I’m not usually a fan of romantic comedies, especially the increasingly formulaic ones coming out of Hollywood. So when I hear of romantic comedies revolving around worlds of fantasy and/or whimsy, I’m even more sceptical. There are many films that work like The Princess Bride (1987), Ghost (1990), Stardust (2007), and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), but when those types of films fail, they fail miserably. Films like the annoying Alex and Emma (2003), the horrifically terrible Safe Haven (2013) and the excessive Mood Indigo (2013) – although I like the latter – are insufferable to many, so when I started to watch Princess Jellyfish, I was nervous thinking that I would hate it. And watching the trailer did nothing to sway my expectations. So what did I really think of Princess Jellyfish? Does it exceed my expectations? Does it transcend from the abysmal norm of the romantic comedy?
Rena Nounen is the titular character, Tsukimi Kirishima, a female otaku, meaning a person with incredibly obsessive interests to the point that it is detrimental to her social and romantic life. And her interests happen to be about jellyfish. She’s also an aspiring manga artist who just hangs around at home, which happens to be a boarding house filled with many girls who are incredibly similar to Tsukimi. Although, she goes out on occasion to buy jellyfish, one day, she shows some backbone when arguing with a pet store owner about the environments jellyfish should live in. During said argument, a woman butts in and supports her, but it is later revealed that he is a man, Kuranosuke Koibuchi (Masaki Suda), who happens to be the son of the incredibly pushy mayor (Sei Hiraizumi). Kuranosuke develops an interest in Tsukimi and starts hanging out with her at her place and the two make a deal. She helps him keep his secret and he will help her with her appearance. Kuranosuke’s father then sets off the plot about the boarding house being scheduled for destruction from a building developer and her laughably bitchy aide (Nana Katase), while Tsukimi’s physical change sets off a love triangle as her appearance also catches the interest of Kuranosuke’s half-brother, Shu (Hiroki Hasegawa), who may be just as shy as Tsukimi. Can Tsukimi find her one true love to finally become a supposed princess as well as save her home from being destroyed?
As you may have guessed, the plot is incredibly silly and the characters could only come from a manga. So the only way the audience can really get into the film is to find something that is relatable and grounded to hold on to. Fortunately, the two leads are well-portrayed, likable and thankfully, genuine. Rena Nounen and Masaki Suda have great chemistry together as friends as well as lovers as their personalities mesh together like peanut butter and jelly(fish?). But they also work individually, particularly Nounen. Her character could have easily been incredibly annoying in her precociousness, and she is at times, but Nounen provides a perfect balance between obliviousness and cuteness that makes her quite charming. It’s just a shame that when she changes her appearance, she comes off as a little boring. It’s more the fault of the script and it happens in other romantic comedies as well like She’s All That (1999) or the Hong Kong fantasy A Chinese Tall Story (2005). Suda is also good as Kuranosuke, who plays his personalities of puppy love, determination and hesitance (of his father) quite well, and quite frankly, he’s probably the best thing in the movie.
As for the supporting cast, the women of the house are all amusing in their own ways like Rina Ohta as Mayaya, and it was a hoot to see Chizuru Ikewaki looking unrecognizable with an Afro as Banba following her hard-hitting drama The Light Shines Only There (2014). Another standout is Nana Katase as Shoko. Her portrayal of bitchiness and downright cruelty is hilarious to watch and it is perfectly obvious that she’s having a lot of fun in the role, and the same goes for Hayami Mokomichi as Yoshio, the chauffeur of the Koibuchi family. Unfortunately, the actor who gets the short end of the stick is Hiroki Hasegawa. Although he has a great seduction scene with Katase, he gets stuck with an underwritten and downright boring role as the timid, kind third wheel and he sinks along with it. Other than Hasegawa, the cast are given good roles to play with and make the most of them.
Another thing I must give the film credit for is its costume design and cinematography. Recently, Japanese films have adopted a washed-out look that may give verisimilitude but most of the time it also gives the film a cheap aesthetic. But in the case of Princess Jellyfish, the film looks bubbly and warm and the costumes are very enjoyable to look at, whether it is homely clothing or strikingly bold colourful yukata. The pacing is frenetic at times, but it makes the jokes more enjoyably to take since it doesn’t rely on forcing punchlines on the audience. Although there are some jokes that get repetitive at times, like how Tsukimi gets literally “petrified”. The pacing is also detrimental to the film because its relentless whimsy can become tiring by the end. It doesn’t help that the proceedings run over two hours, which is too long for any romantic comedy, and may stem from the fact that it is adapted from source material that spans many manga volumes. This gives the film a rushed feel as it leaves some characters underdeveloped (like Shu), but the filmmakers seem to want to cram everything in to appease fans.
It’s an approach that adaptations still need to work on, but Princess Jellyfish succeeds on this front because it plays well on its own levels. Its characters are likable and mostly humane, it looks and sounds great, and the story, while completely silly, is executed without a sense of irony, which makes it makes it an easy film for the audience to get into.
Princess Jellyfish is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.