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.