Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
When she was still a bespectacled tot, Tsukimi Kurashita's mother told her that all girls grow up to be princesses. Some years later, Tsukimi has learned that that isn't so. Now an eighteen-year-old unemployed lump with an obsessive love for jellyfish, Tsukimi has no illusions about her princesshood. But even if she isn't a princess, Tsukimi enjoys her life. She lives at Amamizu-kan, an apartment complex occupied solely by hardcore female otaku, and whiles away her days drawing jellyfish and hanging (indoors of course) with her "Sisterhood" of social cripples. If she gets blue, she just has to visit the pet store down the street and commune with their jellyfish display. On one such visit she is horrified to see her favorite cnidarian knocking on death's door. She tries to rescue it, but the task requires social skills she doesn't have. She and the jellyfish are saved only by the imperious interjection of a passing beauty, who subsequently muscles her way into Tsukimi's room. Bringing a dreaded "Stylish" to Amamizu-kan is bad enough, but when the beauty turns out to be a very male cross-dresser by the name of Kuranosuke, Tsukimi's comfortable life upends itself completely. So too, though, does Kuranosuke's.
Princess Jellyfish's ambition is simple: to tell a delightful story in a delightful way. It begins in exactly the right place, with a delightful cast and a delightful premise. It's a pretty deadly one-two punch. Even if you can resist the idea of a bossy cross-dresser invading the sanctum of a quintet of unrepentant NEETs, you'll probably enjoy the premise's players. Think of it as a recipe for crackpot stew: Take the illegitimate, cross-dressing son of a powerful politico; add one frumpy, insecurity-riddled vision in sweatpants and braids. Stir in the cross-dresser's much-older, much homelier, and much more uptight brother. Toss in one vixen, intent on lying, cheating and sleeping her way into political influence. In a separate bowl mix together a blunt, afroed train freak, a hyperactive Three Kingdoms fanatic, a rotund island of calm with a thing for kimonos and dolls, and a deliberate non-presence with a creepy fetish for old guys. Combine. Garnish with a weak-willed chauffer, a bumbling private eye, and a deeply screwed-up Prime Minister. Enjoy.
The heat that gets the crackpot stew boiling is a vixen-run redevelopment project, aimed primarily, in the minds of the Sisterhood, at leaving them homeless. Which gives them no choice but to break out of their self-imposed isolation to lodge protest, and raise money to buy their digs out from under their Korean-idol-loving landlady. But what moves the plot forward is hardly the point. The point is the unexpected yet weirdly logical complications that arise along the way, when the ingredients of the crackpot stew start blending together and bouncing off each other. Kuranosuke's horror at finding he is attracted to Tsukimi is a highlight ("You can't gaze dreamily into the night sky with your eyes all sparkly and say it looks like we're underwater! That's cheating dammit!"), and Tsukimi's instant attraction to his asshole brother Shu is a hilarious horror. The fate of vixen Shouko Inari is a weirdly sweet reversal capable of competing for raw "take that!" satisfaction with any of the gorier, crueler reversals director Takahiro Ōmori orchestrated in Baccano!. Between the larger complications the supporting players provide a pretty consistent backdrop of amusing antics, the best of which feature Kuranosuke's eminently bribable chauffer and his abacus-school buddy the incompetent gumshoe. Given half a chance the pair would completely run off with the series. The cumulative effect is charming: a romantic comedy that truly trusts its cast, as opposed to plot contrivances and manufactured crises, to hold its audience.
Delight may be Princess Jellyfish's aim, and wit and warmth and charm its weapons of choice, but it isn't soft or stupid. Akiko Higashimura's original manga ran in Kiss, a woman's magazine, and it was animated with a similarly grown-up audience in mind. Its gimlet eye for the way dreams curdle with age and frank treatment of sex are certainly not for tykes, and if you scratch almost any of its fluffy, funny surfaces hard enough, you'll find some very adult darkness underneath. There's a startlingly jaded take on female sexuality lurking beneath the vixen's schemes, a black view of the potential for mutual understanding beneath the cast's constant misinterpretation of each other's signals, a disturbing lack of faith in the durability of morals just below the jokes about the cast's universal bribability. And the series' view of politics, when one thinks about it clearly, is plain terrifying. Jellyfish doesn't flinch away from ugly realities, doesn't try to sand down its cast's hard edges, and ultimately has no truck with the saccharine or maudlin.
And yet it never loses its bright humor or warming effect. Takahiro Ōmori's direction sees to that. Despite its dark undercurrents, Omori directs Princess Jellyfish as if it there isn't a shadow in the world. Backgrounds are colorful, though not gaudily so; the character designs are simple and humorous, though not excessively so; the animation and editing are boisterous, though not gratingly so. If color and light are still needed, Kuranosuke's intricately detailed outfits and flashy wigs are generally on hand to supply it. Coupled with a lot of dead-on sight gags, and the hysterical parody overload of the opening animation, the result is pretty disarming. An early scene in which a disgusted "Stylish" literally kicks Tsukimi into the street could easily have been nasty. Instead, the perfection with which Brains Base animates Tsukimi's twitchy nerd confrontationalism, the series' vibrant art, and the pure physical humor of Tsukimi's roll-with-the-blows defensive technique render the scene darkly yet winningly humorous.
Omori is no one-trick pony, though, and neither is Princess Jellyfish. Brains Base's skill in rendering and animating faces is put to use, along with Tsukimi's post-makeover design, in delicately evoking Tsukimi's frequent melancholy. Layers of meaning are communicated via a single look—Shu's shattered gaze as he comes to grips with the trauma of his first "date" with Inari—and some sequences (Tsukimi dreaming she is back in the protective arms of her mother, Kuranosuke walking in on a moon-lit Tsukimi wrapped in gauzy white) approach poetry in their simplicity and beauty.
It is in such sequences that Makoto Yoshimori's score is at its evocative best. Much of the rest of time it seems unsure of what to do with itself, wandering between bizarre eccentricity and pure parody and intruding ham-fistedly into the action.
If Princess Jellyfish suffers from anything (aside from an erratic score and Mayaya the Three Kingdoms fan), it's from the sense of incompleteness that sometimes afflicts Noitamina shows. Maturity has its drawbacks, among them an acceptance of open-endedness. Unless a sequel materializes, or the manga gets licensed, we'll never know if Kuranosuke will be reunited with his estranged mother, whether Shu and Inari's "relationship" will go anywhere, or if Tsukimi and Kuranosuke's hare-brained entrepreneurial effort will ever bear fruit. For viewers able to make peace with that, however, Princess Jellyfish offers a mess of character-driven romantic comedy and life-drama, seasoned with honesty and a healthy respect for the tricky curveballs life throws. Consider it uplift for the pessimist in you: a series that can be sweet, fun, light, and even touching without betraying any of the dark things that you know, deep in your soul, to be true about the world.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Attractive, grown-up romantic comedy that doesn't skimp on laughs or smarts.
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