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Jellyfish Can't Swim in the Night
Episodes 1-2

by Nicholas Dupree,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Jellyfish Can't Swim in the Night ?
Community score: 4.2

How would you rate episode 2 of
Jellyfish Can't Swim in the Night ?
Community score: 4.2

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Just at a glance, it's obvious that Jellyfish has a lot going for it. It's got an all-around stellar production, helmed by a talented director and staffed with some of Doga Kobo's best hands. It's got some really interesting ideas about identity and how it plays into artistic creation, groping at questions about what it means to be your authentic self, and how the “self” changes in the age of social media. It's got a script that…well…see the thing is…

Okay. Let me put my cards on the table. I think the script for this show kind of stinks. It's not terrible. It's competent in terms of delivering a narrative. There are no massive structural issues, and in general, it flows well as TV viewing. It's just that it commits a cardinal sin that has kept me from embracing the story and characters the way it wants me to.

There is a subtle craft to screenwriting. It requires the ability to come up with interesting ideas and synthesize them into story, character, and dialogue in a way that doesn't just communicate them to your audience, but makes us feel it, too. You don't just want to communicate that a character is sad, you want the audience to feel sad along with them. That requires a sharp balance of dialogue that can deliver important information while still feeling like something a person might actually say. That's a balance that Jellyfish has yet to strike, and it's routinely undermined its potential across these opening episodes.

Take Mei's line in episode two, for example. It comes in the middle of her flashback, where we learn of the isolated and highly pressured life she led before a fateful meeting with Kano saved her. Caught up in her devoted admiration for Kano's idol persona, she holds up a picture of her to a hairdresser and says: “I want to become the thing I love!”

That is a line that does technically get across the intent, but it's such an unnatural sentence to put in a character's mouth. It's not even the “person” she loves but the “thing.” It's the kind of thing you'd write under a character profile while you're pitching the show to somebody; or else it's the kind of thing I should be saying to sum up the subtext of Mei's character, because I'm talking from the distance of a viewer who wants to boil down the show's ideas and discuss them with you, the reader. As the scriptwriter, one would demonstrate that idea through her actions and dialogue throughout the episode, allowing the audience to intuit that she does want to become the thing she loves. Then people watching the show would relate to that feeling, and perhaps see something of themselves in her, and grow attached. Instead, we get the character blatantly stating the abstract of her character profile in a way that sounds artificial. It fumbles the magic trick of character writing and makes Mei feel hollow in the process.

That's a recurring problem across these episodes, and it really is a shame. As I said, there are cool ideas at play here, some of which I haven't seen tackled in an anime like this before. Jellyfish is especially focused on artists defining themselves, and how the persona of performance can be both transformative and restrictive. Kano wants to rebel against the plastic image she was forced into as an idol and to fully control the music she makes. Yoru only reclaims her artistic passion after seeing Kano's determination to define herself, pushing against a deep-seated fear of rejection to reciprocate Kano's support. Mei initially wilts at seeing her beloved idol throw away the image that inspired her but ultimately recognizes that Kano's personality was what kept her going, and becomes a friend rather than an admirer. We haven't gotten to our Vtuber heroine yet, but there's a whole metric ton of angles you can take on the topic of identity for a performer who crafts an entire character to hide theirs.

Those are potent, powerful ideas that sound good when I lay them out here, listing them off in a condensed summary. In action, there's a seemingly insurmountable distance between me and the characters because the dialogue never makes them feel like people. They become vessels to communicate these themes but do not click properly when taken as narrative fiction. That is intensely frustrating because it feels like there's this wall of glass between myself and a really good show. I want to feel for these girls. I want to be caught up in their journey for artistic identity and root for them to succeed and cry ugly tears when they fail or succeed. Yet right now, I can only really walk parallel to them, understanding them on a conceptual level but never a human one. That stinks.

To be fair, some moments and aspects do work for me. I love the way Mei breaks out into a genuinely weird smile(?) when she's happy, demonstrating how much of an awkward turtle she is in social situations. As blunt-force as it is, I dig that each of our heroines has some aliases, showing how each of them is trying to construct their own identities. Kano and Kim are trying to reclaim their names after being pressured into conformity, while Yoru and Kiwi adopt new ones to express their art more. These are nice touches that, while far from subtle, feel way more organic. I hope the show will lean into those approaches as time goes on because otherwise, this jellyfish is in for some rough seas.

Rating:

Jellyfish Can't Swim in the Night is currently streaming on HIDIVE.


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