PRINCESS JELLYFISH by Akiko Higashimura

It just occurred to me as I start writing this review that Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime) is a josei manga that I feel was sort of what The Big Bang Theory would be like if the genders were reverse, and the group of scientist geeks were instead female otakus, while the hot girl next door is a cross-dressing pretty boy and a son of a politician. Basically: IT'S A ZILLION TIMES NERDIER AND MORE AWESOME. That's guaranteed. Spanning for fifteen volumes, this josei manga is incredibly entertaining as it is endearingly eccentric filled with balls-out fun as it both pokes fun and celebrates otaku culture through a female perspective. If Tina Fey was a Japanese otaku, this would be something she would have written, and the lead heroine Tsukumi Kurashita has the kind of social awkwardness and geeky passions that are as oddly charming and sweet as Geek and Sundry founder and gamer Felicia Day's.

When I first encountered this manga, I was so pumped up to get to it but I had to schedule it for this year instead of the last. The wait was more than worth it! I thought it was going to be a more mature version of the Perfect Girl Evolution: The Wallflower series by Tomoko Hayakawa which was my favorite shoujo manga as a teen; I wasn't wrong. I eventually got over PGE since IT WENT ON FOR SO LONG WITHOUT THE SHIPPABLE TWO CHARACTERS OF THE SERIES EVER BECOMING AN ACTUAL FUCKING COUPLE, DAMMIT! At this point in my life, I would trade my collected hard copies of Perfect Girl for copies of Princess Jellyfish instead because the latter is better written and has less slapstick comedy and ship tease.

The plot revolves around a group of otaku women living in a place called the Amamizukan which is an apartment that prohibits men. They even fancied it to be a nunnery of some sort because these women (who call themselves Amars which means 'nuns') don't interact socially with people who don't share their hobbies and interests that lean on odd fixations of varying degrees. One of these women is the our protagonist Tsukimi Kurashita who looks exactly as the trope of what the token geek girl is supposed to be; average-looking with glasses and who only wears plain sweats as her daily clothing. She lives with fiveother women who all preoccupy themselves with interests that may be perceived too niche. I don't want to give away too much details of their said interests, but they are definitely a wacky bunch, and their quirks are the source of this manga's hilarity and conflict. 

The sixth housemate in particular is a mangaka who never even shows herself in the story, but is more or less the only one who has an actual professional job. But because of social anxiety, this mangaka is confined in her room, and the other women communicate with her by writing a message on a piece of paper and slipping it on her door. The Amamizukan women are also uncomfortable interacting with people who are 'fashionable' and 'beautiful' while also avoiding formal work, wasting their allowance from parents on their weird preoccupations.

Tsukumi's own fixation is that of the many species of jellyfish which she also draws almost daily. She meets a very pretty girl one night who helped her buy a jellyfish she later named Clara. This pretty girl just inserts herself into Tsukumi's apartment and her life--but not before the shocking revelation that she is a he and a certain politician and his mistress' youngest son named Kuranosuke Koibuchi. He identifies as a straight man who is just very, very, very fond of women's fashion, and dresses up as one because it has something to do with his abandonment issues with his mother. Tsukumi was at first adamant not to be involved with him since her apartment prohibits men after all. 

That being said, these two unlikely friends certainly clicked especially when Kuranosuke later discovers Tsukumi's hidden talents in making unique and enthralling dresses via use of her jellyfish designs. Soon, Kuranosuke involves everyone, the Amars, to help him and Tsukumi make dresses for his friends at a theatre troupe. What started as a spur-in-the-moment group activity slowly and surely turned into an aspiring clothing line/empire which Kuronosuke hopes to bring into fruition with Tsukumi as the designer and him as the model while the rest of the Amars women as the seamstresses. 

Much of the manga's plot shows the process of how Kuronosuke and Tsukimi struggle to sew the high-fashion dresses and advertise them to potential clients, all the while to earn enough money to buy their apartment back which is under redevelopment; a project approved by Kuronusuke's own father as facilitated by her older half-brother Shu. Mangaka Higashimura knows her fashion stuff to a fascinating tee, and we get chapter breaks about her daily life as a mangaka and fashion trend lover as she illustrates tales of her adventures through amusing anecdotes. She is absolute gem when she does this!

Princess Jellyfish's cast is amazing! They are all memorable characters with depth and humor. From the kimono-wearing Chieko who collects dolls, Mayaya who is an avid history buff obsessed with Records of Three Kingdoms and often quotes and reenacts the text, Banba with her natural afro, predilection to trains and food quality, and to Jiji who is sexually attracted to older men and anything associated with classic and antique things. Tsukimi is also the adorkable introvert who is really quite pretty whenever she is forced to wear make-up and nice clothes (even Mayaya who actually is transformed into a model for their spontaneous clothing line fashion shows even though she's quite stressed about it whenever it happens). I really adored these characters because, hey, I'm one of them. I obsess about my geekeries and I'm very passionate about them to the point that I'd rather lock myself up and just read books, watch shows and write stories all day long. 

Kuronosuke and Tsukumi are definitely great in their leading roles and both have unresolved issues with their mothers. Kuronosuke's mom had to give him up and send him away to live in Japan, and his love for women's clothing is just an extension of his mother's own interest in fashion. Meanwhile, Tsukumi's mother passed away and left her only with memories of their time at the aquarium where she fell in love withthe jellyfish for the first time. Both of them are so lonely but are creative in their own ways. Kuronosuke is very intriguing as a crossdresser because he has no shame about it even if he is still a heterosexual man. Tsukumi meanwhile definitely lacked confidence but through Kuronosuke's vision and fiery ambitions, her potentials as a designer were brought out. Kuronosuke was also able to bring out the other Amars women from their shells by giving them the opportunities to do professional work, inspiring them to dedicate themselves to something that could be both enjoyable and profitable all at once. Kuronosuke became a positive force for these other women. 

The Amars women don't even care about fashion or doing actual work but thanks to Kuronosuke always driving them to be better, and Tsukumi's amazing talent, they all start to achieve things together as a unit. Tsukimi herself immerses herself in her creativity too, as inspired by Kuronosuke who just looks so damn good in the jellyfish dresses Tsukumi makes. I cannot for the life of me fathom that a boy could truly be mistaken for a woman.

The great thing about this series is that the romance is more or less a subplot that isn't always utilized to move the story forward. The author herself seemed to be very fond of fashion trends and its industry both local to her homeland Japan and foreign, and that's what this manga covers eighty percent of the time especially starting from volume 6. 

That being said, the romantic subplot was well-written enough to hold interest especially since it involves a love triangle between Tsukumi and the brother, Kuronusuke and Shu. His older half-brother is a 30-year old aspiring politician who also happened to be a virgin. He is conservative yet surprisingly sweet, romantic and thoughtful. He initially doesn't recognize Tsukumi without her make-up which made me think he only liked her because of physical reasons but then when he did find out what Tsukimi normally looks like, he still found her alluring and it's so funny how much he tried to pursue and court her which often lead to disastrous misunderstandings. Tsukimi definitely likes him back but is so burdened with low self-esteem and experience that she hardly shows her reciprocation; at least until Kuronosuke and Shu's personal driver/friend/ladies' man push them both forward to admit that they have feelings for one another and would like to be in a relationship.

Kuronosuke's unrequited side of things is definitely complicated. For one thing, he was more driven to pursue a career in fashion, and he only wants what is best for both his brother and Tsukimi. It took him some time to admit that he even likes Tsukumi and it was probably too late since it was also around the same time Tsukimi realized she has feelings for Shu. I personally ship her and Shu a lot even if Kurosuke an Tsukimi have more interactions. The conclusion to this romantic subplot has yet to be seen, considering this manga is still ongoing and had just released its 16th volume which I have yet to read. Tsukimi still has plenty of stuff to accomplish, and her relationship with both brothers has a lot of room to grow from.

Princess Jellyfish is not really a coming-of-age story about self-acceptance but more about the pressures and choices that women like Tsukimi have to face every day just because society deemed their hobbies and interests as abnormal or inappropriate. The Amars women are actually comfortable with their lifestyle and only avoid other people because such people have no appeal to them whether for conversation or a long-term relationship. The portrayal and representation of gender fluidity in Kuronosuke's character were also commendable. Higashimura shows great understanding and acceptance for people who cross-dress or have unusual hobbies, whether male or female, and she demonstrates it deftly and sincerely in her writing of this cast. Higashimura also respects the Amars women enough to showcase their quirks as something that don't necessarily have to exist for comedic effect. 

I could tell as a reader that she is neither pandering nor cynical about how she portrays both the otaku and the fashionable people, considering that she's a combination of both worlds in real life, going by her autobiographical chapter breaks. This is definitely the manga's selling point. It doesn't try too hard to be edgy and charming, but rather it oozes with both qualities in earnest amounts because Higashimura speaks from the heart as someone who is passionate about her interests and is not afraid for the world to know just how much and how far she would go pursuing them.

My enjoyment of Princess Jellyfish isn't over yet! The manga is still ongoing after all, and there is both an anime series and a live-action film that I could watch, and I'm certainly looking forward to doing that soon enough! In a nutshell, Akiko Higashimura's Princess Jellyfish has my seal of approval!



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