CONTENT WARNING: I haven’t seen the anime yet.
On the flip side, I was able to pick up the Princess Jellyfish manga for a song (Mystery Girls by the New York Dolls), and since it was there and I’d heard of it, I thought I’d give it a taste.
WHAM! Zoomed straight through it. What a cute, lovely little story! The end’s a bit wonky-doo but it worked after a fashion, and it was a rush getting there. And I am not even remotely the target audience for this story. There’s just something in it that sings to you, right? Let me see if I can get at it.
When we sit down to strip Princess Jellyfish down to its wheels and chassis to try and see what makes this thing work, I see two things immediately:
There are a LOT of neat characters and they almost all have something to do to help drive the story or the conflict, one or the other, and
There’s a WHOLE lotta plot lines going on.
Oh, my. Sounds like this is going to end up another two-parter. Hmm…where to I want to start?
The Princess Jellyfish gang: (from left) Banba, Mayaya, Tsukimi, Kuranosuke, Jiji, Chieko
Okay, let’s come out and say it: Princess Jellyfish is ABOUT Tsukimi Kurashita. She is the central character, and, despite one of the other characters taking the name for himself, she is the eponymous Princess Jellyfish.
But Tsukimi, sweetheart that she is, is a genius designer deep inside. She’ll be able to do wonderful things … so long as she’s not booted out of her little community. And the landlord’s ready to sell … DUN DUN DUN! Got to save Tsukimi before the train runs her over. Yes, she’s a Princess Jellyfish in Peril! Who will save Tsukimi in the nick of time?
Here he comes to save the day! The protagonist is Kuranosuke, right? He’s the one that drives the action. He’s the one that’s going to show up at the last second and untie Princess Tsukimi before the train runs her over. The story goes where the story goes because Kuranosuke kicks A and takes names, sometimes literally. That’s what the protagonist does: Drives the plot.
Remember “The protagonist is a __________ but __________”? If you’re a creating a character to drive a series, they have to have the characteristics needed to make that driving plausible, but they also need to have some “but,” something that makes it possible for them to fail.
Kuranosuke has a lot of positive characteristics. He is attractive (and his looks actually matter here at times); he is determined, energetic, and passionate. He does not take “no” for an answer and is a non-linear thinker. He is like a whirlwind and you have the sense the author knows that by the dynamic poses he’s often drawn in.
It’s neat that Kuranosuke has two buts (No, not two butts. Sheesh.), one that matters and one that doesn’t.
He’s a transvestite, a man who wears women’s clothing. (That’s it, by the way. He is neither transsexual nor homosexual.)
This is actually the more minor of the two buts. It creates a sense of low level tension in that he is from a political family and his revelation could cause scandal for the family. It’s a second source of tension because Tsukimi belongs to a community that does not permit men and if he is discovered to be male he will be excommunicated. Ultimately, though, both of these come out and in neither case does it turn out to be a big deal. It’s there, it’s tension, but that’s it.
His bigger problem is that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He has drive and he has, broadly speaking, a direction. He knows Tsukimi is at A and needs to get to B, he knows he’s the one who can see that, but he doesn’t know how to do it.
That’s a BIG but. That’s where he can fail as a protagonist, and that’s where the conflict in the story arises. Because when he makes missteps, Tsukimi’s friends and enemies PUSH BACK.
I suspect the mangaka, Akiko Higashimura, figured that out ‘round about volume three, and so she invented another character, my personal fave, Nisha.
I like Nisha a lot. Unlike the other women in the series Nisha is loud, rude, self-confident, and outspoken; to make that work, she is Indian rather than Japanese. But she plays a traditional mentor role for Kuranosuke. When his ignorance becomes blatant (threatening to run the narrative tension off the rails), she verbally B-slaps him and schools him upside the head. She also does the same for the other characters: She possesses what we call Expert Power, the power that derives from expertise.
At the same time Nisha is an outsider so far as Tsukimi and her circle are concerned, and can’t really get inside because, female or not, between her mouth and her sense of style, she intimidates them. That prevents her from just taking over the story.
In creating Tsukimi and her friends Ms. Higashimura did something very clever: She took the formula “The protagonist is a ________ but ________,” and turned it upside down.
Tsukimi and her friends are women living together in a run-down apartment building. They are culturally marginal: They perceive themselves as unattractive, socially inept, and marginally employable. The magic word (okay, the magic acronym) for all of them is NEET: Not in Education, Employment, or Training. They are just there, subsisting on minor subsidies from the economic leader of their community, the mangaka Mejiro.
As characters, their primary identities are not associated with competence or drive. No, they are each otaku, and hardcore otaku.
Tsukimi is a jellyfish otaku
Chieko is a kimono otaku
Jiji is an old man otaku
Banba is a railroad otaku
Mayaya is a Chinese history otaku
Otakuism is a generally undesirable trait, but this shared otaku identity means they understand each other in ways outsiders cannot. They cannot function in the wider world but within their own little community they are united and can draw on each other for strength as they are kindred spirits.
In each of their cases they each, like Kuranosuke, have two buts, a minor but and a major but. As with Kuranosuke their minor but deals with their appearance: They all clean up pretty good in their own ways. But it’s their individual major buts that allow them to contribute to the ultimate success of themselves and their group.
They are each otaku BUT
Tsukimi is a genius designer, a women who sees the beauty in jellyfish and is able to translate that beauty into clothing
Chieko has a strong personality and great leadership skills
Jiji has a mind for business (she was the first to start coming out of her shell)
Banba is an energetic scrounger. When someone needs something she knows where she seen it and can put her hand on it
Mayaya doesn’t just clean up pretty; she has the face and figure of a high fashion model
You see what that does? It turns the concept of character on its ear; instead of people who might fail due to their hidden flaws, they are people who might succeed due to their hidden strengths.
Tsukimi is the strongest of them, of course, as befits the central character. If she was just a skilled artist making pretty jellyfish drawings, they would all be in bad shape.
But she’s not just a skilled artist, she is literally a genius artist; when people who know their stuff, like Kuranosuke and Mr. Fish, the Chinese style maven and clothing line owner, see her work, they are struck by its beauty and originality. This is really important for a couple reasons.
First, it explains why people like Kuranosuke and Fish would do things for her.
Second, and more important, it’s a symbolic expression of the beauty in her soul. Although Kuranosuke gives himself the title at one point, Tsukimi is the real Princess Jellyfish.
I’m certain this construction – an otaku with a minor but and a major but – is deliberate, and I think you can see it best not in Tsukimi but in Chieko. When they start to make clothes they go to Chieko because she can sew. But that would give her THREE buts: 1) cleans up pretty 2) strong leader 3) critical expertise.
But that would have unbalanced the power in the house. Chieko would start to take over the story. So they decided she could only sew straight lines and gave the technical skills, not just sewing but also key functions like pattern making, to a new character, Nomu, the doll otaku.
There are a bunch of other characters, but from a plot standpoint – I don’t want to get into the plot too deeply here while I’m breaking down the characters, but there are times when the structure of the plot demands the presence of a certain character – Nisha, right? – there’s one more:
Sun is an interesting set of contradictions starting with the facts that he falls for Tsukimi and he is Kuranosuke’s half-brother and he loves his half brother. (The healthy relationship between Kuranosuke and Sun is one of the many pleasant things to see in the story.) But he’s also classically constructed:
Sun is personally competent but romantically inept.
OOOH! OOOH! Comic sidekick! Right? The tension between his general ability and his one inability make him amusing. Sad, at times, but amusing.
Well, whether Sun is a comic sidekick or not depends on how the story is structured. And we’ll look at that some other time.
From a writing standpoint the really neat thing Higashimura did – and in interviews she makes it explicit that she did it deliberately – is that she made sure to give each character some “business” of their own that either created tension or drove plot. All of them.
All the characters are constructed simply but wisely, each with strengths and weaknesses that give them something to do. And since there are a lot of them … Along with the core gang already talked about there is the rest of Kuranosuke and Sun’s family, Chieko’s mom, the real estate developer Inari, Fish’s childhood friend and assistant Fayong, the chauffeur Hanimori, and I’m sure I left someone out … since there are a lot of them and they all have something to do, the story is always in motion.
Okay, so where are they going?
I don’t know. Ask me next week after I’ve figured it out.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.