Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Princess Jellyfish [Omnibus]
Tsukimi is a jellyfish otaku who has moved from her seaside town to Tokyo to become an illustrator. Of course, what she's actually doing is living the ultimate otaku existence in Amamizu-kan, a women-only boarding house filled with NEETS who each have their special loves – kimono, old men, trains, Romance of the Three Kingdoms…Calling themselves “amars,” the women do their own thing and try to avoid the dreaded Stylish and places where they congregate until Tsukimi accidentally brings one into their very midst. A Stylish girl helps Tsukimi rescue a jellyfish from certain doom at a pet shop and follows her home, but when they wake up in the morning, Tsukimi finds that her Stylish is actually a cross-dressing college boy, Kuranosuke! Fascinated by Tsukimi and the Amars, Kuranosuke refuses to stop coming around – which may turn out to be a good thing when a threat to Amamizu-kan rears its head. Can the Amars accept Stylish help to save their home? And can Tsukimi keep Kuranosuke's true gender a secret?
If you have ever felt weird, alone, or socially anxious, Princess Jellyfish is a manga you ought to read. One of the most honest, and funniest, stories about not quite fitting in, Akiko Higashimura's tale of a group of self-proclaimed “amars,” (a play on the Japanese word for nun) is by turns relatable, entertaining, and is just generally hard to put down. It does take some missteps and has a few very uncomfortable moments, but on the whole this omnibus edition containing the first two volumes is worth reading.
The main protagonist of the story is Tsukimi, an eighteen-year-old from a seaside farming community who has moved to Tokyo to become an illustrator. Her interest, however, is firmly fixed on jellyfish – when she was a little girl the last place her mother took her was to a jellyfish aquarium to see the sea creatures, and Tsukimi was enchanted by their flowing forms. Her mother promised to make Tsukimi a princess gown like a jellyfish's trailing tentacles, and that and the thought that all girls grow up to be princesses has been simultaneously motivating and holding Tsukimi back ever since. She feels like she somehow missed the princess train and either never grew up or just never was enough of a girl to make it, and she's found compatriots in the other women who live with her at Amamizu-kan, a quirky old boarding house exclusively for women with otaku interests. It's essentially a safe house from the rest of the world, a place where the socially awkward can feel free to be themselves and not have to be afraid of the so-called “Stylish,” the group's name for “normal” people. Tsukimi is the youngest resident of Amamizu-kan, but she fits right in with the others, and on the surface seems fairly happy.
The underlying themes of Princess Jellyfish are about feeling secure in the world and still being able to be yourself. Tsukimi's mother's words truly haunt her, and much of her monologues are worries about becoming a princess like her mother said she would. Her meeting with Kuranosuke, and her subsequent reluctant friendship with him, underline these worries even as Kuranosuke tries to give her ways to cope with the world at large, even if he doesn't quite understand what he's doing. The illegitimate son of a prominent politician, Kuranosuke maintains an emotional connection with the mother who dumped him on his father's doorstep by dressing in drag, a guise that inadvertently grants him entrance to Amamizu-kan. He's fascinated by the Amars and their fear (sometimes masquerading as dislike) of the world most people consider normal, and he finds himself drawn to help them, Tsukimi in particular. There's something in the unashamedly childlike world the Amars have made for themselves that appeals to Kuranosuke, and I believe that he really does want to help them keep it, but at the same time he knows that they can't maintain it as they are, so when a politically-backed redevelopment of the area threatens to tear it down, Kuranosuke assigns himself the task of helping them to fight.
The ideas of “normal” and “otaku” are explored a fair amount in this story, often in ways you don't anticipate. To the Amars, the pressures of interacting with society, having to talk to men specifically, and dressing to impress are horrors that they can't cope with, and even when they try to go to a meeting about saving their building, their nervousness and strange coping mechanisms make it impossible for them to interact with others. Tsukimi sees this as a failing in herself, and her relationship with Kuranosuke's older brother, outwardly put-together young politician Shu, shows it: when Shu fails to recognize Tsukimi in her usual braids and sweats after seeing her dolled up by Kuranosuke, she just assumes that he finds her repulsive, not that he can't reconcile the two different images of her. Shu, on the other hand, is so wrapped up in his own insecurities (specifically about women), that he can't even process that the same person could look so different, and while he does find casual Tsukimi unattractive, which certainly says something about the way we're encouraged to view women based on their outward appearances, he is still nice to her, even if she can't recognize that.
Makeup and clothing as “armor” is an idea that has been brought up before in literature, both fiction and non, and it is one that Kuranosuke espouses for the Amars. More interestingly it is brought up in the contrast of the Amars to female land shark Inari, a career woman who sees her sexuality and good looks as the way to get to the top. She's not an unusual character in that respect – Moyoco Anno stories are full of Inari-types and there's a very interesting Inari/Amars parallel to be found in the film The Associate - but she is one of the most aggressive versions of the type. Inari is a predator, using her perceived allure to get what she wants and even pulling tricks that we would be very quick to condemn in a man: she drugs Shu's drink and makes him think that they slept together, something he likens to being assaulted. While it is played mostly for comedy here, it is still a disturbing section of the book and Shu clearly truly feels violated. We can certainly see Inari as just as much a victim of social pressures as the Amars (and she does comment that she got the job for her physical assets), she's taken her role a different way, going on the attack rather than retreating into otakudom as the Amars have.
Kodansha's edition is one of their nicer omnibuses. It's oversized, which does make it possible to notice the flaws in Higashimura's artwork, like disappearing details and wonky limbs, but also makes it easy to read text-heavy passages. There are color pages both in the beginning and the middle of the book, including a color reproduction of volume two's original cover, and the cultural notes are extensive, with one of the best being about otaku and fujoshi, both of which are used in a slightly different context than we regularly use them as specifically anime and manga fans. Higashimura's own little autobiographical stories at the end of the books are a lot of fun as well, and definitely offer us a reason why she's able to portray the Amars so well.
Princess Jellyfish is a fun and at times emotional story, and it also functions as a critique of how society is supposed to function and accept people…and how that doesn't always work. There's an interesting love triangle brewing underneath the antics and messages, and on the whole this is a book you can read at one go, even as you want to slow down and take it more slowly. Inari and her tactics are definitely uncomfortable and the “armor” message may not agree with all readers, but on the whole, this is a book worth picking up, especially if you've ever been the one who never quite fit in.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Great characters, Higashimura has fun with her plot while still covering some very real themes. Good cultural notes, generally nicely put together book.
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