Frau Faust, Vols. 1-2

By Kore Yamazaki | Published by Kodansha Comics

I had heard good things about Frau Faust and figured I would probably like it too, but I wasn’t prepared for the “OMG, I love this!” feeling that overtook me after the first dozen pages or so. I loved it so much, in fact, that the first seven volumes of Yamazaki’s other published-in-English series, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, are currently on their way to my branch of our awesome local library. If Frau Faust is going to be this original and entertaining, clearly I need to read more of Yamazaki’s work!

But let’s back up a little to the premise. Johanna Faust was always an extremely curious child, her quest for knowledge so intense that it led her to dissect animals and do other things that caused her to be ostracized for being creepy. Even her own mother was afraid of her. Because of this greed, the demon Mephistopheles paid Johanna a visit, promising to bestow all of the knowledge she could ever want upon her. Johanna flatly rejected this deal, however, because she’s only interested in knowledge she attains for herself. Mephisto (for short) proceeds to hang around for a few years, in case she changes her mind. Eventually, to help save her only friend from a slavering wolf creature, Johanna agrees to the contract. When she dies, Mephisto gets her soul, but what she wants while she’s alive is actually him. He’ll be her protector, assistant, et cetera.

Of course, we don’t learn all of that right off the bat. Instead, we encounter Johanna as she’s trying to get into a church to retrieve one of Mephisto’s body parts. A curse prevents her from opening the door, so when she protects a young book thief named Marion from the authorities, he seems to be the perfect candidate to solve her problem. While they wait for the new moon to complete the errand, Johanna offers to tutor Marion, whom it turns out was merely stealing his own books back after they were taken by debt collectors. Poverty has also caused him to give up school, which was the only thing he’s good at.

After the errand is complete, Marion refuses to let his memories of the encounter be wiped, and tags along with Johanna on her journey to gather the rest of Mephisto, whom she refers to as “my adorable, detestable, unfathomable idiot of a dog.” As the trail leads Johanna to a town where the church is protecting Mephisto’s leg, we learn more about why the demon has been quartered and his parts kept under guard—his only charge is performing an immortality curse upon the dead—and what this means for Johanna. Whenever she sustains an injury, she is able to heal herself, but has a finite supply of physical material to work with, thus she ends up looking younger each time.

As cool as it was to have an older protagonist, I really don’t mind that she ends up looking younger, since she is demonstrably still the same person. I appreciate that Johanna is decidedly not evil. She never threatens Marion or anything of the sort. And though she might have made some past decisions Marion has a hard time accepting, she only did so after a lot of thought and because it was the best and only option at the time. I also really like how Marion becomes a stronger character in the second volume, as we learn that his motivations for tagging along with Johanna are more than mere curiosity: she’s his ticket out of a town where he has very few prospects.

I haven’t yet touched on the church characters, primarily an inquisitor named Lorenzo (who’s trying to stop Johanna but yet agrees to work with her to expose a corrupt priest) and his friend and assistant Vito, who gets himself captured along with Marion whilst trying to figure out why vagrants keep going missing around the church. They believe humankind will suffer if Mephisto is allowed to return to normal. (Nico, Johanna’s homunculus “daughter,” doesn’t seem fond of him, either.) The players on each side are sympathetic and the story is complex, just how I like ’em. We still don’t know what sort of “game” Johanna and Mephisto are playing and why she doesn’t just take her immortality and run, rather than risk injury trying to put the demon with dibs on her soul back together. Maybe she’s simply fond of him?

Alas, this series is only five volumes long, but I will look on the bright side—we will hopefully get a really satisfying conclusion that much sooner!

Frau Faust is complete in five volumes. The first two volumes are currently available in English and the third will be released on Tuesday.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Otherworld Barbara, Vols. 1-2

By Moto Hagio | Published by Fantagraphics

otherworldIt’s 2052 and Tokio Watarai, a dream pilot, is coming home to Japan for the first time in three years. Although his ex-wife and son are in Japan, he’s actually returning for a job involving a girl who’s been sleeping for seven years since being found with her parents’ hearts in her stomach. Her name is Aoba, and when Tokio enters her dream it’s all about an island called Barbara in which kids can fly and cannibalism factors in to funeral rites. Soon, he learns that his son, Kiriya, actually invented Barbara. So how is Aoba able to dream about it?

That introductory paragraph actually simplifies the story greatly. There’s also Tokio’s horrid ex-wife Akemi and the creepy priest Johannes whom she loves and who could possibly be Aoba’s grandfather but also head of an American orphanage in which cloned children were created, including one called Paris who comes to Japan and believes Kiriya might be a boy he knew called Taka. There’s Kiriya’s massive angst, his dreams of Mars, his dream conversations with Aoba, the girl Laika who fancies him, a psychiatrist who treated Aoba who is killed by a tornado she created, his identity-swapping and cross-dressing fraternal twin children, anti-aging research (potentially conducted upon the residents of Barbara) including a suit that turns Aoba’s grandma into a young woman who calls herself Marienbad and has a fling with Tokio, Daikoku’s ominous hinting that Kiriya will kill Tokio someday, parental regrets, etc.

By the end of the first volume, so very many plot threads are in the air that I was not at all sure that Hagio-sensei would be able to make everything make sense in the end. To use just one example: If Barbara is just a dream—and, indeed, no such island actually exists—then how is it possible that the blood of its residents is used for anti-aging medicine? And yet we see evidence that such advances are already in the works. And because of all this plot stuff, there’s not a lot of time for building solid relationships. There is angst aplenty, especially courtesy of Kiriya, but the whole Marienbad/Tokio hookup, for example, is just extremely random. The strongest bond, though, is definitely the love Tokio feels for his son and his regret over having been a crappy father.

Happily, the second volume does make with the answers, starting almost immediately. Not everything is answered with absolute certainty—one particular narrative thread takes a completely unexpected and surprisingly poignant turn. Even 90% of the way through, I would’ve said there was no way Otherworld Barbara would be able to make me cry, and yet it did. I won’t reveal how, but I loved the devastating consequences of a desperate act on Tokio’s part, and how it led him to have faith that Aoba’s dream of Barbara really could be shaping a vision of the future. That ending makes everything else worthwhile. Too, I enjoyed the contrast between Hagio’s uncomplicated, light-filled artwork and the dark and weird story she told.

Ultimately, Otherworld Barbara is definitely worth reading. Thank you, Fantagraphics, for releasing it!

Otherworld Barbara is complete in two 2-in-1 editions.

Review copies provided by the publisher

Plum Crazy! Tales of a Tiger-Striped Cat, Vol. 1

By Natsumi Hoshino | Published by Seven Seas

It is definitely a good time to be a manga fan, particularly if you (like me) are fond of niche genres like food manga, sports manga, and cat manga. The latest entry into that final category is Plum Crazy! Tales of a Tiger-Striped Cat and, predictably, it’s cute.

Plum lives with the Nakarai family, including a woman who teaches traditional Japanese dance and her teenage son, Taku. One day, Plum brings home a kitten in distress, and what follows are her efforts to help take care of the kitten while said kitten (soon named Snowball) is more interested in administering chomps.

With the exception of a few pages of 4-koma comics at the back of the volume, Plum has no internal dialogue, but her actions and expressive face convey her thoughts well. She does typical cat-like things, but she’s far from ordinary. For example, not only does she actually listen to her owner’s directives, but she actually complies. Snowball is more realistically temperamental, only cuddling with Plum when she feels unwell and otherwise tormenting her until another cat shows up, at which point Snowball is jealous of their playtime.

Really, there isn’t a lot of plot here. The only thing that comes close is the Nakarai family learning valuable lessons about keeping a clean litterbox, or the dangers of heatstroke, or the fact that cats don’t like wearing reindeer antlers and posing for pictures. To all of these I give a big “duh!,” and it’s somewhat frustrating to see people so cavalier about these and other topics—they don’t seem to worry about a tiny kitten wandering the neighborhood, for example—but I guess part of the point of the manga was to be educational.

At any rate, this was an enjoyable addition to the roster of cat manga available in English, and I plan to continue with it.

Plum Crazy! is ongoing in Japan, where sixteen volumes have been released. Seven Seas will publish the second volume in English in September.

The Full-Time Wife Escapist, Vols. 1-2

By Tsunami Umino | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Mikuri Moriyama is a 25-year-old licensed clinical psychologist who hasn’t been able to find a job after grad school. She’s been living with her parents and working for a temp agency, and when she’s laid off her father arranges for her to assume housekeeping duties for a guy he used to work with. Hiramasa Tsuzaki is 36 and single. He seems humorless and particular at first, but Mikuri finds that working for a hard-to-please guy makes it easier to know when she’s been successful. She performs her duties well, even managing to nurse Tsuzaki through an illness in such a business-like way that it’s not awkward for him. Things go well for a few months, then Mikuri’s father prepares to retire and move to the countryside. Rather than lose their mutually beneficial arrangement, Mikuri and Tsuzaki decide that she’ll move in with him and, for the sake of propriety, become his common-law wife. They proceed to perpetuate the ruse that they’re actually a real couple.

I am really enjoying The Full-Time Wife Escapist so far! Mikuri is an interesting character. She’s outwardly educated and competent—equally able to engage in conversations about globalization and maintain a meticulous budget—but has these inward flights of fancy that only the reader is privy to. She often imagines herself being interviewed about the state of her life, be it with an unsympathetic talk show host or a man-on-the-street segment about middle-aged virgins (which Tsuzaki appears to be), or performing heartbreaking Les Miserables-style songs about the woes of unemployment. The injection of whimsy is fun and reminds me a little of Tokyo Tarareba Girls, but Mikuri is a lot more practical (and a lot less boozy) than the characters of that series.

As Tsuzaki’s coworkers learn that he’s gotten married, his social calendar suddenly fills up in a way it never did before, while Mikuri notices that her aunt Yuri, with whom she’s very close, has been hesitant to invite her out as much as she used to before Mikuri got married. Spending time with Numata and Kazami is enjoyable for the couple, but it’s also risky, because nosy Numata snoops and learns there’s only a twin bed in the bedroom, and by volume two, Kazami is convinced that they’re faking it. Kazami is perhaps as equally developed as Tsuzaki himself, as we hear a great deal about his reservations about marriage, which all leads up to the big cliffhanger ending of volume two (which I shan’t spoil). Tsuzaki, meanwhile, is attempting in vain to keep from developing feelings for Mikuri. She persists in being business-like, and he 100% believes there’s no chance she’d ever reciprocate, so he often looks emotionless in front of her, only revealing his feelings when he’s alone. I love that neither one of them is spazzy; they’re in a somewhat trope-y arrangement, but they’re handling it like adults.

I really can’t wait for volume three. There’s so many interesting ways the story could go, though I admit I actually do want it to go in the standard “they fall in love and live happily ever after” direction.

The Full-Time Wife Escapist is ongoing in Japan; nine volumes have been released so far.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Tokyo Tarareba Girls, Vol. 1

By Akiko Higashimura | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

I spent all my time wondering “what if,” then one day I woke up and I was 33.

Thirty-something Rinko Kamata and her two best friends from high school, Kaori and Koyuki, are still single. They’ve happily spent the last decade getting together regularly for girls’ nights out, during which they get sloshed and speculate on what might’ve happened with past romances or how they might meet Mr. Right in the future. When it’s announced that Tokyo will be hosting the Olympics in 2020 and it dawns on the trio that they might still be single amidst all the celebrating, they abruptly realize that they might have missed their chance to snag husbands.

Ten years ago, Rinko had a chance with Mr. Hayasaka, a dull but sweet coworker, but rejected him. Their work—she’s a scriptwriter and he’s a producer for a television production company—still brings them together, however, and when she seemingly has a second chance, she considers accepting this time, wondering if women must choose being loved over being in love once they’re over thirty. Of course, she’s drunk at the time, so her thoughts are whimsically presented in the form of conversation with her snacks! Specifically, tara (milt) and reba (liver), whose names combine to mean “what if” and thus supply the pun of the series title. They’re cute little creatures, and tara especially gives me some Little Fluffy Gigolo PELU flashbacks (in the best way).

Of course, we wouldn’t have a series if things worked out with Mr. Hayasaka, and losing out to younger women in romance, work, and at a courtship party, where the “tarareba girls” discover that even schlubby guys their age have pretty young things competing for them (because the younger guys are all under- or unemployed), sends her somewhat off the rails, hopping in a taxi to capture some blackmail evidence and winding up at a hot springs resort, drinking alone and feeling unwanted until Key, a snarky male model who’s observed the rowdy trio at their favorite pub and was critical of Rinko’s writing—essentially unrealistic wish-fulfillment fare for daydreaming middle-aged women—shows up to forestall disaster and ends up proving himself to be the ultimate “what if” scenario that Rinko hadn’t even considered. Plus, he encourages her to see her recent failures as a chance instead of a setback, and I hope this means we’ll see her write what she claims she really wants to write and achieve success after all.

This is quite a madcap volume, what with the talking food, and there are also several quick cuts to Rinko guzzling alcohol that make me think this would be extremely amusing in either animated or live-action format. I also really like the way we her conversations with friends via text are depicted. Ordinarily, I might be bothered that these ladies are so fixated on husbands, but Higashimura-sensei has some author’s notes at the back wherein she makes it absolutely clear that she does not think that marriage is the key to happiness or that it’s a requirement for women. It’s just that she had some friends who were beginning to experience some of these things, and she decided to write about them.

Before Kodansha’s announcement, this series hadn’t even been on my radar, so in addition to being grateful for more josei in any format, I’m especially glad to be introduced to this fun story. I’m looking forward to volume two!

Tokyo Tarareba Girls is ongoing in Japan where it is up to seven volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Chihayafuru, Vol. 1

By Yuki Suetsugi | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics

Chihayafuru is a long-running josei sports manga series about a girl who discovers a passion for the Japanese card game, karuta. The very factors that made me sure I’d love the series also made it an unlikely licensing prospect. Happily, Kodansha Comics has started releasing it digitally! I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happened.

In the opening pages, we get a glimpse of a teenage Chihaya Amase during an intense match, then promptly travel six years into the past. At twelve, Chihaya had no dream other than seeing her older pageant-entering sister, Chitose, become “number one in Japan.” When she befriends transfer student Arata Wataya, who’s been shunned by classmates for his poverty and regional dialect, he tells her that her dreams should be about herself. Fired up by Wataya’s speed and intensity at karuta, Chihaya can’t help but attempt to score at least one card off of him, and the delight on Wataya’s face as he finally makes a friend who shares his passion is poignant.

As Chihaya (and the audience) learns more about karuta, Wataya eventually gains the respect of his classmates for his skill, prompting Taichi Mashima, the ringleader of the bullies, to cheat against him in a school tournament. I quite liked that we see Mashima’s motivations—his horrid mother flat out tells him that if you don’t think you can win at something, you shouldn’t even try—and that, afterwards, he makes his own decisions about what is right and what is important to him. The three kids become friends and, after joining a karuta club in their neighborhood, conclude the first volume by entering an elementary tournament as a team.

In several ways, Chihayafuru reminds me of Hikaru no Go. You’ve got the sixth-grade protagonist discovering enthusiasm for a traditional game. She makes a small group of friends who share a deep love of the game, and they compete together as a team. And yet, there is the inescapable fact that they won’t be able to stay together forever. Mashima’s path will take him to a prestigious middle school while the ill health of Wataya’s grandfather compels him to return to his hometown. Will Chihaya continue on her own? Presumably, like Hikaru, she will make new friends at each stage of her journey, and potentially face Wataya again as a rival in future.

As usual, what I really loved most was Chihaya finding the place she belonged, and the outlet in which her specific skills—quick reaction time, acute vision, and an extremely keen sense of hearing—are recognized and appreciated. Her sister becomes positively odious as she realizes Chihaya now has something in her life to work towards besides Chitose’s fame—“All Chihaya needs to do is look at me and tell me how amazing I am”—and I wonder how far she’ll go to sabotage her little sister’s ambitions, but the opening pages show us a Chihaya still deeply dedicated to the game, so I’m sure she’ll remain undeterred.

I really, really loved this debut volume and eagerly look forward to more!

Chihayafuru is ongoing in Japan, where the 34th volume will be published next week.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Everyone’s Getting Married, Vol. 1

By Izumi Miyazono | Published by VIZ Media

egm1I’ve grown a bit wary of josei romances. I’d prefer them not to be smutty, or to derive much of their drama from misunderstandings, or to feature a controlling male lead. Happily, Everyone’s Getting Married avoids all of those things!

Twenty-four-year-old Asuka Takanashi enjoys a successful career as a real estate broker, but what she really wants to do is get married, quit her job, and become a full-time homemaker. I struggled to identify with her at first because of this, but Miyazono does a great job showing how serious a person Asuka is. This isn’t some idealistic fantasy she’s concocted. Asuka works hard at her job, and we soon see that she absolutely will work just as hard to provide a warm environment for her family. Too, the more negative reactions Asuka gets, the more it’s clear for the reader that it’s nobody’s business criticizing her choice.

Unfortunately for her connubial dream, right after Asuka catches the bouquet at a friend’s wedding, her long-time boyfriend breaks up with her, saying, “You’d be happy with anyone who puts a ring on your finger.” Asuka tells herself this isn’t true, but immediately begins attending mixers and matchmaking events, looking for a potential husband. Meanwhile, she keeps running into handsome newscaster Ryu Nanami, who flatly declares, “I’d rather die than get married.” She tries to squash the feelings that are developing, but by the end of the volume they’re going out, even though neither has changed their mind about matrimony.

How refreshing it is to read a story about two adults who are plain-spoken about what they want from life! Nobody does anything spazzy and they are both consummate professionals. I don’t know how they’re going to reconcile their differences—probably we’ll get a happy ending, though I admit I’d be happy if Miyazono took the unconventional route and had them break up. My one complaint is that it’s initially hard to tell whether the conflicting opinions Ryu expresses regarding housewifery (at one point calling it an escape and later a respectable career) represent evolution because of Asuka or just inconsistency. (When he reiterates his respect again towards the end of the volume, it seems much more obviously because of her.) Also, there’s a scene where Asuka berates him, calling him a lowlife and a womanizer, and then just a few pages later he’s praising her for not judging others’ choices. Um…

All in all, this was a nice surprise and I look forward to volume two!

Everyone’s Getting Married is ongoing in Japan, where it is up to five volumes. VIZ will publish the second volume in English in September.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Haunted House

By Mitsukazu Mihara | Published by TOKYOPOP

I blame my “meh” reaction to Mitsukazu Miharu’s Haunted House—which I honestly wanted to like!—on the back cover, which promises that readers will be “kept guessing—and giggling” by the behavior of Sabato Obiga’s flamboyantly goth parents. I might’ve smiled a time or two, but that’s about it.

The basic premise here is simple and reiterated several times throughout the volume: Sabato would like a steady girlfriend, but they inevitably ask to see his house, which means they will have to meet his bizarre, “death-flavored” family and be scared off by their creepy antics. Sabato’s mother strongly resembles Morticia Addams, his father (despite being a banker) often sports a sort of Victorian dandy look, and his twin sisters have a gothic lolita vibe and spend their free time making voodoo dolls. The Obiga family also likes to decorate their home with skeletons and shrines and threatens to serve the family cat for dinner. Sabato always obtains their promise to behave before inviting a girl over, but this is invariably broken.

Haunted House is pretty repetitive, but I think I wouldn’t have been dissastified with it if the powers that be at TOKYOPOP hadn’t strongly hinted that Sabato’s family has some reason for treating him like they do. Okay, yes, they abruptly promise to support him when it seems that he, after fancying a long string of random ladies, seems to have fallen in love at last, but it’s not like they actually follow through with this in any meaningful way.

Looking kooky is one thing, but they’re frequently just down-right mean. At one point, Sabato is hospitalized with a broken leg and his family comes to visit. Most of what they do is innocuous—bringing him only hospital-themed horror novels to read, for example—but his mother actually feeds him dog food. I just don’t get it. Is that supposed to be funny? Is that supposed to be someone who is merely tormenting their kid, as the back cover implies, in an effort to encourage him to grow up, become an independent person, and stop pursuing meaningless relationships with random girls?

I don’t know, but I am certain that I am thinking too hard about this. And I partly blame the back cover that encouraged me to expect more from a story that is really just a diverting bit of goofiness.

Honey and Clover 9-10 by Chica Umeno: A

These are the final two volumes of Honey and Clover, so there will be spoilers here. Beware.

Be sure to have some mental palate cleanser on hand—fluffy shoujo may work for you but I turned to shoot-’em-up seinen—when you finish Honey and Clover, because, man, is it depressing! It’s not that I’d expected everything to turn out rosy, since much of the plot revolves around two love triangles among friends, and someone must end up disappointed if there is to be any resolution, but I had failed to grasp the bigger sorrow in these characters’ lives: the time has come for them to go their separate ways.

Primarily, this realization affects Takemoto and Hagu, the two characters who are graduating. Hagu has said before that she plans to return home to Nagano to live a simple life and paint as she pleases, but lately it seems like she wants something else, but is reluctant to ask for it. As she articulates her dilemma, we see a more adult Hagu than we’ve ever seen before. This impression deepens when a freak accident leaves Hagu with nerve damage in her painting hand and she goes without painkillers in order to feel the first inkling of pain that might tell her there’s hope for regrowth. (If you had ever had reservations about this series because of Hagu’s child-like appearance, rest assured that she is clearly a strong, fascinating, and respected grown-up by the end.)

This accident is the catalyst for just about everything that follows. Takemoto has a job offer from the temple restoration group he’d encountered on his bicycle journey, but can’t decide whether to leave a recuperating Hagu behind. Ayu decides that Morita ought to know about what has happened to Hagu, and their reunion coincides with a frustrating lack of progress in Hagu’s physical therapy. Morita, who is sick of people loving or being jealous of him because of his talent, is ready to cast all that aside and offers Hagu the chance to do the same and just live as two people in love. She’s tempted, but when a night away from the hospital results in swelling in her hand, she realizes what is most important to her and decides to go back.

Hanamoto-sensei is ready to give everything up and stay by Hagu’s side as she recuperates, but doesn’t want her to know about the sacrifices he’s poised to make lest that knowledge influence her decision of what to do with her life. The night with Morita helps her realize that art is more important to her even than love, and in order to be able to pursue it, she needs Hanamoto by her side, to nourish her with his presence and enable her to relax and grow. It’s this that she was loathe to ask for, but nearly losing her ability to paint clarifies her desires and she ends up requesting the very thing he’s been ready to offer.

You see, though I never would have guessed this, Hanamoto is in love with Hagu, too. Through being with her, he was able to recapture some of the joy in art—and in life—that he had lost. Because of this, though she does not return his feelings in the same way, he’s willing to devote his life to staying near her. I find this inexplicably sad for some reason. Too, because Hagu chooses this path, both Takemoto’s and Morita’s romantic hopes are dashed. It’s just so awful that nobody’s love is returned in the same measure that their own is given. These are kind people, willing to keep on loving no matter what, and I can’t help but want to see that kind of devotion rewarded.

Takemoto and Morita have both been positively affected by their love for Hagu—her vow to always watch over Morita prevents him from giving up after all—but neither gets a happy ending. It seems possible that Ayu might, in time, be able to forget about Mayama and accept Nomiya’s feelings, but that’s still some ways off. The person closest to a happy ending is probably Mayama, who is making slow progress in his relationship with Rika. A lot of things are left up in the air, including the outcome of Hagu’s therapy, but this doesn’t result in the story feeling unfinished.

In the end, Takemoto achieves some measure of peace—he couldn’t have stood losing out to Morita, but to lose to Hanamoto-sensei’s “kindness and consideration” is somehow more tolerable—and takes the restoration job. Oh, how I cried when Hagu turns up at the train station with a bundle of ginormous sandwiches to bid him farewell. Each sandwich contains a four-leaf clover, and Takemoto realizes she must’ve spent ages searching for those, which brings to mind a memory (of the gang searching for clovers for Hanamoto-sensei back in volume two) that sums up the feeling of the series’ end quite well.

As time passes I guess the day will come that all of this is just a memory. But that day you were there and I was there and all of our friends were there. And we all looked for just one thing. In fact, that whole miraculous time in my life is going to keep turning nostalgically, somewhere far away deep in my heart, accompanied by a sweet pain forever.

Thanks for an awesome series, Chica Umino. I hope someone licenses Sangatsu no Lion soon.

Review copy for volume ten provided by the publisher.

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.