Mangaka: Akiko Higashimura
Translation: Sarah Alys Lindholm; Lettering: Carl Vanstiphout; Editing: Haruko Hashimoto; Kodansha Comics Edition Cover Design: Phil Balsman.
Disclaimer: This review of Princess Jellyfish is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.
At its heart, Akiko Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime) celebrates the power of not fitting in and the joy of being yourself. The main character, Kurashita Tsukimi, lives in a woman-only communal house with five other women. They call themselves the Amars (spun from ama, Japanese for “nun”), and they’re all socially awkward, obsessed with their hobbies, and severely intimidated by the “Stylish” people who groom and dress fashionably. Then, one day, Tsukimi is befriended by a Stylish, and the Amars’ comfortable world is turned on its head.
The fact that I strongly sympathize with the Amars probably has a lot to do with why I adore this series. Like them, I used to (sometimes still do…) freeze and stammer in the presence of well-dressed individuals. I have felt their awkwardness and, recognizing it in the pages of Higashimura’s manga, all I wanted to do was reach out and hug them. Or my younger self. Or both.
However, have you ever loved something in spite of being uncomfortable with some aspects of it? That’s where I am with Princess Jellyfish. I think it’s important to issue one warning before you dive into this manga: there is a date rapey sub-plot that I found highly uncomfortable and which could be triggering. So, that’s probably a dealbreaker for some readers. I’m also not sure how to feel about the fact that the Amars react quite negatively when two gay men apply to live at their residence; it’s likely that this manga won’t feel inclusive for everyone.
For her part, Tsukimi loves jellyfish. Just before her mother passed away, she took young Tsukimi to the Kagoshima aquarium where they were both awed by a jellyfish whose white ruffles reminded them of a princess’ dress. Tsukimi learned as much as she could about jellyfish and drew them over and over. Years later, she moved to Tokyo to become an illustrator and discovered a community of self-identified fujoshi around whom she could be herself.
When she’s feeling sad and lonely, Tsukimi visits a fish shop nearby to watch the spotted jellyfish in window aquarium that she has nicknamed Clara. Unfortunately, Tsukimi discovers that a neglectful shop assistant has put a moon jelly in the same tank as Clara, which could be deadly for the little spotted jelly. When she freezes while attempting to explain the problem to the handsome Stylish clerk, a tall, beautiful Stylish comes to her (and Clara’s) rescue. Before she knows it, Tsukimi has a jellyfish in her bathtub and a Stylish princess asleep in her room.
In the morning, Tsukimi discovers that she has, in fact, brought a man into the Amars household. The Stylish’s name is Kuranosuke, and he tells Tsukimi, “Yeah, I’m a man … dressing like a woman is just my hobby.” Now, Tsukimi has somehow obtained the interest—and burgeoning friendship—of the fashionable youngest son of a wealthy local politician, and on top of that, she has to keep secret the fact that she welcomed a man into entered the Amars’ home.
I’ll note here that in spite of dressing as female most of the time, Kuranosuke identifies as male, and often uses male pronouns for himself even while wearing female garb. Kuranosuke, who is just as central to the manga as Tsukimi, monologues that he wears women’s clothing for two specific reasons: one, that he doesn’t want to become a politician (“If I convince people that I’m a weirdo now, life will be easier in the long run!”) and two, that he wants to live in a world of fashion. He’s always been a lovely, attractive person and has had so many girlfriends fight over him that he tells himself he’s sick of being popular with women. And while he starts off as a judgemental and rather shallow character, he grows quite a bit over the course of the first volume.
(There’s also an important discussion to be had about transgender representation and cross-dressing tropes in manga and anime, and you can read some in-depth thoughts on the subject over here.)
The plot takes shape when we learn that local redevelopment threatens the Amars’ home. As it happens, Kuranosuke’s older brother Shu is on the planning committee for the development. What follows is a series of comedic hijinks interspersed with moments of touching emotional vulnerability and character growth.
Before we get back to the meat of the review, a quick note on fujoshi: although the most common use of the term is to describe a female fan of BL manga, Princess Jellyfish translator Sarah Alys Lindholm explains the term as follows in the translation notes at the back of the manga. “Fujoshi in Japanese translates to ‘rotten woman,’ referencing how these women self-identify as individuals opposite from Japan’s patriarchal definition of what a ‘good woman’ is … Fujoshi indulge their desires, regardless of the purity and innocence that is expected of them … Thus, it is considered unladylike, unattractive, even shameful to be a fujoshi.”
The Amars are certainly aware of the fact that their obsessions are considered distasteful to society, and so together they’ve created a safe space where they can fully be themselves. Kuranosuke, too, flouts convention by dressing as a woman—although he has no safe space in which to do so. Perhaps this is why he’s so drawn to the Amars, in spite of the fact that they’re automatically uncomfortable around a Stylish. When that safe space is threatened by the new development, Kuranosuke goes on the offensive and supports the Amars in fighting for their home.
The thing is, Kuranosuke, Tsukimi, and the Amars discover strength in being themselves. The weight of societal bias and judgment isn’t unnoticed or comfortable, in spite of the fact that Higashimura presents them in trope-ish comedic fashion (creepy uncle creeping on Kuranosuke, for instance, or young boys yelling “lesbians!” at Tsukimi and Kuranosuke when they hug). However, it doesn’t disempower our protagonists. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they’re empowered through gender nonconformity, because in so doing, they’re staying true to themselves.
When Kuranosuke does makeovers for the Amars, he doesn’t undermine their sense of themselves. Instead, he frames it as armor with which they can wage battle against those who unfairly judge by appearances (a sentiment which I have personally used to brace myself when dressing up for social situations). Even that, though, doesn’t win the day for the Amars. Instead, they’re strongest in their element: at home, in their own clothes, defending their safe space from those who want to tear it down.
Furthermore, when Kuranosuke makes over Tsukimi, she becomes a love interest for his older brother, Shu—although his biases mean that he doesn’t recognize her at all when she’s not in makeup. However, it’s when she lets go of her shyness and nerds out over jellyfish that she becomes truly beautiful for Kuranosuke. The resolution of this love triangle has yet to play out, but I’m hopeful that whatever happens, Tsukimi will be loved for all of herself, messy braids and jellyfish obsession included. That’s why I love her, after all.