Sunday, 12 March 2017

Break Your Shell: A Review of Princess Jellyfish Omnibus One (2009 manga)

Princess Jellyfish has a passive protagonist shocked into life by a manic pixie dream girl – and yet it’s not a bad book. Going on omnibus one, this seems to be a belated-coming-of-age story. Our heroine’s must learn to overcome her passivity. And the manic pixie dream girl is not the male wish fulfilment it so often is, because 1) this book is about a woman’s coming-of-age, and 2) our dream girl is a male transvestite.  

Tsukimi is a fujoshi, who shares an apartment building with other fujoshi, self-proclaimed ‘rotten women’. They have no time for social lives, or, really, lives at all, outside their obsessions. Tsukimi seems resigned to a life of social stagnation. Until, she runs into Koibuchi, a girl with all the style and affability Tsukimi lacks. But it turns out Koibuchi is a cross-dressing guy. And though Tsukimi gave up on her social life, Koibuchi has far more ambition for her.

Good writers tend to avoid reactive protagonists. Characters who have no goals, and do not fight for what they want, make for dull stories. Such aimlessness, however, fits Tsukimi. She is a socially maladjusted woman who lives with other social maladjusted women, none of whom have gainful employment. Tsukimi needs to become an independent agent in the world. She needs to move beyond her passivity. When a love interest comes into her life, she must do something to get what she wants. Or, at least, that what this first omnibus suggests.

Tsukimi’s fecklessness extends to her flatmates. All of them forgo the wider world (especially the world of men), in favour of their pet obsessions. One obsesses over The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, another over kimonos, and Tsukimi herself over jellyfish. All the women, sparing Tsukimi, pride themselves on their being fujoshi, women who cannot fit into traditional femininity.

In the hands of a male writer, or perhaps just a writer from the 1980s, this could all become very regressive. Lots of women who don’t act lady-like. One of starts acting lady-like, and so achieves happiness. While Tsukimi does get the makeover you expect from such narratives, Princess Jellyfish does not portray her failings as her lack of femininity.

Her and her flatmates’ problem is not that they fail as women. Their failings are gender neutral. They are not students. They do not have they gainful employment (spare a bit of assistant work to a mangaka). They live off their parents’ money. They only have a place to live because it belongs to one of their parents. Not everyone needs to work in an office, but you have to do something with your life. Living in such a sinkhole, Tsukimi has no impetus to grow as a person. She lives with people who do not challenge her to grow up. Only when Koibuchi comes from in from the outside world, does her life kick into gear.

But even though Tsukimi’s lack of motivation is a theme of the story, a story without motivation would still be dull. If the protagonist doesn’t move the plot forward, something else must. Koibuchi fights for Tsukimi’s goals, even if he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing. This does make him a more compelling character than our protagonist. He’s a transvestite who kicks the plot into gear. All our protagonist has is inner turmoil and a love of jellyfish. It’s the Jack Sparrow effect: a secondary character grabs the audience’s interest, but to a fault.

I imagine over the next fifteen volumes Princess Jellyfish will become a small-scale epic. A work that gives us an exhaustive chronicle of Tsukimi’s coming-of-age and other character’s struggles. But even in omnibus one we feel the start of her growth. Although Koibuchi does steal the show a bit too much, Princess Jellyfish is a promising read.     



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