For those of you who haven’t read Paradise Kiss, you’re missing out. It’s been reprinted in the last few years, you see. It’s a beautifully told slice-of-life story about adolescence on the brink of responsibility, and the screw ups you make trying to find a life outside of what your family’s expected. For those of you who haven’t watched Paradise Kiss…you should probably just read it.
ParaKiss, as the title is sometimes shortened, is penned by Ai Yazawa of Nana fame. She’s often praised (quite rightfully) for her superb hand at writing well rounded female characters and real-world relationships. The five volume manga tells the story of Yukari, a girl who’s spent her life trying to please her mother’s demand for academic success despite the fact that it’s neither easy nor interesting for her. One day she’s snared by a group of teens from the nearby performing arts school, who beg her to be their model for the school’s upcoming fashion show. She’s totally uninterested…until the group’s handsome leader George puts it a bit more persuasively. Yukari finds herself in a whole world of firsts, questioning whether the romantic world of fashion is truly what she wants to do with her life, or if it’s just a way to hide from the real world. The story is intimate and raw, and its overarching metaphor of the fashion club as the main characters’ lives – beautiful, apparently effortless garments made from thankless, toiling work in an unknown basement coalesced behind a creative spark and an attractive front face – is a surprisingly effective punch to the gut. This is no ‘lives of the rich and beautiful.’ Yukari definitely has lucky breaks based on the people she knows, but that only gets her in the door, while her work ethic carries her forward. Nor does her beauty signal all well on the romantic front: she’s emotionally immature, in way over her head with the distant and issue-laden George, and the story isn’t afraid to show the shallow ugliness that can come from a self-centered outlook.
Okay now, pop quiz, everybody: what are the major movements of a romance story? You have the initial, usually chance, meeting; always tinged with some kind of strong fascination, whether or not they think they dislike one another. After a courtship or familiarizing period of varying awkwardness (about 2/3 of the way through the story) the couple will get together in some manner – this can be sex for an adult aimed story, or a more chaste form of physical/emotional intimacy. In the third act the relationship will be tested by the outside world (circumstances or a rival) and/or the characters own flaws that have ruined relationships in the past. However, the new couple’s love is strong enough to overcome these factors, and there’s a happy ending. It’s a rock solid formula, one that’s flexible enough to accommodate multiple premises and character types while still offering the reader a sense of comforting familiarity.
Problems usually come up when the fantasy collides with a sense of reality, and the latter’s likely to give out long before the former. This, I think, is what’s at the heart of a lot of romance-related cynicism. It’s not just the predictability, but the fact that without careful plotting and writing the stories are much faster to fall into cliché than in genres with more varied constructions. Paradise Kiss the manga is masterful about its approach to the archetypes of romance, marrying them to the extreme verisimilitude of adult slice-of-life. Yukari’s tempestuous relationship with George follows the roadmap, for the most part, to a T. They’re drawn irresistibly to one another; there are concerns about a virginal versus experienced partner, intimations of another woman and George’s bad-boy emotional issues. It’s a set up for the kind of happily ever after that would have a brooding man with too many abs on the cover. Only…this happens instead.
Yeah. They break up. And I don’t feel particularly bad about telling you that because while the romance is a major part of the plot, it’s not the point. The story’s about Yukari’s journey to become an adult, navigating the difficulties of sex, first love, independence, and work in a very unsteady market. And while her romance is in the mold of a romance novel, it’s couched in the story of a real(ish, anyway) young woman’s life. It ends as it must: while George realizes things about himself by dating Yukari (who is So Very Unlike any of the other girls, or boys, he’s been with), she can’t fix a lifetime of emotional problems in a few months; she’s also a teenager in her first serious relationship, and while she recognizes her jealousy as a bad thing she’s not old or experienced enough to deal with it maturely; finally, they’re both serious about their careers, and would be unable to focus on them while still being involved even if they didn’t fight all the time.
Know what’s not in this manga? Stupid Dynasty-style catfights
Not that the story dismisses George’s importance, either. Yukari is changed by her meeting with him, and continues wearing the clothes he gave her right through the height of her career. He introduced her to what became her life’s passion, and she learned about herself from the way she behaved around him. It’s clear she thinks on him now and then, with fond as well as sad memories for what might’ve been. But she moves on. She doesn’t spend her every waking hour thinking about a man she dated over a decade ago. She even marries Hiroyuki and is happy and excited to be doing so, the nice guy but not Nice Guy who supported her without stalking her every waking moment during the story. Not that you’d know that if you were watching the anime.
And now we’re getting to it, aren’t we. ParaKiss the anime isn’t a touching slice of life drama. Or rather, it is right up until the last episode. The early episodes of the anime go so far as to improve the story, a solid but not painstaking adaptation that infuses the world of the story with a lush sense of color, music, and life. By contrast, the last episode is the soppiest, most over the top piece of disrespect the original ending you can imagine, not least of all because in all technicality the same basic events occur: the fashion show passes, Yukari is jealous of George’s female friend, they break up and there’s a brief forward flash to the cast ten years later. But never have I seen a clearer example of why tone and the things that aren’t said are critical to the impression left by a piece of art.
A big part of the problem with the anime’s finale is that it adapts five volumes in twelve episodes, and most of that fifth volume is constricted to the last episode and a half or so. 20 minutes isn’t a lot of time to depict the slow deterioration of a relationship, as well as spend time catching up with characters in a flash forward. It’s just expected that you’re going to have to cut things down. That’s not the problem. The issue is a far more insidious one – a lot of things cut were related to Yukari’s inner monologue (which she had had in the show up to that point, so they can’t pull the ‘no inner thoughts’ card), or her growing unease with her relationship. When she’s screaming at Kaori (George’s friend) for daring to come visit her boyfriend, only manga Yukari bothers to think ‘oh God, I’m acting like the bitchy, nasty bad guy in a romance anime.’ Only manga Yukari has the above thought that George doesn’t respect her or share much of his life with her. Anime Yukari just cries that her boyfriend might be two-timing her. Don’t get me wrong, manga Yukari sheds her share of tears, but the additional thoughts add layers of self-awareness – she’s not just smitten, she’s beginning to grow up and see what about the situation is making her unhappy.
How about the breakup? The anime also omits the dialogue about George saying their relationship is unhealthy/that they’re not a good fit for each other. Without the character’s admittance of this fact, the break up conversation comes across like a sappy melodrama: oh, I knew you would say that you would pursue your dreams, for that is what I love about you, My Very Unlike The Others Girl! How tragic it is that outside forces, rather than our conflicting personalities and intimacy issues, are forcing us apart! It leaves a nasty taste. One that might be expected of a carbon copy romance, to be sure, and just seeing the adaptation might be enough to leave an unaware viewer bemoaning fate’s battery of the romantic couple. What makes it so very painful is the way it dilutes the capital-t Truth of the original version. How rare is it to see a story that admits, ‘these two did truly love each other, as best as they could, and indelibly affected each other. However, it’s now better for them to part ways?’ That’s a beautiful, nuanced approach to the experience of life and love. Seeing it watered down to a dimestore soap is abhorrent.
But wait, there’re more things to be omitted! Mostly those things are anything to do with Hiroyuki, a pretty major character in the manga. He’s Yukari’s concerned classmate and eventual beau, and the childhood friend of two of ParaKiss’s members. He’s even the one to council angry punk rocker Arashi on the Seriously Not Okay thing that happened with his girlfriend Miwako.
Apparently the anime hates Hiro like that abominable Phantom of the Opera sequel hated Raoul, so it cuts him out whenever possible. He’s not even featured in the anime’s flash forward. And I don’t mean they didn’t include the above scene in the car. I mean “Yukari’s fiancé” is not named, and the screen cuts to black just before he enters the room. Instead, the anime places an inordinate amount of focus on the fact that anime Yukari is still wearing the ring George gave her (ten years later), and she seems as focused on it in the present as she was shortly after their breakup (when the feeling would have been much more understandable). That’s not the behavior of a woman affected by but grown beyond her first love. It’s not the triumphant story of coming of age. It trashes the triumph of a young woman making something of herself to focus on one bittersweet aspect of her life. Anime Yukari seems simply childish. Worst of all, it makes her basically equivalent to George’s mother, a childish alcoholic who still longs for the past, her lost career, and the fact that George’s father left her. The original narrative makes many deliberate moves to make her Yukari’s foil, and thus it is a triumph when Yukari is able to grow and learn from George without her entire life being warped around him. It’s not embellishing on the romantic loss, it’s undermining the thematic center of the story. A story of incredible delicacy and success can be undone by one indelicate stroke of the brush. A story that chooses to live in the fantasy of romance, when that wasn’t the original story’s intentions, mars something original and heartfelt. Adaptation is a tricky business – it’s not that it needs to be a carbon copy. Success is in understanding what makes the original story tick.