Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Paradise Kiss
by Jason Thompson, Sep 27th 2012
Episode CXXII: Paradise Kiss
Back when shojo manga was new in America, when you almost never saw girls or the colors pink & green on the covers of graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, Tokyopop's magazine Smile was one of the first, weirdest efforts to make shojo mainstream. Created in 1998, it launched as a combination manga/fashion magazine, combining Sailor Moon with 50+ pages of fashion and general American pop culture stuff, and photos of real women, not even in cosplay, on the covers. In short, it was more Tiger Beat than Shojo Beat. (And hmm…I just realized where Shojo Beat got its name…) Eventually Tokyopop decided the manga side was working better than the fashion side, so gradually they added more manga and subtracted the fashion, and in 2002 the magazine folded. But before it died, Smile was the first place of publication for many excellent shojo manga: CLAMP's Clover. Fuyumi Soryo's Mars. Miwa Ueda's Peach Girl. And the manga it was born to publish, the perfect mix of fashion and shojo, Ai Yazawa's Paradise Kiss.
Yukari is an 18-year-old high school student whose life is all planned out: her mother continually pressures her to study harder, to get better grades, to not stay out late. Underneath, she's bitter and resentful, but aside from a slight crush on her hot classmate Tokumori, she doesn't have any real goals of her own. "It's my life, and I want to tell my parents to let me do whatever I want," she thinks. "But if they were to ask me what I want to do, I don't think I'd have an answer."
She's on the conventional path to a good college and a good career, until the day she's knocked off it: the day she meets the students at Yazawa Art School. Nevermind school uniforms, they're all elaborately dressed, flamboyant artists: Arashi, a punk with spiky hair and safety pins in his lip. (He even has a British accent in the Tokyopop rewrite.) Isabella, a stylish crossdresser who likes veils and heavy makeup, although his height and his bony hands show his real gender. Miwako, Arashi's girlfriend, a pink-haired cutie in doll dresses. They invite (or, rather, drag) her off the streets and down to their atelier, a basement studio with a bar, a pool table and three sewing machines. The three of them are fashion design majors and who want Yukari to be their model for the fall show; after all, she's good-looking and she's tall (by Japanese standards: 5'7"). But Yukari scorns their eagerness and refuses to be their model; she's busy with exams, it's her senior year ("I've got a lot going on! I don't have time to just play around with you!"). She gets in an argument with them and leaves.
But fatefully, she leaves her school ID in the studio, and it gets picked up by the fourth atelier member, the leader of the group, George (in kanji, it's Jouji, but spelling it that way really pisses him off). Tall and lanky, with icy blue hair and eyes, George is glam coolness personified. He's bi, he has great taste in clothes (with an especial fondness for suits and cowboy hats), and he owns a convertible. (Imagine that, speaking of differences between Japanese & American teenage culture: A SHOJO OR SHONEN MANGA WHERE ONE OF THE CHARACTERS ACTUALLY DRIVES A CAR!!!) He drives that car up to Yukari's school and tells her her ID's in the studio. "You want it? Come and get it?" The next thing she knows, she's back in the studio, and when George asks her politely and looks deep into her eyes with his blue contact lenses, she agrees to model for their fashion line, Paradise Kiss.
And then her whole life changes. With her new ParaKiss friends, Yukari gets drunk for the first time, stays out late and gets slapped by her mother. She starts to question her future, and considers becoming a professional model instead of the boring salarywoman life she had always assumed was ahead. Furthermore, George triggers new sensations deep inside her, and the way he flirts with her and teases her drives her crazy. ("Could he be enjoying watching me squirm?…Danger, danger! I'm supposed to be in love with Tokumori!") George is the first openly bisexual person she's ever met, and Isabella is the first open transsexual. ("As long as I can remember, I've always felt out of place as a man. I couldn't stand having to live life as a boy when I was so clearly a girl on the inside.") Soon, Yukari gets drawn into the web of relationships, and farther and farther away from the 'normal', proper life her mother had planned for her. "If we don't stop now we'll pass the point of no return," George tells her one day, as they stand close together, arm in arm, in the shadows of the atelier. "What do you want to do…?"
Today Ai Yazawa is better known for NANA, her sadly-on-hiatus 21-volume manga epic about two girls, one who wants to become a successful punk musician and one who (to oversimplify) just wants true love. In many ways, Paradise Kiss covers the same themes—art and the artist's lifestyle, growing up, troubled relationships, being true to yourself vs. selling out. It has the same love of punk and glam, of things like the movie Velvet Goldmineand fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. For Yazawa, Paradise Kiss is a transitional work between her early YA shojo stories in Ribon magazine (whose characters show up, grown up, as minor characters in Paradise Kiss) and the more openly sexual, josei (adult women) story of NANA. It was published, not in a regular manga magazine, but in the Japanese fashion magazine Zipper; maybe that's why it gets away with breaking so many shojo manga clichés. (For that matter, I'm not entirely sure whether Paradise Kiss counts as shojo or josei—I don't know whether the Japanese printing had furigana, the technical definition of shojo and shonen. Like NANA, maybe it's something inbetween. Anyway, good manga (like Paradise Kiss) is good manga and bad manga is bad manga, regardless of age group. Just because something's aimed at 14-year-olds instead of 18-year-olds, it's no excuse for sucking.)
Artistically, this manga is lovely. It must have looked at home in a fashion magazine. Like Mitsukazu Mihara and Moyoco Anno, Yazawa isn't afraid to use black spaces in her artwork (there must be some older josei artist who influenced all three of them), but she also fills her pages with shojo sparkles, screentone effects, and butterflies. In Paradise Kiss the characters have sex, but they have it on designer beds ("Do you like fluffy or jangly pillows?"), and their clothes are so beautiful, you almost don't want to tear them off. According to Japanese Wikipedia, Yazawa doesn't use assistants, making her artwork all the more impressive. She was an early adopter of Photoshop techniques.
But of course, it's really the dialogue and the story that make this manga so great. Paradise Kiss is a love story and a story of growing up; like NANA, it's about people finding love while chasing their dreams. The problem is when these two things are incompatible. George and Yukari are attracted to one another, but George is also obsessed with his art ("He got me all worked up, but once the subject turned to clothing he totally forgot about me," thinks Yukari.) George knows just the right things to say, but he's never too aggressive, he's never mushy, and he never loses his cool self-control. "I don't like girls who aren't independent," George says. "If you aren't, then leave. I can't take responsibility for you." Yukari gets frustrated. ("Even I don't like this pathetic side of myself. But is it really so foolish to want the guy I fell for to fawn on me?") Yukari decides that she'll pursue her modeling career, become a better person, and then George will like her, or if he doesn't, who cares. She's not doing it for him…right? But even then, George is one step ahead of her, flirting with her, complimenting her, telling her to be more self-confident, than maddeningly saying "I know just what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'I'm going to become a strong independent woman without George's help.'" And who other than Ai Yazawa could write seductive dialogue like this:
GEORGE: "Shall I take you home?"
YUKARI: "You're still pretending to be the good kid."
GEORGE: "Then which do you prefer? 1. A park. 2. A rooftop. 3. A graveyard."
YUKARI: "What are they?"
GEORGE: "Options for where to lose your virginity."
YUKARI: "I DON'T LIKE ANY OF THEM!"
I don't want to give too many spoilers about this manga, but I have to mention that it has some of the best, most realistic, sex scenes ever. In one of the many breaking-the-fourth-wall jokes, after the scene is over, the characters themselves read the manga and comment on the sex: "You can't have sex like that in manga! No matter how counter-intuitive it is, you have to hold out 'till the end, or do it where readers can't see you!" (Yazawa's exaggerating; but then, I guess this was before Black Bird.) They even get self-referential when they're actually in the middle of having sex: "I know it's a little early, but are you about to come? We're out of pages."
Apparently Yazawa is aware how her story breaks manga conventions, and that's just fine. As the story goes on, Yukari moves out of her house and moves in with her ParaKiss friends, abandoning her jerkhole family to pursue her love and her modeling career. (Although even her mother, the nearest thing to a bad guy, turns out to have a softer side. Sort of.) "I won't take any responsibility if you end up living in hell," George warns Yukari for the second time. Can she really take the risky path of the artist and end up with both success and love? Paradise Kiss is sometimes bittersweet, sometimes funny, sometimes heart-pounding, and always beautiful. Out of print since Tokyopop collapsed, it's now been rereleased in a new three-volume edition from Vertical. Even if Ai Yazawa had never drawn a page of NANA, she'd still be remembered for Paradise Kiss; and even if she never finishes NANA, Paradise Kiss will still be one of the best shojo—or josei, or whatever you want to call it—manga ever translated.
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