There's not a body alive that doesn't burn with the need to be part of something. More often than not, that something is need to partake of the presence of another human being, one who will accept them as they are and not as they "should" be. We all want to be loved, and without having to go through the emotional equivalent of filling out a grant application to get it. Nobody wants a heart, or a life, with strings attached.
The characters in Princess Jellyfish (the anime series, adapted from Akiko Higashimura's manga) just want to be themselves, no strings attached, but also have to learn how to stand up for what they are when the world has other plans for them. You could make any manner of story from this idea; Princess Jellyfish elects to treat it in something akin to those riotous screwball comedies of the 1930s, where the laughs deliver acid little truths. Even with the show being a theoretically incomplete treatment of its source material, even when it has occasional failures of tone and construction, it still touches something real and important, and it sneaks through the defenses with the goofiest of disinhibition.
The girls against the world
At the age of nineteen, Tsukimi has already fallen down between the barstools of life. With her hair in childish braids, her face masked by clunky glasses, and her body lost in a shapeless tracksuit, she's all but invisible to other women and men alike. What ambitions she had of moving to Tokyo and becoming an illustrator have evaporated, as all she sees fit to draw are jellyfish, her first and greatest love and obsession.
At least she has a support system of sorts — the other tenants, all female, of the rooming-house where she lives, "Amamizukan". All are equally eccentric in their obsessions: hyperactive Mayaya (fandom: Three Kingdoms); diminutive, acerbic, Afro'd Banba (fandom: trains); neurasthenic wilting-flower Jiji (fandom: dignified old men); and mother-hen Chieko (fandom: dolls and kimonos for same). All scrape together a living as impromptu art assistants for boy's-love manga-ka Juan Mejiro, always secluded in her office and only communicating by way of letters shoved under the door. A dysfunctional family, but a family all the same, and one that affords them comfort and protection against the cruelties of the outside world.
One night Tsukimi drops by a local pet store harboring a jellyfish in one of its tanks; "Clara", she's come to call it. She's aghast to find the shopkeeper has endangered Clara by placing her in a tank with another jellyfish, and manages to choke down her intimidation at having to talk to a m-m-m-man long enough to demand something be done. Into the fray steps a spectacularly dressed and coiffed woman — a "Stylish", as Tsukimi and her friends call them — who intercedes on Tsukimi's behalf with a stamp of her high-heeled boot.
Tsukimi is more perplexed and ill at ease than grateful. Why would a Stylish do her a favor? The last thing she needs is this otherworldly creature following her back to the redoubt she and her friends have built against her very kind. But Tsukimi can't ignore that this woman bailed her out, and before she knows it she's crashed out on the floor of Tsukimi's room, snoring. Bad enough, but even worse is when Tsukimi wakes up the next morning and realizes the she she brought home was actually a he.
Shaved his legs, then he was a she
His name is Kuranosuke, and his passion is for fashion. Crossdressing is the highest expression of his love for it, and his escape hatch from being the youngest son of a prominent Tokyo politician. All of this is utterly alien to Tsukimi, who now fears for being expelled from Amamizukan for both the venial sin of bringing a Stylish into the house and for the mortal sin of bringing a man there.
Kuranosuke ends up sticking in Tsukimi's side like a burr. He invites himself over to the household's monthly hot-pot party, although he ultimately wins them over with high-grade beef instead of the mere pork they bought the moment it went on discount. He inadvertently insults the "Amars", as the household calls itself, by asking nosy questions about their income. And he gives Tsukimi a makeover and a fresh wardrobe — both of which appall her, because she knows they'll get her ostracized from the household in seconds flat if they see her in such a getup. (The group's members support each other, but at the cost of reinforcing inertia.)
Why does Kuranosuke keep coming back? At first it's implied he's slumming — ditching out on his rich family so he can savor something offbeat (he loves how "retro" and "quirky" the house and its occupants are) without having to risk anything. But it becomes clear his affection for this gaggle of misfits, and Tsukimi in particular, is genuine. They're everything his family is not, and since he always felt like the odd one out at home anyway, why not hang with the other oddballs?
Out of all this spins several intertwined plot strands that converge. Kuranosuke's older brother, Shū — straightlaced and serious, with political ambitions that match the family way — ends up falling head-over-feels for Tsukimi after a Kuranosuke-guided makeover. (A constant gag is how none of the participants in that love triangle can believe they're falling for the other person, but there they are all the same.) But a local commercial real estate developer, a woman named Inari has designs on razing Amamizukan and all the other buildings on its block to erect faceless commercial buildings — and designs on getting Shū in the sack as a way to seal the deal. And when Kuranosuke connects those dots, he throws himself headlong into a so-crazy-it-might-just-work plan to leverage the Amars' skills to buy out the house for themselves and save the day.
From screwball to curve ball
It's an order of magnitude harder to get a good laugh than to do nearly anything else in a story. Comedy's difficult, not just because we all laugh at different things, but because it's tough to intentionally assemble things that come off as spontaneous and freewheeling. Hardest of all is comedy that goes for broad laughs by way of slapstick or visual gags as a disarming lead-in to more serious material; too often you end up with oil and water that not only refuse to mix but leave you feeling downright unclean.
Some of why Princess Jellyfish's brand of funny in this vein works is a personal thing, and I know it. Tickle me the right way and I fall over laughing, not just once but over and over. I have a weakness for the kind of silliness the show makes use of; I mentioned screwball comedy, but also the cheerfully preposterous erotic hijinks of everything from nothing-in-common romantic comedy to Pedro Almodóvar's Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Or the fourth-wall-breaking fantasy sequence gags, where Tsukimi's pet jellyfish explains the Amars' behavior patterns with helpful diagrams. Or the credits sequence, where the characters visually namecheck everything from Sex And The City (see this article's key image) to Singin' In The Rain. Visual jokes in the same vein trick up the rest of the show, to inject a left-turn laugh as needed.
But then there are all the times when the show uses the same techniques to show us something of crucial emotional importance. At one point Tsukimi sees Inari stealing away Shū from her, and the sidewalk beneath her becomes an ocean that allows her to sink deep into it in a fetal posture. It's one thing to tell the audience that Tsukimi is shy and emotionally fragile, and another thing to get us to share her state of mind. The humor doesn't cheapen any of this; if anything, it accentuates it, because it further differentiates the highs from the lows. Every successful comedy has something serious at its core, something that might only be approached by way of a laugh, and maybe also understood and empathized with that way too.
The face you wear for yourself and others
I've been hinting throughout at what the serious parts of Princess Jellyfish are: gender presentation, non-conformity, neuroatypicality. Dealing with them through humor makes them more approachable, both for the audiences who deal with those things daily and those who are lucky enough not to. We laugh that we may not cry, and sometimes we laugh so that we can cry anyway, if only that many less tears.
The mode and deployment of that humor is what makes all the difference here. E.g.: gender presentation. Here, it comes by way of taking a dynamic common to romantic comedy and standing it on its head. Instead of being about, say, a schlubby guy who has to clean himself up to meet the girl of his dreams, it's the girl who's the schlub, and the guy who's the fashion plate. And not because he's gay, but because he's trying to do something typically out of bounds for a straight guy: he likes to celebrate all the ways a body can be adorned and made into a multitude of beauties. The show has at least as much to offer guys as it does girls in that light.
The other way the show develops this is through a plot point I worried about at first. When Kuranosuke learns Amamizukan is to be demolished, he rallies the Amars to show up and protest — and to dress for success in the process by outfitting each of them in a way that flatters their looks and builds. At first I balked; I worried the show's argument would amount to, the world revolves around appearances, so suck it up already. But the real pitch, as embodied by Kuranosuke, is both more realistic and more uplifting. Yes, the world revolves around appearances, but that's all the more reason to own that and make it yours. Make it yours before someone else does it for you, because they'll almost certainly do it in a way you won't want.
What's disappointing about this element is a mechanical issue, not a thematic one: it doesn't actually feed back into its stated purpose in the story for the group as a whole, just Tsukimi. I think that's more a function of the way the show is an incomplete adaptation of its source than any miscalculation by the writers. But there are hints of how else it pays off. At one point a couple of Stylish single out Banba for a photo-op, because they love her natural 'fro. The idea that a Stylish would actually admire something that she doesn't really have much control over (earlier, Kuranosuke gives up trying to straighten it and uses a wig) has been totally alien to her until now. But it's for real, and it hints at how the door to better things has been cracked open to all of them — and I don't think they would have handled it anywhere nearly as well if not for Kuranosuke opening that door a crack.
Weirdness abounds, thankfully
Another story issue that doesn't work for me is contained in a secondary plot thread, so it's more of an annoyance than a derailment. It's the way Shū — still a virgin despite pushing thirty — is singled out by the rapacious Inari as part of her redevelopment plans. The way it develops and climaxes is straight out of a cheesy Italian bedroom farce. It draws laughs at first, but by the end it's just cringeworthy. (A fake suicide attempt? Really?) And then there's the structural problems associated with this being a very fragmentary and partial adaptation of material that runs a good deal longer and encompasses quite a lot more. It ends with deus ex machina abruptness, although at least not without giving Tsukimi and Kuranosuke a healthy payoff for their efforts.
What I like most about the show, and its underlying material, is how it embodies a truth about human nature. Everyone's a little weird, everyone's got their pet obsessions, and society isn't designed to let us handle that elegantly. (My obsessions are deep and meaningful; yours are superficial and weird.) Everyone — Kuranosuke's father, his brother's chauffeur, his cohorts in government — all have corners of weirdness within them. The Amars have no monopoly on obsessions, but they live in a world where letting most any freak flag fly makes you a target — as long as it's what everyone else can comfortably call freakish. Tsukimi and Kuranosuke realize each can help the other fulfill long-unrealized dreams, and create a space where they can do that without being in constant conflict with everything else — or without having one's own former support system be the problem too.
When I was a teenager in the late '80s/early '90s, the idea that gender was something you did, not something you were, was only just beginning to gain any kind of mainstream acknowledgment. When pressed on the subject, the ones who complained about this mostly resented that they no longer knew who was safe to hit on anymore. We're only just now getting used to the idea that someone's sexuality and gender is theirs, not merely a commodity for others to consume. If Kuranosuke and Tsukimi can find greater freedom in dressing up or down as they see fit, so can the rest of us.