Jellyfish Can’t Swim in the Night – Episode 1

By: Vrai Kaiser April 8, 20240 Comments
Kano and Mahiro face to face

Content Warning: Fan service

What’s it about? 17-year-old Kouzuki Mahiro loved drawing when she was younger, but when her big mural debut got made fun of she quit art and focused her efforts on fitting in. That changes one night in Shibuya, when she meets the beautiful and confident Kano, a former idol who declares herself a passionate fan of Mahiro’s art. Kaho’s become the anonymous singer JELEE and wants “Yoru” to be her artist; but can Mahiro stand next to someone so bright?

Anime-original coming-of-age drama? About the intense pressure young women face to conform to a narrow, commodified definition of an acceptable high school girl? Yes, please, put it in my veins. I’ve had my eyes on this title since the scheduling announcements, and the fact that this is an unusually shriveled spring season only makes it stand out more. It’s easily the stand-out of the season so far, barring a couple significant stumbles.

It’s not hard to tell from the jump that this is a script swinging for the fences, as Mahiro’s sister wryly comments that footage of sleeping teen girls is the fastest way to go viral on “PikPok,” her classmates opine about making the most of the High School Experience, and our leads both find that the most exciting, creatively freeing art they’re able to make is through a faceless online persona. The only friend Mahiro seems properly able to open up to, Kiui, seems to be popular as a persona-forward VTuber. Gen Z lives on a video-forward internet that’s left a trail of records from childhood; with that kind of pressure, Jellyfish purports, maybe the greatest fantasy is being able to cast off both your old posts and the role society slots you into.

Mahiro's classmate holds up art of their friend group "made cute" by Mahiro's art

That’s a lot of tantalizingly big ideas to swing at, and while I wouldn’t call this episode “subtle” it’s also just naturalistic enough to avoid shaking its fits at the Kids Today. There were a few moments where I found myself wondering if the show was accidentally implying something deeper than it had meant to, particularly a scene where Mahiro goes shopping for a Halloween costume (roles, d’you see). Chatting on the phone, Kiui asks who she wants to be as Mahiro ponders over a choice between an angel and a devil costume.

Naturally Kano appears just in time to take the latter, leaving Mahiro as the angel in their double act. But…the packaging for the costumes is functionally identical, the models basically interchangeable in look and pose. Is this about the illusion of choice in “just be yourself!” stories that still extol a relatively narrow vision of girlhood? Or is it because character designer Taniguchi Junichiro (probably best known for the role on Magia Record and Madoka proper as of the movies) has populated this world with women who have almost identical body shapes, largely distinguished by clothing and hair?

a packaged set of angel and devil costumes. Subtitle: then what exactly do you want to be?

This is also heady subject matter for a first time series composer. Yaku Yuki’s only major credit is as the light novel author of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki; other than working on a few scripts for the adaptation’s second season, he’s a complete newbie to the world of writing anime. Throwing him directly into an original series, especially one that purports to be capital-A About the interiority of young girls specifically in a contemporary setting, is… a little concerning. Not that only women can write about teen girls, but having neither personal history nor industry experience to draw from makes the odds of fumbling higher. But hey, on the other hand, Eighth Grade was amazing.

Certainly it looks to-die-for. The nighttime streets of Shibuya glow like a warm, otherworldly paradise against the cold tones of daily life, and the episode-ending musical number hits the right notes of a buzzing emotional high. But then there’s the issues I mentioned. Issue, really. There are maybe three fan service shots, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but they’re as lovingly rendered as they are out of step with what the rest of the episode is doing.

By far the worst comes barely two minutes in, as the camera for some reason switches to a shot from Mahiro’s sister’s POV while Mahiro is getting dressed. Mahiro leans forward, and we can see right down her pajama top. Yes, they’re talking about video content of girls in pajamas going viral online, but Mahiro isn’t even being filmed, leaving the result pointlessly voyeuristic and embarrassingly long (and all the weirder because a later scene of Mahiro fretting in the bath is framed without the skeeve factor). The other two are distressingly shiny and detailed lip close-ups which, as a veteran of both Wonder Egg Priority and Bakemonogatari, gave me some serious flashbacks.

POV shot of Mahiro covering her silly socks. you can see down her shirt

It’s tempting to look at the major creative team’s back catalog to try and divine how likely this is to stay a persistent issue, but the results are a mixed bag that include a lot of adaptations (which by their nature, can come with less creative freedom than an original) Takeshita Ryohei’s two credits as director are the incest-baiting Eromanga Sensei on one hand and the cozy ONA Pokémon: Paldean Winds on the other; art director Kaneko Yuji was the art director for not just the very sexual Kill la Kill and Heavenly Delusion but also Dragon Pilot: Hisone and Masotan and the Little Witch Academia movie (which really only tells us that yup, this is definitely going to look amazing thoughout). Chief animation director Toyoda Akiko’s other credit in the role was on Adachi and Shimamura, a show that could be soft and lovely but also frequently derailed itself with obtrusive thigh shots…but that show also lists no fewer than five chief animation directors who worked on all 12 episodes, plus a few more scattered through the middle; meanwhile, her fellow chief animation director for Jellyfish is Suzuki Asuka, who’s predominantly worked in the role on male sports series.

That’s a really long-winded way to deliver a textual shrug, but I wanted to spend a bit of time because this is the kind of setup that can lead to intense emotions: it’s got a lot of promise thematically, it looks great, the girls are really likeable (and have some extremely homoerotic interactions that I don’t want to get my hopes up about), and then there’s this one obvious, obnoxious fly in the ointment that could specifically derail those interesting themes if it stays prominent. It might be worth waiting for the three-episode check-in if you’re especially anxious about the fanservice, but right now I find myself in the realm of cautious enthusiasm. Maybe I just want to believe in these very good girls. Now, if HiDive would just provide subtitles when the episode airs rather than a full day later, we’ll be good to go.

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