A couple of years ago I found the anime Princess Jellyfish in a list from the MarySue called “Anime for Adult Women.” (I was getting bored of watching high schoolers.) The socially-awkward cute girl and cross-dressing hot boy’s friendship hooked me from the start. Except, the story didn’t end with the last episode and there was no season two. What?! I found it was based on a manga by Akiko Higashimura and happily went through the entire storyline that way. Princess Jellyfish has become very popular with Western audiences, even being nominated for an Eisner. In an interview with the creator, they asked her why she thought so, and Higashimura answered that she had no idea! Well, Akiko, may I call you Akiko? Let me count the ways…
1. It is not set in high school. This is a modern-day world, but not in the halls of uniforms, school assignments, and bullies. How refreshing! Although the main character, Tsukimi Kurashita, is only eighteen, she lives in an adult world with roommates who are in their late twenties and thirties. They live in a traditional Japanese building, living off their parent’s incomes bemoaning the state of the economy. As NEETS (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) who have social anxiety, especially with men, they call themselves Amars (‘nuns’), and rarely leave their dwelling. The three men who become love interests are just that—men. One is in college, his older brother works in politics, and the third owns a clothing company. The other side characters have adult jobs. I’m not saying they all act like adults, but the series takes place in the adult world.
2. They are all geeks. With a couple of exceptions, the dozen or so characters in the series are fixated on something and socially awkward, but in unique ways. In Japan, they call this being an otaku. Tsukimi is all about jellyfish and drawing them, her roommates vary from trains, older men, traditional Japanese clothing (on dolls), to a Chinese historical text (Three Kingdoms). The main male character is obsessed with women’s fashion, and his chauffeur only cares about Mercedes Benz. They are all very silly, lovable, intense people. Just like English-speaking geeks!
3. It is an upside-down Cinderella. In the traditional tale, the main “ugly” girl character would be transformed into a princess and that’s how the prince falls in love with her. But in this story, there are three princes and it gets pretty confusing who is actually Cinderella. The plot centers around the unlikely friendship between Tsukimi and Kuranosuke. Tsukimi wears sweatpants, glasses, and her hair in messy braids. She can barely speak to strangers because she is so shy. Obsessed with a jellyfish in the window of a pet store, she freaks out when she sees that it might die, but she can’t get enough courage to speak coherently to the worker. Suddenly, a gorgeous and fashionably dressed woman steps in, is able to understand Tsukimi’s distress and buys the jellyfish for her. Tsukimi is awed by the woman’s confidence and beauty. The woman finds Tsukimi adorably odd and follows her home to ensure the jellyfish gets settled. Against Tsukimi’s wishes, the woman stays the night, too tired to go home, and the next morning, Tsukimi discovers the woman is actually a cross-dressing (and very beautiful) man named Kuranosuke.
Kuranosuke takes a liking to Tsukimi and her geeky world and keeps visiting, always in drag so the other Amars won’t be upset about a man being around. They become friends and Kuranosuke likes to dress Tsukimi up as a “normal” girl, transforming her, and he is surprised to find her very cute. As Kuranosuke develops romantic feelings for her, he wonders if the “fairy godmother” can ever get the girl. But at the same time, Tsukimi starts to design and create clothing, using Kuranosuke as inspiration and a model. She starts to transform him and even admits he is her princess.
3B The importance of Shu: The other “prince” is Kuranosuke’s brother Shu, who although first does not understand that the geeky sweatpants girl and the transformed cute girl are one and the same, he eventually does, and loves her both ways. He is the normal character in the story, though not without his own quirks. He is a virgin and is actually scared of woman, after witnessing his father cheating on his mother. But he is very kind, dutiful, and loyal to his family and those he cares about, in addition to being handsome and rich. It is he who experiences sexual abuse and although he reacts in a violent way, he later apologizes. His presence showcases how this story is not a typical Cinderella because he is truly a prince character, but not the reader’s first choice for Tsukimi.
3C: And then there is Kai, who most readers might call a ‘villain’, but I see as a third prince. He is attractive, rich, and truly admires Tsukimi. He steals her away from the other two guys, and although she only leaves at first because it will help her friends, she is also excited to be seeing the world and learning about becoming a fashion designer. Without too many spoilers, in the end, Kai blurs the lines between business and personal and is still very… close.
Although there is a proposal during the series, it doesn’t end with a wedding.
4. The woman’s choices do not center around getting a man. Tsukimi has no interest in men, and even when she gets signs that men are flirting with her, she quickly turns the situation around in her head because she is too shy and has low confidence. All her actions are fueled by her obsession with jellyfish or saving the home her friends live in—not boys. As her talent for designing clothes develops, she gets excited about that and wants to follow that dream, even if it means not getting a “prince.”
5. The characters make a lot of mistakes. The fashion industry is a big part of the plot and the characters try to get into it. They fail constantly, not understanding basic concepts of sewing or business. It is a learning experience for the reader as well! Although this is fiction, I enjoy when characters aren’t automatically skilled at something that truly would take years to develop. There is no montage scene, but with humor and romance, they stumble their way to the start of something successful.
6. The importance of mothers. Princess Jellyfish has a variety of mothers and how they impact their children. Tsukimi’s mother is dead, but her memory compels her daughter to design beautiful dresses. Kuranosuke’s mother is absent and he crossdresses as a way to feel closer to her. Shu’s mother is present and gives background support. Cheiko’s mother owns the building where they all live, but is away living up her older years, wishing her daughter would do something with her life.
7. Most of the speaking characters are female, and they rarely talk about boys. Yay! They talk about their own geeky pursuits, their home (and the threats on it), their work helping color a manga drawn by one of their most reclusive residents who only makes contact through sliding papers under their door, the emerging fashion designs of Tsukimi and their work bringing it to life, and food. They talk about food a lot.
8. There are a variety of body and hair types for women. This is so rare in ALL kinds of visual storytelling (around the world), but very happily received. One can only hope the popularity of this manga inspires all artists to get more creative in their representation of women in media.
9. Diversity in ethnicity. Kuranosuke (a main character) is Japanese-Italian and it’s no big deal; in fact, he is considered beautiful no matter what he wears. There are two Indian characters and two Singaporeans (side characters, but fully-fleshed out), and time in Italy with, duh, Italians.
10. Interesting “villains.” There is no one truly ‘evil’ in this series, which is a plus because it more reflects the real world where people may make the wrong choices in life, but for complex reasons. The first obstacle in the plot is that a real estate developer is buying up all the old, traditional buildings in the neighborhood where Tsukimi and her friends live to knock them down and build modern buildings. The worker on the deal is Inari, a woman with success on her mind and she will do whatever it takes to get it. This is the same as the second ‘villain’, Kai, who is a man with success on his mind and will do whatever it takes to get it. Unfortunately, the reader never gets to see Inari’s backstory to understand her drive, but it is inferred that she is one of the few females in a male-dominated field with few options, and her boss is always breathing down her neck. Kai comes in later in the series and is more interested in Tsukimi and her creative skills than the building, though he uses it as a bargaining tool. We get Kai’s backstory and are immediately sympathetic to his motivation. Both Kai and Inari use their sexuality to achieve their ends, but only Inari is painted as “bad” for doing it, which leads me to…
11. Fascinating commentary on clothes and society. There is so much about clothing in Princess Jellyfish, both how clothes define their wearer, and how the wearer changes how clothes are viewed. Kuranosuke completely transforms himself with clothing, using it to escape his life, “donning your armor.” Which is exactly what the Amars use clothing for as well, to hide from real life, although they go about it in different ways. Kai’s backstory brings the importance of clothing to a new level, on how clothing can make your dreams come true, and how you can use clothing to exploit others. That section also explains that different societies (Japan versus China, for example) view color and fashion differently. Kuranosuke and Kai see the potential clothing can have on people, both the ones wearing it and the ones viewing them. Transforming through clothing is possible for everyone. The story also says that if you care about someone, you will recognize them (and love them) no matter what they wear. It makes the reader think about their own clothing and what it says about them!
Not All Perfect: There are certainly some problematic issues with Princess Jellyfish. The mother are more diverse than in fairy tales, but it still lacks an active, positive, mother figure. Kuronosuke’s cross-dressing is seen as something to be fixed, and although it’s fine to make a strong point that he is not gay (so the romantic interest is there), it goes further than that to make homosexuality a joke in many instances throughout the series. All the “good” women in the manga are virgins, while the “bad” woman, Inari, sleeps around. That’s ridiculously sexist. Especially since the two brothers, Shu and Kuranosuke are both “good” and one is a virgin while the other sleeps around. And Inari being turned on by an angry man who hits her is not a healthy image.
Still, those are minor points compared to the overall message of accepting yourself and others in a highly entertaining story with sweet romance, lots of humor, and unique characters (I didn’t even get into how entertaining the side characters are like Hanamori.) It ends with one of the “Princes” saying that Tsukimi may or may not choose him or any of them, and that’s ok. And that’s why, Akiko, Princess Jellyfish is a hit with Western audiences, and why you should check it out!
Quick shout out to ShojoandTell podcast. I wrote this post and then listened to your podcast about Princess Jellyfish, and we came to many of the same points!