There’s been a theme in the books I’ve been choosing for this blog. You may have noticed it: “Here is a book from my youth that I liked, does it still hold up?” While the answer changes depending on the book, I’m taking a slightly different approach to this new series. Because instead of taking something I loved, I’m taking a series that I didn’t really care for, but probably should have.
Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa is, to me, the Cowboy Bebop of the shojo genre. I’ve heard it praised to high heaven for its art style, the story, the characters, and clothes. Definitely the clothes. I am led to believe that it is objectively good.
But, like Cowboy Bebop, I really didn’t care for it, and was a failure of an otaku for that reason. However, when I watched Bebop when I was older and in college, I enjoyed the show much more. I first read Paradise Kiss at age fourteen, borrowed from my older sister, who loved the series.
Now I’m going to dive back into the world of high fashion and teen drama, while keeping two questions in mind:
- Has Paradise Kiss improved with age, specifically my age?
- Is it objectively good?
Let’s get started.
One of my main hang-ups about Paradise Kiss when I was younger was that I really didn’t like the main characters, Yukari and George. I remember them being both pretty stand-offish and arrogant, and it doesn’t take long in the first chapter for Yukari to show how judgmental she can be. But I was surprised at how similar we are in the first panel.
It’s not just Yukari’s cynicism that I can relate to, though I have that in spades. But as I’m writing this, I’m living in a large city for the first time in my life. Getting anywhere is a terror, and what would be a five minute drive at home takes a good fifteen minutes here. It’s full of lines and crowds, which can be really anxiety producing for someone like me. I’ve lived here for the better part of a year now, and there are still aspects of it I haven’t gotten used to. And I will never, ever like city driving.
Maybe I really did need to be older to enjoy this. Older and grumpier.
Another thing that I like about this book, for the most part, is the art. It’s very stylized and different from a lot of the manga I was reading at the time. I really like that it’s more “mature” looking and the characters’ eyes don’t take up the majority of their faces. Flipping through the pages of this book, there are only a couple things about the overall art style that I don’t like.
The first is the hands. Close-ups show the hands to be long and knobbly, which fits with the style. I just can’t get over the giant monster hands.
The second thing that bothers me is the character Miwako’s lips.
They’re emphasized in a way that they’re almost cartoonish, and I can’t figure out why. At first I thought it was to show that she’s wearing lipstick or makeup, but Yukari doesn’t get fish lips when she has make up on.
My final issue with the book’s art is the panel layout, though that’s probably not Yazawa’s fault. Tokyopop, the publisher, is notorious for shrinking panels or cutting them, which is what most likely happened here. Furthmore, Paradise Kiss was originally published in a magazine, which would have given the artist more room for spacing out her panels. Shrinking it down to book size, unfortunately, makes the pages look crowded.
Storywise, Paradise Kiss moves pretty quickly. It ought to, as it’s only 5 books long. We’re barely introduced to Yukari before she is accosted by Arashi and Isabella, two members of the titular Paradise Kiss fashion studio. Yukari is so shocked she faints. They take her to their studio, where they ask her to be their model. The ball’s a’rollin’. I could complain that the story moves a bit too quickly, except Yazawa does a great job of characterizing Yukari even in this fast-moving introduction. We also meet Arashi, Isabella, and Miwako, whose first impressions are likewise true to their characters as well. And at least this way we don’t have to get dragged through the introductory period of “Yukari is unhappy with her life and wants something more.” We get that right away, and learn more about her as the first chapter progresses.
As manga go, though, I’d say this one is not for beginners. This series is heavily rooted in Japanese culture, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, some of the significance of the story can go over your head, or drive you crazy. For example, Yukari is constantly worried about studying and getting into a good college, and complains about all the pressure on her. This isn’t uncommon for most high school students, but here it’s brought up to the level of melodrama…if you read it as an American. But Japanese students are under an insane amount of pressure to keep good grades and go to good schools. There are entrance exams not just for college, but high schools, junior high school, and even elementary schools. When I studied the Japanese language in college, my professor told us that there was a saying in Japan: if you get five hours of sleep, you fail; if you get four hours of sleep, you pass. While I can’t tell you how true this proverb is, it does show the high expectations placed on students.
Another thing that was driving me crazy until I looked it up was Miwako’s speech. She never says “I”, but always refers to herself as “Miwako”.
I really couldn’t figure out why she was speaking this, and I’ve it done with other young female characters before. I suspected that this was a way for Yazawa to portray Miwako’s innocence or childishness. After a few minutes of Googling (Read the answer here!) I learned that women under thirty in Japan will refer to themselves by their first name rather than a first person pronoun. However, they would only do this in informal and private settings, like home, but not at school, and not with strangers. So Miwako referring to herself as “Miwako” also shows her character, but not in a way that I expected. When she calls herself Miwako, it tells a Japanese reader that she’s comfortable in the studio, and that she’s friendly enough to use her first name around someone she’s just met. To an American like me, it just sounds weird until I learned the deeper meaning.