Saturday, January 19, 2013

Princess Jellyfish Review

"Hi Mom. Well, you were right. It's been six months already since I moved to Tokyo to try and make it as an illustrator. Here in this sprawling spectacle of a metropolis there are a lot of princesses, but... I'm sorry Mom, that's where the bad news comes in. I'm not sure where I went wrong, but somewhere along the way, instead of becoming a princess, somehow, I just ended up being a freak."

Princess Jellyfish is an 11-episode anime produced by Brain's Base, based on a manga by Akiko Higashimura. It first aired in 2010, and is currently licensed by Funimation. The manga is as of yet unlicensed.

Tsukimi Kurashita's fondest childhood memories were with her late mother. It was her mother who first took her to the aquarium where she developed her lifelong passion for jellyfish. It was also her mother who assured Tsukimi that she would blossom into a beautiful princess. She's now 18 and living a very different life than she expected, having turned into a socially awkward amateur illustrator. She finds herself living in Amamizukan, a dorm occupied entirely by eccentric female otaku where the "stylish" are feared enemies and bringing a man home is said to be punishable by death. Her life is turned upside-down, however, when she befriends the beautiful Kurako Koibuchi, who ends up staying the night at her place. It isn't until the next morning that she discovers "Kurako" is actually a crossdresser named Kuranosuke. Getting rid of him isn't as easy as kicking him out of the building, he takes an interest in Tsukimi and her friends and keeps coming back and she must continue to hide his gender so as not to face expulsion or worse. As time goes by and they get to know him better, the Sisterhood discovers they may need Kuranosuke more than they know... and he may need them as well.

Immediately getting on my good side, Higashimura's distinctive character designs work wonders for this series where other artists might not have even given it a second thought. The residents of the Amamizukan don't look like your typical anime girls, they're not designed to be beautiful or attractive and this helps to make their awkwardness all the more believable, but they're not repulsive either. There's still enough charm to them that they can be quite cute at times, and when Kuranosuke gives them all makeovers they take on a much more conventionally appealing aesthetic while still remaining completely recognizable. Brain's Base doesn't slack in the animation department, either; movements are mostly pretty fluid, albeit with some occasional hiccups, and show's overall art design is welcoming. The color scheme for this show in particular is incredibly warm, bright and inviting, with plenty of flourish to keep it visually engaging. On a whole, this is a shining example of what the studio can achieve both technically and artistically, brimming with panache and enthusiasm. It looks great.

The music exists, I guess. I think they were going for a big city feel, like a tribute to some of those rom-com flicks set in New York (why is it always New York?) and it pulls this off competently, but never really goes above and beyond. There's the playfully seductive piano, a little jazz, what sounds to be the clarinet accenting its more low-key moments, but it's hardly exceptional and even in execution there are some moments where it could have been handled better. There's one scene in which Kuranosuke is struggling to come to terms with the possibility that he's fallen for Tsukimi, while Tsukimi is confronting her own insecurities. In between all of this, the Sisterhood realizes that Kuranosuke's boobs are fake but assume he's just a flat-chested woman. This is an emotionally complex, tonally diverse scene, and it would have worked a lot better if the music dipped and swelled to match these different moments instead of just running a gentle contemplative piece over the entire thing. It's a passable soundtrack but certainly nothing to write home about. The opening and ending theme, however, are both excellent and neither is worth skipping over.

The voice acting for the Japanese track is top-notch across the board, able to handle both the show's comedic and dramatic sides with finesse, and I guess that's all that needs to be said about it. From what I've heard, the general reaction to the dub for this series has been overwhelmingly positive, but I could see it potentially making some viewers uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with the acting, which is generally pretty solid. Heck, Josh Grelle as Kuranosuke is a downright highlight for being able to bounce perfectly between the character's feminine and masculine sides, and talents like Maxey Whitehead, Monica Rial, Leah Clark and Ian Sinclair really do pour all their hearts into their respective roles. The problem I find with the dub--and let me preface this by saying that many of you probably won't mind at all--is in the script, which is peppered with dated colloquialisms and attempts to sound "trendy" that ultimately just comes off as immature more than anything. I realize that's part of the joke and I have nothing against liberal, interpretive dubs that focus on preserving the intent of the original dialog rather than the precise content, it's just piled on a little thick for my taste and I could see plenty of other viewers--not just the sub purists--having the same reaction. Give the dub a try, and if you're fine with the first episode it probably won't bother you from there. It bothered me and I still really enjoyed the dub, so maybe I'm just nitpicking.

This show does have some dramatic moments and honest themes to convey, but even then it's often tongue-in-cheek so let's start by looking at the humor. The comedic moments in this show can be situational, slapstick, satirical, referential or some combination of these things, and I'm happy to say it's really funny... about two-thirds of the time. What happened to the other third? Well, maybe they were trying to create a warm sense of familiarity, but some of the jokes here get recycled too often and emphasized too much for comfort. The first time Kuranosuke accidentally refers to himself as a boy and Tsukimi goes through her "oh boy" cover-up singing routine, it's kinda funny, but this keeps happening with little variation and quickly wears out its welcome. The girls' "defense mechanism" of turning to stone in uncomfortable public places and Tsukimi's tendency to jump to the most pessimistic conclusion about everything also get pretty repetitive.

Still, even if a few of its jokes are overused, don't let that discourage you because this show is still pretty darn funny. The girls have a wide variety of wacky quirks and unusual interests and the show isn't afraid to have a little fun at their expense, but unlike some other comedies (I'm looking at you, Big Bang Theory) the show doesn't look down on them for their niche interests and they're still likable and easy to sympathize with. Many of us know what it's like to have an interest few people share--heck, that's kinda what being an anime fan in the West is like. Kuranosuke and his circle add even more comedic juices to the mix while avoiding some easy cliches. There are almost no "it's funny because he's a transvestite" moments, which would have been laziest rout to take; instead, the show takes full advantage of all the social barriers and potential misunderstandings that could occur between a male crossdresser and a house full of female otaku, and they all play off each other really well. Kuranosuke's family, friends and acquaintances are all interesting and memorable in their own ways. Ultimately, the jokes in this show work because even though the characters all have their quirks, they're not solely defined by them, allowing the show's humor to flow more naturally. This show loves its characters, and there need to be more comedies like that.

No matter how silly it gets, though, this is a story of strange and troubled people and it never fails to get that across. The show doesn't hesitate to criticize Tsukimi and her friends on some of their anti-social habits, but at the same time it never condemns them from being who they are or loving what they do. As individuals, I have to admit their personalities can be a little sparse. Mayaya is spastic and sees the world as an epic battlefield, Banba is deadpan and has a silly afro, Jiji is shy and likes old men, and Chieko is commanding with a maternal touch, and at times it seems like there's not much to them beyond that. Still, there are moments in the series that make it clear that's not the case, when they step forward to help one another through dire straits. They all enjoy their lives, far more than the well-to-do, "respectable" members of society, and when push comes to shove they're looking out for each other. It's little moments like this that really makes these characters likable, I just wish there were more of them. Tsukimi herself is the centerpiece of this group, and the youngest among them--she's fully integrated into their way of life but perhaps hasn't quite forgotten the dreams they all once had, she's grounded enough to realize they probably won't come true but innocent enough to still hope for it.

Most of the show's depth, though, comes from Kuranosuke's side. At the center is Kuranosuke's lack of a sense of belonging, which stems both from being an illegitimate child and from his fascination with women's clothing, which he learned from his mother. Refreshingly, he's fully come to terms with his gender identity: he's a straight man who happens to like dressing as a woman, but the women he's been with up to this point to are from his father's world, the world of the rich and spoiled. Still, his family isn't demonized either. His father and half-brother Shuu both continue to suffer from the affair in their own ways, and they really do care about Kuranosuke. And then there's his uncle, the incredibly unpopular prime minister of Japan, who's more accepting than anyone of Kuranosuke's habit, presumably because he knows the stress of the political world and would rather just enjoy life without worrying what people think of him. This is played entirely for laughs, but that's the thing about this show: almost everything is at least partially played for laughs and it still manages to get all these points across. I'm not even sure whether Kuranosuke's uncle was intended as a satirical statement or just thrown in there to be silly, but the result is equal parts absurd and surprisingly poignant (at least, as a statement; the character himself is just a loon).

So what happens when these two worlds meet? Where to begin? Kuranosuke starts off treating these girls both as objects of curiosity and as his personal projects; he's fascinated by how different they are, but can't quite wrap his mind around the radically different values they carry or that dolls and jellyfish could be as important to them as fashion is to him. The sisterhood is initially wary of the stylish stranger, and it takes a believably long time for this one-way fascination to develop into mutual respect. Shuu goes through his own arc on the side, and the show does a remarkably good job of balancing all the different sides it presents. If there's one place the drama falls flat, it's the romance. Tsukimi and Shuu become mutually attracted on sight and hardly interact at all outside of a few awkward moments to perpetuate the mutual misunderstandings between them. It's intended to convey both characters' innocence, but there's not enough substance to make it believable. Kuranosuke's attraction to Tsukimi is handled a little better, it'd have to be since they actually get to know each other, but even then it mostly just comes down to him being struck by how "cute" she is. There are probably deeper reasons for him being drawn to her, they're just never shown to us and that's a real shame.

The weakness in the series' romantic relationships stems from a much greater problem. It's a problem that's very common to anime adapted from ongoing source material, I've brought it up in a previous review and I'll most definitely have to bring it up again in future reviews: this series was adapted from a much longer, still-ongoing manga, and the adaptation doesn't feel complete. At the end of the show, the writers decide to slap on an ending that ties up the basic conflict that kept the plot moving along but offers little resolution to the actual character arcs, which are infinitely more important. Given another episode or two, I'm certain the writers could have brought the story to a more satisfying conclusion, or at the very least they could have left the plot open to a second season instead of slamming the door shut the way they did. What we're left with is a bunch of thematic questions and only a handful of answers, so it's a good thing the questions are as good as they are.

With any luck, a second season will eventually take this series to new heights, and given its acclaim and popularity I suspect the manga will find its way to the West in the near future, but as a stand-alone anime Princess Jellyfish is simply too short. Still, that doesn't take away all the good this anime has to it, even on its own. Here we have a series that speaks to the nerds and otaku of the world without ever making itself inaccessible to wider audiences. It's lovable, funny, clever and insightful and I heartily recommend giving it a try. Continuing my trend of girly anime, next time I'll take a look at My Little Monster, and I swear it has absolutely no connection to My Little Pony. Always keep it classy.

Thanks to chiarAscuro for the request.

Final Grade: 8/10

A charming and surprisingly thoughtful look at otaku culture. It just needed to be longer.

1 comment:

  1. Oh boy, prime minister made me fall from my chair from the laughs.

    Rushed end but not sure I like where the manga is going either.

    Banba and Mayaya were such annoying otaku!