between taking care of yourself and arbitrary standards of beauty? It is convincing when Kuranosuke tells the Sisterhood that to be taken seriously in protest against the development, they must dress respectfully, i.e. fashionably, but Kuranosuke, as a disguised boy, can also reject the trappings of femininity anytime he wants, while the Sisterhood, as women, are asked to consider them obligatory rather than a personal preference. One's interpretation of what this series is doing may depend largely on their personal experiences.

One could argue that Princess Jellyfish involves pandering to its audience, with what is technically a story about a plain girl (potentially) getting a beautiful boy. Yet pandering is fine if it's not obvious, and the quality of the main characterizations, and the constant shifting the series undergoes makes Princess Jellyfish at least look objective. The makeover plots have made so that Princess Jellyfish can't be a total reversal of the "plain guy gets beautiful girl" plot already, either.

However pandering, romantic, or comedic Princess Jellyfish might become, though, Tsukimi's awkwardness and fears feel extremely real for anyone who has ever undergone something similar. ANNCast even made note that Princess Jellyfish is a series that is about a fundamentally female experience, or at least, a contemporary, urban "female experience" rather than a universal one. It maybe Japanese, but I, as a North American viewer, still "got it". It's not about Princess Jellyfish being a "chick show", but something more about the day-to-day living as a young woman whose life didn't follow the script, both by accident and design. Yet anime fandom was raving about this series, so it must speak to male viewers as well.

Princess Jellyfish is not perfect. As I suggested, the focus is on Tsukimi, and while the other members of the Sisterhood  have character, they don't change or develop as the plot progresses, and often serve as just comic relief or sewing machines. While the makeover plots mostly do a good job of justifying themselves, Kuranosuke's desire to get rid of Tsukimi's glasses or saddle the girls with high heels brings slight physical crippling into the mix and is harder to accept.

I also have a slight preference for the original manga version. The anime isn't bad, but in the name of finishing off a series while the manga is still ongoing, the characters' outward problem is solved too quickly, as Chieko's mother shows up and tells them she isn't selling the building after all, and the love story is still left open. It's better than if the series went on longer and added more of its own off-the-cuff material, but it means the series is not as fulfilling as it could have been. The manga version takes more time to flesh out the story of characters trying to solve their money woes, and probably will finish off the romantic aspect in some way. Unfortunately, only the anime is officially available in English, while the manga is confined to scanlations.

Aesthetically the series is also successful, though the realistic setting dictates everything be low-key. The dubbing is good, so is the original Japanese acting, and the score is okay. The animation in the TV series is decent, and the artwork is great. Every character looks distinct, which is especially good for the female cast, because female animation designs rarely have that same sense of character that male designs are allowed. All of the Sisterhood looks different, and though tiny, afro'ed Bamba and lanky, square-jawed Mayaya might seem too unfeminine for some viewers, it's refreshing to have this difference.

The opening is cute, with the characters acting out western pop culture references, but the song is the singer's plea to live a gentle life without frustration, and one wonders if it is meant to be critical of the main cast. The closing series has child versions of the Sisterhood and Kuranosuke playing in a park, depicted with a lack of outlines and a slow camera pan, and it's cute in a different way.

This review is so long because Princess Jellyfish is just that great. In some ways it's a different kind of series, and the progression isn't obvious or easy for anyone involved. Tsukimi is easy to relate to, but the writers aren't afraid to let her change..yet without removing what makes her interesting. A lot of things remain anyone's guess, and if the elements described have intrigued anyone, the series is worth your time.

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