Princess Jellyfish is a cute little series that I honestly think is severely underrated, largely because no one seems to pay it much attention. Of course, with all of the big epics and more avant-garde series around, this one does tend to fall through the cracks, but it’s such a treat and easy to marathon in a single day if you believe in yourself.
Besides being a hilarious slice-of-life comedy, this series artistically strays far from the typical anime look and thus, each woman is not conventionally beautiful in the slightest, emphasis on conventionally.
The fact that they’re all socially awkward and don’t look like supermodels or cute anime girls (with the exception of Kuronosuke in drag) is one of the story’s main points. It portrays the struggle between how you naturally look, how much “work” you’d have to do to become “beautiful,” and how that ultimately intersects with your self-confidence. If this were a typical kind of story where an “ugly” girl learns to totally accept makeup and fashion, I wouldn’t have anything to say about it here.
Women like the ones pictured above hardly appear in anime, much less as central protagonists. Their mere presence normalizes girls who don’t fit into standard notions of attractiveness and their struggles at times hit very personal notes for anyone who has ever struggled with seeing themselves as beautiful. Moreover, I think characters like these can make it normal for us, on a deeper level, to feel comfortable actually expressing the discomfort we feel with our appearances.
I struggled for the longest time with my self-image and though I’m at last at the tail end of my issues, I haven’t totally shaken them for good. As an adolescent/teenager, I struggled a lot with A) believing I was fat and B) viewing that as a bad thing. I hated fashion magazines, makeup, celebrity gossip, and everything else related to that, so my mother would often frustratingly ask me where my problems were coming from, since I apparently wasn’t getting all those negative messages from the usual suspects (but the truth is that these messages are everywhere whether you’re a hardcore anime nerd or a fashion queen). Who at school was telling me I was fat? No one. Who was telling me that I was ugly? No one. Then why did I feel that way? I didn’t know.
There are good intentions in that type of reaction–you’re trying to prevent the other person from spiraling down into a pit of negativity and you want them to understand that whatever they’re starting to believe about themselves isn’t true, but sometimes it can have the opposite effect. It can create an atmosphere where openly expressing that you feel uncomfortable with your body is a sign of weakness, proof that you’ve given into peer pressure and that you should really be smarter than that.
But it’s not that simple. Stating or implying that it’s weak or vapid to be so affected by what others may think of you could end up only bottling a lot of feelings deep inside that will explode in your face sometime shortly after you start college and it’ll keep squirting at you like a ketchup bottle that never empties as you enter your twenties.
Yes, beauty standards are vapid, arbitrary, and socially constructed. They attempt to define people’s worth by how hairless they can be and how brightly their eyes can pop. They consistently snuff out other ways of looking beautiful at the expense of those who don’t fit the mold, which is most women, especially women of color. However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from therapy it’s that when you vocalize some deep-seeded turmoil within, you can give it a name. Then, you can start to understand it and it’s not some insurmountable, mysterious problem anymore.
That’s the real treasure of Princess Jellyfish. Tsukimi is an “ugly” girl who truly struggles with this throughout the series and she always vocalizes her feelings about her new identity as a “pretty” girl and her more comfortable identity as a not-conventionally attractive Amar. Ultimately, she finds confidence somewhere in the middle.
I think this is vastly different from seeing other anime girls struggle with their weight or attractiveness. Just about every female character in every anime ever is at some point concerned about her weight, her boobs, or her face, but what we the audience see is just another cute anime girl with unrealistic looks/proportions anyway. This doesn’t diminish the experience of conventionally attractive girls who struggle with these issues because that is certainly very real, but it still presents a narrow experience. Tsukimi is cute, but she’s also expressly designed and written as someone who looks more like an average person than most other anime girls.
The story doesn’t end with everyone suddenly changing or feeling totally different about themselves either. That’s partially because the manga continues well beyond the anime, but it’s also because it’s simply a more realistic way of writing this type of story. Feeling comfortable in your own skin is an ongoing challenge that can involve a lot of other parts of a person’s identity. Princess Jellyfish is a series that, in a sense, encourages us to vocalize that struggle and it does that through characters who actually look more like real people.