Paradise Kiss 1-5 by Ai Yazawa: A

Like Yazawa’s later series, NANA, Paradise Kiss is the story of a normal girl who wanders into the path of young people with ambition, becomes invested in seeing their dream come true, and must ultimately find her own path to happiness.

The Basic Story

Yukari Hayasaka is a hardworking high school student who has never been in trouble. Since early childhood her main preoccupation has been studying, trying to please her demanding mother by getting into desirable private schools. She has largely proved to be a disappointment in this area, and though she has managed to get into a prestigious high school, she finds it difficult to keep up with the coursework and worries about her college prospects. One day, as she’s crossing the street, she’s spotted by a suspicious pair—a punk with safety pins in his face and a man in drag—and carried back to their “studio.”

The punk (Arashi), the crossdresser (Isabella), and the diminutive pink-haired Miwako explain that they are students in the fashion design class at Yazawa School of the Arts and need a model for their project for the school festival. Yukari is disdainful of these “freaks,” and storms off without any intention of helping them. On her way out, she drops her student ID, which is found by George Koizumi. It’s George who’s the leader of the group of students—they’re working as his support staff—and he’s determined to get Yukari to agree to model his elaborate design.

Yukari bristles at his suave and confusing attentions, but all the same must admit to herself that before this moment, “I was just running with blinders on through a dark tunnel, heading toward a light at the end. But that light was only a portral to a vast, empty, and lonely space.” Yukari is weary of days spent memorizing dates and formulas, and eventually comes to be impressed by the skill and dedication of the Yazawa students, who create clothes under the label “Paradise Kiss.” She also grows more and more intrigued by the engimatic and inscrutable George, and by the end of volume one, not only has she agreed to the modeling job, she and George share a passionate kiss.

Preparations for the festival continue while Yukari and George’s relationship deepens and evolves. This is the first time Yukari has ever been part of anything, and she’s eager to contribute in any way she can, despite the repeated urgings from the others that she shouldn’t be slacking in her studies. George, meanwhile, grows frustrated by her tendency to blame all of her problems on other people—she has to study because of her mother, but she can’t concentrate on studying because of him—and asks, “Where is your drive and determination in all of this?”

In order to be the kind of independent woman George prefers, Yukari runs away from home and stops attending school so that she can begin working and figure out what she wants to do with her life. George continues to encourage her to make her own decisions and she assures him she’ll take responsibility for the fallout of her actions. This advice, coupled with a convenient opportunity to model for Miwako’s sister (also a designer), helps launch Yukari on the path of becoming a model, something that eventually becomes a dream and a goal so important to her that she’s willing to make any sacrifice to achieve it.

The Characters

A story about the metamorphosis of an unhappy schoolgirl into a successful model might be intriguing under any circumstances, but what really makes Paradise Kiss special are the layered and flawed characters. Yukari, for example, is stubborn and full of prejudices as the story begins, traits largely inherited from her overbearing mother. While she’s able to overcome these for the most part, a deeper level of influence results in a fixation with winning that brings down the group when the festival doesn’t go as planned and in insecurities that lead to ugliness when she’s confronted with other people who are important figures in George’s life. Her journey from unhappy high schooler to fulfilled adult woman is hard-fought, believable, nuanced, and satisfying.

The supporting characters are quite interesting, too. My favorite of these is Arashi, who is initially quite nasty to Yukari, but eventually begins to respect her and even become somewhat protective. He’s got some pretty vicious insecurities of his own involving a love triangle between him, Miwako, and their childhood friend (and Yukari’s classmate), Hiro. The root of this unease is only unveiled in volume five, and though I’m glad this storyline sees some resolution, it would’ve been nice if a bit more time could’ve been spent on it. Hiro, too, plays a far greater role than I initially expected, and serves to temper Yukari’s rebellious impulses.

It’s inevitable, though, that a hero designed to compel and fascinate the heroine would also do so to his audience. George is a fantastic character. At first, readers don’t know if he’s simply toying with Yukari or is really serious about her. He doesn’t call when he says he will, forgets dinner engagements, and claims on more than one occasion to be an “equal opportunity lover.” In bits and pieces, though, we begin to see not only how much he truly cares for Yukari, but his very real vulnerabilities. He’s so insistent that Yukari decide everything on her own, for example, because his mother, mistress to a rich and powerful man, constantly blames her lover for all of her unhappiness. He doesn’t want Yukari to feel that way about him, so he always avoids making the first move, even when it’s something that he wants to happen, because he doesn’t want to be blamed for her misery down the line.

Although he’s drawn to Yukari’s spirited personality, the way they interact also makes it difficult for him to confide his feelings and worries to her. For that, he turns to Kaori Aso, a fellow designer for whom he had feelings but who never took him seriously. The first moment Kaori appeared, I groaned inwardly, thinking she’d be just another last-minute love rival, but I must say I ended up liking her a lot in the end. Even though Yukari is the protagonist, it was really interesting to see George interact with an ambitious girl who is less reactionary than Yukari; I couldn’t help but think that she would be a better match for him.

Why Ai Yazawa is Awesome

There are so many emotionally resonant moments in this series that it would be impossible to list them all. Yazawa captures so many stops along the formation and disintegration of relationships that I feel she simply must have gone through this kind of thing herself. I’m not only talking about the exhilaration as Yukari and George connect for the first time, but also some of the problems that ensue later on in their relationship.

I recall, for example, a scene between Yukari and Hiro in volume three. She hasn’t been to school in a while and he’s worried about her. He’s the one who makes her realize that she’s trying become the kind of woman who isn’t influenced by others because she was influenced by George’s preference. Yazawa absolutely nails the desperate panic of someone who doesn’t want to hear another verbally confirm their own innermost doubts and insecurities. “Shut up already!” she shouts. “Just leave me alone.” Still, she knows that everything he said is true.

Too, there’s the heartbreaking moment that occurs after Yukari has behaved horribly to Kaori and earned George’s displeasure for treating someone so important to him so shabbily. Desperate to close the sudden gulf between them, she submits to being nothing more than a sex toy, all the while thinking, “Nothing can be done. I’m this way no matter how long it’s been. And you’ll probably be that way forever.” That’s such a painful and true realization—one I think all couples must eventually face in one way or another—and it’s ultimately the issue that causes their relationship to dissolve. It’s not that they don’t love each other, because they do. It’s just that when they get together, they end up becoming someone they don’t much like. This doesn’t stop them from wanting to cling together, especially when faced with the scary prospect of following a dream alone, but they don’t give in to the temptation, knowing that it would ultimately result in misery for both of them.

This ties in with how well Yazawa presents the ambitions of all of the characters coupled with the realities of what lies ahead. Oh, Paradise Kiss gets their moment of triumph, alright. The school festival chapter is probably my favorite in the series because of how happy everyone gets to be. Yukari realizes that George is incredibly nervous and the time has come for her to be strong for someone else. As a result, when she takes that runway, she is radiant. His overwhelming and sincere gratitude when she returns from her turn on the runway is one of the most touching moments in the series. The series really could have ended there, but Ai Yazawa is not interested in deluding her audience with happy endings.

Despite how well it goes and how beautiful the dress is, the vote is based on audience judging and the victory is awarded to someone else. No boutiques will buy their clothes, and only one dress—accepted on consignment because of Miwako’s famous sister—ever sells. George must face the fact that his tendency to ignore trends and design whatever he feels like is not an economically viable option, and briefly considers giving up designing altogether until Kaori, and not Yukari, makes it possible for him to continue to create according to his own preferences.

In the End

Any human emotion you can possibly think of is present in Paradise Kiss. Characters are seen at their best and at their worst. Some achieve their dreams, some come close, and some must resign themselves to helping others achieve theirs. It’s not a particularly happy story, but it’s not a particularly sad one, either. The overall feeling I take away from it is one of hope. After all, even though things sometimes don’t go as you planned, “nothing will happen if you don’t believe in your own possibilities.”

Paradise Kiss is published in English by TOKYOPOP. All five volumes are available. Note: the first printing (with the pretty purple covers) contains a couple of significant errors that appear to have been corrected for the second printing (with the less pretty white covers). I’d recommend setting aside aesthetic concerns and procuring the latter.

For more on Paradise Kiss, visit the MMF Archive.

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  1. Danielle Leigh says

    Yes, yes and *yes*. Many great observations here, particularly the one about being able to love someone very much who may not be very “good” for you (in the sense you said, you just don’t like yourself much when your with them).

    I’m totally on board with an A grade for this and it remains my ideal of 5 volume perfection in manga. By comparison, NANA (which I love, of course) is the imperfect but incredibly fascinating child of a great creator.

    • Thanks! Even though I obviously enjoyed Paradise Kiss a great deal, I actually like NANA more. Maybe that’s because I read it first; I don’t know. Partly I think it’s because it breaks the fourth wall less, though PK stops doing this after a couple of volumes, too.

  2. Wait…there are errors in the first printings? Can you be more specific?

    I literally bought this series a few days ago and would hate to think I’ve got the inferior version. Although considering that it’s out of print in Canada, I’m not losing too much sleep over that.

    That aside, I completely agree with everything you wrote Michelle. Including preferring NANA a bit more, although it’s sort of a wonderful dilemma to consider which brilliant work happens to be slightly more brilliant.

    • Michelle says

      Sure thing! There were two obvious errors that I found.

      1) In volume 2, the art on page 33 is from another manga (identified on the MMF mailing list as Initial D) but the dialogue is correct.

      2) At the end of volume 3, two lines that should be spoken by Yukari’s mother are omitted. Instead, some text that is later *thought* by Yukari appears in her mother’s speech bubbles.

      Also, thank you! It’s a wonderful dilemma indeed.

      • Are all the purple covered versions supposed to have those errors? I can’t really confirm the second one, but I noticed in my copy of volume 2 that there weren’t any pages that looked like they came from Initial D. Even looking at page 33 specifically, I can see the whole cast in one of the panels.

        • If your page 33 is fine, then it would seem that not all purple-covered volume twos are affected. It’s not just mine, though, as at least one other person on the MMF mailing list encountered the same thing.

        • I’ll try to get you some specific page numbers for checking the second one.

          • Oh, no need to worry about the second one. That one is definitely there. I’m pretty sure Yukari’s mother isn’t asking her own mother whether she loves her. I think the lines are along the line of “Please, just come in” or something like that. At least according to the anime that’s what it was.

            • I actually looked it up over my lunch break. But yes, you’re right. On page 165, Yukari’s mother’s voice bubbles should read:

              #1 “I’ll listen, so…”
              #2 “…come in, already.”

              As is, they repeat Yukari’s narration from the bottom panel of pg. 166.

              • Oh, well I’m glad to have something a little more accurate now. Thanks for going to the trouble of looking it up!

  3. “….until Kaori, and not Yukari, makes it possible for him to continue to create according to his own preferences.”
    Ouch. Poor Yukari. I hadn’t given that a lot of thought before. How awful that must feel to have another woman do something like that for your man. 🙁
    But what could she do, really? George never talks to her about anything. Double ouch.

    • There’s some narration about how she cannot compel herself to lift a hand to help someone who has not shared his feelings and worries with her. I think she’s too hurt to take action whereas Kaori just gets right to it.


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