Do you always have to choose a side?

Princess Jellyfish KodanshaI recently had a chance to read Kodansha USA’s release of Princess Jellyfish. Even though it’s been a few years since I last read it, I was struck by how Kuranosuke is still the only character I really sympathize with. In a story where basically every other character falls into a strict nerdy vs “stylish” dichotomy, Kurnosuke is actually quite nerdy in his love for fashion and dressing up; and yet he also has a social life, goes out clubbing, etc. But unlike the last time I read this manga, I found myself rather irritated at the story and at how it plays up the idea that nerds will be nerds, “stylish” people will be stylish, and that there isn’t even a chance at crossing over. Social identities are not a binary, and while I’m not as fashionable as the girls in Shibuya I certainly feel stylish and nunnish at times, something Princess Jellyfish would like to pretend is impossible.

Princess Jellyfish certainly does not have a high opinion of “stylish” people, or even non-nerds in general (the story likes to pretend that Kuranosuke’s brother Shuu is “stylish” but he’s also pretty nerdy really). All of the stylish characters appear only as moving backgrounds; they are simply, effortlessly there and only there to prove how far removed Tsukimi and the other girls at the Amars’ boarding house are from everyone else. When the story does introduce a stylish character with a bit more depth, real-estate developer Inari, she serves to only further the seemingly uncrossable divide between the Amars and the “stylish.” Inari is so crafty and devious that it really makes the Amars (who fall for Kuranosuke’s blatant bribery) seem like a totally different kind of people.

I resent that to a small degree; I am both very nerdy and rather social! It’s hard to quantify nerdiness but let me submit my qualifications:

  1. I went through a period in high school where I read everything I could about string theory and don’t know why I stopped.
  2. I visit all of the local art museum every four months to see their newest exhibits.
  3. I am a cornerstone in my group’s trivia team and provide such answers like “St Elmo’s Fire” “Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus” and “Charles Lindbergh’s inaugural, trans-Atlantic solo flight from America to France took 32 hours, +/- 3 hours.” Apparently the trivia host recognizes me by now. (Sidenote: I would like to apologize for my Hamilton-obsessed teammate who keeps bothering you, man.)

My point being: Clearly I am nerd and I would like to say that doing social things, like that trivia team, are far from effortless! You have to get other people involved, convince yourself to not stay at home like an introvert the way you do every other night (change can be good!), and then deal with everything else that comes up. It’s easier/harder for other people but it’s certainly not impossible for nerdy folks the way that the Amars, and Princess Jellyfish itself, make it out to be.

And yet, I’m not sure why I’m in a hurry to identify with the fujoshi since they’re just as flat as the “stylish!” Everyone is a caricature (and the same one at that) of a nerd with a single, mind-consuming obsession who gives no craps that they are completely financially dependent on their parents while in their 30s (with the exception of 18 year old Tsukimi). The Amars are easy to fool as well and, given their reactions, there is no hidden depth to any of these characters. It’s a surprisingly mean characterization by manga-ka Higashimura given how nerdy she is (again, it’s hard to quantify nerdiness but “learned how to use air-brush supplies in high school in order to recreate famous paintings but with jellyfish as the subjects” is pretty hardcore nerdy).

While the worldview of a story isn’t necessarily the worldview of the creator, I still find myself wondering why this josei series ended up being the one that so many fans have clung to over the years. I do think that accessibility (i.e. the anime has been licensed the entire time) plays into it but, aside from three or four characters no one is engaging at all! There are some nice things about the story, like how Kuranosuke thinks of dressing up as a way to level the playing field, not as a doorway to changing someone’s heart, but with characterization this flat there aren’t a lot of ways for the characters to change even if they want to.