What iridescent beauty stings at the merest physical touch? That would be Tsukimi, the dweeby heroine of “Princess Jellyfish,” whose Prince Charming is the drippy, gelatinous kind. Taisuke Kawamura’s dramedy depicting a jellyfish nut’s friendship with a cross-dressing fashionista and her bumpy romance with a cherry-boy politician is cutesy, escapist fun. Paying token tribute to Japan’s famous otaku (geek) culture, the pic is really more preoccupied with frilly frocks and Cinderella fantasies, but its childishness is precisely its charm. Pitched squarely at a tween local audience, it’s also quirky enough to tickle overseas fanboys of Nipponese subculture.
The film is adapted from a shoujo manga (girls’ comic) by Akiko Higashimura, who portrays a gender-bending alternative to the male-centric otaku universe. Tsukimi and her housemates are femmes whose obsessions run the gamut: kimonos, trainspotting, calligraphy, historical epics and gerontophilia. Higashimura’s celebration of their otherness is on a deeper level, the assertion of individual identity in a world obsessed with superficial things like money and looks. Kawamura, whose screen adaptations of the hit manga “Nodame Cantibile 1 & 2″ and “Ako-chan” scored healthy B.O. returns, plays it safe with the story, condensing it with fellow scribe Toshiya Ono so that the colorful supporting roles are sketched broadly, without much meaningful interaction or genuine personality.
Ever since Tsukimi (Rena Nonen) visited an aquarium with her mother, she’s been mesmerized by jellyfish, whose ethereal, luminous shapes shimmer like princesses in gorgeous ball gowns, according to her febrile imagination. Now a NEET in her 20s, she’s a painfully shy, bespectacled sartorial disaster who’s literally petrified in the company of “chic people.” Though she regrets that she’ll never don a wedding dress and fulfill her late mother’s dream, she finds comfort in Amamizukan, the Victorian home she shares with other jobless geeks Chieko (Azusa Babazono), Mayaya (Rina Ota), Banba (Chizuru Ikewaki), Jiji (Tomoe Shinohara) and shut-in manga artist Mejiro.
Despite their eccentricities, they have one thing in common: chronic fear of men and indefinite virginity. Imagine the commotion when Tsukimi brings home a freeloader, Kuranosuke (Masaki Suda), who lent a hand when she tried to rescue a fresh-water jellyfish from forced mating with a salt-water one. The illegitimate son of oily politician Koibuchi (Sei Hiraizumi), Kurosuke keeps alive his memories of the fashion-designer mother who abandoned him by donning her sumptuous wardrobe. Fortunately for him and Tsukimi, the other gals are so clueless about men that they can’t decipher his sex under the Monroe wigs and Chanel suits.
Kuranosuke introduces Tsukimi to his elder brother, Shu (Hiroki Hasegawa), a politician on the make whose imperviousness to feminine wiles makes him a cherry boy at 30. Their meet-cute couldn’t be less romantic, but it’s full of droll humor — after slamming a door in Shu’s face, Tsukimi takes him to an aquarium, where his klutzy mimicry of a jellyfish stirs her heart. Evoking the kind of suspension of disbelief one accords fairy tales, Shu is bewitched by Tsukimi after Kuranosuke gives her a makeover, but cannot recognize her once she’s in specs and braids.
The action heats up with Koibuchi’s scheme to buy up Amamizukan and turn it into a hotel, egged on by ambitious redevelopment exec Shoko Inari (Nana Katase), whose surname unsubtly puns with “fox.” Her predacious attempt to seduce Shu is grotesquely funny, given his defenselessness, but Katase’s hammy stabs at playing the jezebel befouls the story’s fizzy, quasi-fantastical air with the crass tone of TV farce.
Happily, the faltering pace gets a sprightly lift when Kuranosuke and the gals put on a fashion show with a jellyfish motif, letting Amamizukan’s future hang by a thread, or a tentacle. The dazzlingly original dresses designed by Kumiko Iijima not only complement the film’s candy floss aesthetics, but also serve as expressions of Tsukimi’s strange yet vibrant inner world.
Twenty-one-year-old Nonen, who shot to fame after starring in the TV drama phenomenon “Ama-chan,” invests Tsukimi with a ditziness typical of romantic comedies, but doesn’t ooze enough freakishness to give her exquisite beauty an edge. Veering between metrosexual and downright womanly, Suda deftly turns conventions of B.L. (boys’ love) manga on its head. However, the sexual aura Kuranosuke amply exerts on Tsukimi in the manga is largely muffled onscreen.
Tech credits are pro, with extra kudos to lenser Jun Fukumoto for rejecting the flat, washed-out textures favored by Nipponese independent and some commercial films, instead embracing warm, dynamic colors and bright, upbeat lighting.
Film Review: 'Princess Jellyfish'
Reviewed at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Jan. 18, 2015. Running time: 130 MIN. (Original Title: “Kuragehime”)
(Japan) An Asmik-Ace Entertainment release of an Asmik-Ace Entertainment, Kodansha, Happinet, Tokai Television Broadcast, Les Pros Entertainment presentation of an Asmik-Ace Entertainment, Geek Site production. (International sales: Asmik Ace Entertainment, Tokyo.) Produced by Yoko Ide, Mitsuru Uda, Takuya Matsushita. Executive producers, Masaro Toyoshima, Nobuyasu Suzuki. Co-producers, Toshisuke Suzuki, Yoshihiro Kamo.
Directed by Taisuke Kawamura. Screenplay, Toshiya Ono, Kawamura, based on the manga by Akiko Higashimura. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Jun Fukumoto; editor, Hiroaki Morishita; music, Kenichi Maeyamada music supervisor, Shin Yasui; production designer, Aki Kasai; set decorator, Daichi Watanabe; costume designer, Tamami Ide; sound (Dolby Digital), Masato Komatsu; dress designer, Kumiko Iijima; visual effects supervisor, Nobutaka Michiki; line producer, Ryuta Hashimoto; associate producer, Yuki Tsuboya; assistant director, Tomokazu Naruse.
Rena Nonen, Masaki Suda, Hiroki Hasegawa, Nana Katase, Mokomichi Hayami, Rina Ota, Chizuru Ikewaki, Azusa Babazono, Tomoe Shinohara, Sei Hiraizumi, Tomoya Nakamura. (Japanese dialogue)