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Panel Discussion | Paradise Kiss

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A roundtable of PLAYBACK:stl comics critics discusses Ai Yazawa’s surprisingly mature tale of fashion and young romance as part of this month’s Manga Movable Feast.

 

 

 

Yukari is just your typical Japanese high school student, pining for her cute classmate Hiroyuki as she struggles to get into a well-respected college and make her mom proud. But her world is turned upside-down one day after a chance encounter leads her to Paradise Kiss, an amateur fashion company run by a group of misfit students from the local art school. The ParaKiss crew wants Yukari (who they quickly rename “Caroline”) to model their designs in the school’s fashion show, but the sheltered preppie isn’t quite sure she can handle such an eclectic crew: the safety pin-pierced punk rocker Arashi, his adorably diminutive, cute-obsessed girlfriend Miwako, and the towering transvestite/group mother figure Isabella are weird enough, but it’s the group’s designer—the coolly self-confident, super-suave rich boy George—that could prove to be the most trouble.
 
A young girl leaving behind her boring, ordinary life for a new dream world full of gorgeous guys and high fashion—it almost sounds too fluffy for words, doesn’t it? But in the able hands of Ai Yazawa, formulaic shojo fluff is transformed into a touching, realistic portrayal of a young woman learning to transcend her mother’s expectations and find her true self. Of course, anyone familiar with Yazawa’s other major work, the rock n’ roll soap opera NANA (published in English by VIZ Media’s Shojo Beat imprint), would expect no less.
 
Originally serialized in Japan starting in 2000, Paradise Kiss was translated into English by Tokyopop starting in 2002, with the complete series collected in five graphic novels. Paradise Kiss is this month’s spotlight title for the Manga Movable Feast, a monthly event that seeks to foster a sense of community among manga bloggers, critics, and fans by encouraging willing participants to provide their own in-depth analysis of a different manga title each month. In our entry in this month’s MMF, we’ve conducted a roundtable discussion to explore the series’ finer points. Our roundtable features commentary from regular comics and film reviewer Sarah Boslaugh, frequent comics reviewer (and the only one to have read Paradise Kiss prior to this month) Erin Jameson, and yours truly, the editor of comics coverage here at PLAYBACK:stl.
 
A word of warning: our discussion does reveal many of the series’ major plot points, so those looking to avoid all spoilers may want to look elsewhere. But with a series as well told as Paradise Kiss, it’s not the plot, it’s the journey of self-discovery and the nuanced character development that are the book’s real selling points, and no amount of pontificating on our parts could ever spoil that for you. As Yukari herself says after her first fashion shoot, "I feel like I was reborn as a different person in just a day." If you read this magically engrossing manga series, you might just feel that way, too. | Jason Green
 
 
Jason: One of the first things that really struck me about Paradise Kiss was just how quickly it introduced its characters. So many manga series are prone to introduce characters so slowly that it can take a whole volume just to meet the main cast, and yet Yazawa introduces us to Yukari and the entire ParaKiss crew in just 15 short pages. How did that strike you? Did it seem like too much happened too fast, or was it just right? And what were your first impressions of the characters?
 
Sarah: I also thought the characters were introduced quickly, but maybe that was on purpose: to plunge us into a confusing environment similar to the experience of the heroine. She's been a sheltered little school girl trying to please her "education Mama" (the description from the book) without really having the wherewithal to be a success, unlike her smarter little brother. Then she gets plucked out of her world into a strange new one populated by punk kids and drag queens and androgynous guys with little eyes (a sign of shiftiness if not evil in manga) but where she is recognized for a talent she didn't know she had (modeling). Also, it’s a world where the kids are actually doing stuff (making clothes they intend to market) rather than just doing their school lessons and taking exams. Not to mention at least two are sexually active and, for perhaps the first time, she has a friend (Miwako) to whom she can talk to about girl stuff. That's a lot of changes all at once.

Erin: I agree that I thought the fast introduction to the characters was to simulate the experience Yukari was having. It's a very cat and mouse thing, meeting these people and losing her school schedule (and deepest secret), being renamed and then introduced to all of these people so far out of the realm of her experiences—we're supposed to be left a little dizzy, I think.

Jason: That's a good point...while blazing through those intro pages, I did feel a little bit like I had been thrown out to sea without a lifejacket, but it never dawned on me that I was supposed to feel that way.

Sarah:
Here's a question for you guys: lots of manga are about young people finding their path (which is a basic task of the high school and college years). But Paradise Kiss seems to me to take a particularly honest look at the problems of young women. A key is in vol. 3 when Yukari is going on a modeling interview and tells the person setting it up "I feel like I'll get punished if I get too confident." Talk about undercutting your own potential success! Also Yukari is jerked around by George (like she went from obeying her mother to being subsumed by his personality), but she gets over it and does become her own person.
 
Erin: What always surprised me about Yukari was that she was so self-aware, especially when it came to her personality being subsumed. There's a moment in the book where she wonders if she's becoming strong because that's who she is or strong because that's what George wants her to be—does anyone actually have moments like that when they're that young?
 
Jason: Yukari's self-awareness did strike me as being maybe a little more intense than you would expect from your average teen, but it still rang true to me. As Sarah put it, it felt "honest." The end of high school always leaves one awash in feelings of "Who am I? Who do I want to be? Where do I want to go to college? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?" And Yukari is confronting those same issues, but through the lens of someone who basically upheaved her entire life by quitting school, changing friends, leaving home, and becoming a model—before she started asking herself those questions. It's only natural in those circumstances to ask yourself “Am I becoming who I'm meant to be, or am I only doing this because of this weird new environment I've plopped myself into?”
 
And Sarah, your earlier remark about "shiftiness" goes back to my question about first impressions. Did you get the feeling, as the story started out, that George, who is trying to change so many things about Yukari, was supposed to be the "villain" and Hiroyuki, the mild-mannered schoolmate that Yukari barely knows, was supposed to be the "hero"? I'll admit that when those characters were introduced, that's exactly what I thought, and I was kind of bummed about it because that's always the story: the woman being attracted to the wild child but settling with the safe alternative that she was "meant for." I was pleasantly surprised when that wasn't the case, and when Hiroyuki quickly went from being a potential love interest to a spanner in the works for Miwako and Arashi's relationship.
 
That's one of the things, honestly, that I loved about this series: even when she used some cliché elements or characters, Yazawa always used them in interesting ways. So many romance stories are so predictable that I loved that I couldn't anticipate so many of the plot's twists and turns.
 
Erin: I loved that Hiroyuki ended up being a little more problematic than maybe he should've been—it went a lot deeper than most shojo manga does in that, yes, there's something here that's not quite right, and maybe was a bit of a surprise. On the other hand, was anything about this series really that typical? I felt like it did follow shojo formula to a point and then it went completely off the rails into this strangely adult place, in several usages of the word.
 
Jason: Agreed—this series was anything but "typical," and that's why I loved it. It might be a strange thing for a guy who loves Fist of the North Star to admit, but ever since I first read Sailor Moon back in high school, I've been a total sucker for a good, fluffy shojo romance. And it's been frustrating to me how so many series of late seem to fall back on formula. But if there's a formula that Paradise Kiss is following, I'll be damned if I can find it. And that alone is so refreshing.
 
Sarah: Is this a shojo series or josei? I don't remember such frankness about the physical aspects of sex in shojo, although I haven't read nearly as many as you guys have.

Jason: I don't know anything about Zipper (Zipper being the Japanese magazine Paradise Kiss was originally serialized in) so I'm not sure what its original intended demographic was, but I think it's pretty clear that Tokyopop wanted to market ParaKiss to teenaged shojo fans, considering they published it in their Seventeen-esque magazine Smile (which also published Sailor Moon) and slapped a "13+" age rating on the graphic novels.
 
But the dividing line between shojo and josei is kind of a grey area, and even an authority on the matter like Matt Thorn (the guy who pretty much single-handedly brought shojo manga to American shores) puts it in the "shojo" category. At heart, Paradise Kiss has a very "shojo" premise—high school girl gives up her family and school to meet a dreamy new boy and follow her dream of being a supermodel—but its approach to that premise is very "josei." I guess that’s where some of my own bias comes in, in that when I think josei I think something like Tramps Like Us or Yazawa's own Nana, where that mature approach to character and storytelling is reflected by older, more mature lead characters. Pigeonholing ParaKiss as shojo just because its lead characters are in high school is probably a bit unfair on my part.
 
Erin: I agree that it's really quite hard to categorize Paradise Kiss in one little slot but I'm also fairly sure that that was probably largely a commercial decision—shojo just seems easier to market.
 
Jason: As you said earlier, “Strangely adult” is a good way to put it, Erin. I was frequently surprised at just how “adult” this series was, not just in its approach to sex, but with the level of maturity with which it approached pretty much everything.
 
But, on the subject of sex, I was really impressed by how Yazawa handled Yukari and George's first sex scene in vol. 3. It was really sexy, sure, but it was also really honest, and surprisingly tasteful. It's very rare that I appreciate a sex scene in a romance story like this, but this one really worked for me. I do have to admit, though, that I was surprised to flip the book over and see that the book carried only a "13+" age rating.
 
Erin: I was honestly a little (okay, a lot) surprised by the appearance of the sex scene. Most of the manga I read doesn't have quite such...varied...umm. Dude, there's some S&M in there. Very light, of course, but it's still there. I was pretty surprised by it the first time I read it and then, rereading it after some critical experience, I was pretty blown-away by it. What kills me, though, is that I'm not appalled like I would've expected to be. I think, for all the frankness involved, it's really in-character for the two lovers.
 
Do you think that the depictions of sex are an easy representation of the characters themselves? Miwako and Arashi have a very messy sex life, reflecting the turmoil in their lives on the page, and George and Yukari have a physical relationship that is pretty reflective, as well.
 
Sarah: The academic reference about female maturation is Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice. It looks at the differences in moral reasoning between boys/girls and men/women, which was revolutionary at the time (1982): Kohl's famous stages of moral development was based on studying boys and men (!) and then applied without further thought to girls and women as well. Anyway, in the process Gilligan found that girls and women must still battle a cultural belief that they should live for others rather than themselves, i.e. self-sacrifice is noble while self-development and self-discovery are just selfish. Which brings me to my point that I really like the way this dilemma is captured in Paradise Kiss: Yukari has to give herself permission to be herself before she can figure out what "being herself" really means.

Also realistic is that Yukari has some misadventures in the process, including the sexual relationship with George, which it seems we all admire for the frank way it is portrayed in the manga. But I'd have to say that she is the better for having had that relationship, which moves her closer to becoming an independent adult. Maybe Japan is less hung up on such things than Americans are. It reminds me of the 2009 film An Education, which is about a high school girl in England prepping for entrance to Oxbridge who decides to take some time out to discover life. The means to do this is an affair with an older man who is a con artist (the girl, who is based on the British writer Lynn Barber, is somewhat aware that he's not on the up-and-up and she's also playing him rather than being merely a victim). I know some Americans couldn't see beyond the illicit sexual affair and the age disparity (16/17 for the girl versus 30-something for the man) but it is made clear in the film that ultimately the girl was better off for having had this experience.
 
Jason: Erin, I think your interpretation (that the depictions of sex are an easy representation of the characters) makes a lot of sense, and brings up another question: what did you think of the side love triangle between Miwako, Arashi, and Hiroyuki? Did you find it just as compelling as the central story, or a distraction from that central story?
 
Erin: I'm not going to lie, I really thought the Miwako/Arashi/Hiroyuki love triangle wasn't that interesting. Maybe it's just because I'm shallow and I like my manga with a little more escapism than that—it just smacked too much of something that could actually happen, date rape and all. George and Yukari, on the other hand, are something sparklier and...honestly, far less grounded in reality. Even the part where Kaori shows up is so tumultuous and...is it restrained? I think it might actually be a little restrained but still very, very tense and that really adds to the other-worldliness of George and Yukari—the scene with the three of them, George and Kaori sitting at the table drinking tea in the middle of the night while Yukari sits there in complete and stunningly beautiful silence was completely jarring to me.

Sarah: I'm with you guys, I think the Miwako/Arashi/Hiroyuki love triangle is pretty pro forma, just tossed in without much development to counterbalance the Yukari/George/Hiroyuki triangle. The reference at the very end of book 5 about how Hiro is still not over Miwako seems like an attempt to deepen his character which really isn't successful.
 
Jason: To be honest, I only thought about the Miwako/Arashi/Hiroyuki love triangle as a bit of a distraction after the fact, when I was getting ready to start this discussion. While I was in the midst of reading the book, I was so engrossed in the story as a whole that I let myself be swept along wherever Yazawa wanted to take me. In fact, I'm almost embarrassed to admit, but I didn't even realize there was a love triangle to be had until about 5 pages before Yukari did. When it sank in, I was awash in that cringing feeling that The Office is so good at instilling, where you just know something painfully awkward is about to happen but are completely powerless to stop it.
 
Erin: What do you think about the fact that, of the six main characters, only three of them have Americanized names and those three are the ones who the story really ends up pivoting around?
 
Sarah: I wondered about the name thing also. If I recall correctly Miwako spontaneously starts calling Yukari "Caroline," which I took as a sign that she recognized something in Yukari which no one else yet had. George and Isabella are also different, more outsiderly, than the other characters so maybe the English names are symbols of their "chosen-ness" or specialness. Miwako, Arashi and Hiro seem to me much more like characters you could meet in any number of other manga series.

Maybe one of you knows the answer to this question: is it a fad in Japan for teenagers to take Western names or is that something specific to this manga? (Parenthetical note: it makes it easier for English-speakers to keep the characters straight!)
 
Jason: As far as I know, taking Western names isn't a trend among Japanese teenagers. But then, the ParaKiss crew are supposed to be on the fringes of society...it may well be common in some subcultural group that we've never heard of.
 
As for those choice of names, I think I agree a bit more with your interpretation than I do Erin's, because I don't know that the story really "pivots around" Isabella...she's such a side character for so much of the series that I was honestly a little annoyed by her presence, as she just seemed like she was there to be this weird ancillary character, to add some comic relief in the midst of what was otherwise a much more realistic soap opera. She just seemed kind of pandering and unnecessary to me.
 
Until, that is, the final volume, when we finally got to see her "origin" story, as it were: the genesis of her relationship with George and how she basically transformed from a repressed boy to ParaKiss' intensely feminine mother figure. The fact that her place in the story isn't touched on until so late in the game kept me from liking the character for much of the series, but I can't say I'd change that pacing, as what that story tells us about George comes along at just the right time in his story arc, and he is the "hero," after all.
 
And I put hero in quotes, of course, because the other characters flat out call him that at several points. There are all kinds of little asides like this, the characters addressing each other as if they are aware that they are fictional characters in a manga. I'm assuming those fourth wall-shattering interludes were supposed to be funny, but honestly, I found them kind of annoying, especially when Isabella discovers George and Yukari's sexual escapades by reading the previous chapter of the manga. That just struck me as dumb, dumb, dumb, and really took me out of the story. I felt these little lame attempts at comedy were really the book's only real misstep.
 
Sarah: I agree that the "breaking the fourth wall" was a bit tedious (but it's a good way to fill up some space when you have run out of ideas…).
 
Erin: In defense of Isabella, I really think she's the dark horse in this whole series. After all, it's her that's the woman who has the privilege to “throw everything away and live for love” and then does.
 
Sarah: By the way, my opinion is that we should remember that Isabella likes to be dramatic and that statement you quote is an expression of her character rather than a global statement about what women want. Which is probably stating the obvious, but as someone who has worked for years in medical and social science research, I feel the need to be clear on this point.
 
Jason: Sarah, you bringing up An Education earlier (a movie I haven't had the chance to see yet but is high up on my list) brings to mind another possible cultural difference. There are a few instances in the book when Yukari is arguing with her mother, and her mother slaps her. And this, to me, was a fairly shocking event, because it's become such a taboo in America for parents to strike their children (whether striking a young adult, as Yukari's mom did, or spanking a toddler) that when an event like that happens in an American story, it has a "needle scratching across the record" effect. Everything stops.
 
And yet, I got the feeling that that's not the effect that Yazawa was going for with those scenes. They are meant to be shocking, yes, but I don't know that they're necessarily meant to be as shocking as I took it. How did you both take those scenes? Did they surprise/shock you, or did you just treat them as one more part of the melodrama?
 
Sarah: I'm shocked when I see someone hit a kid in real life, in this country (in NYC, people make jokes about being on the "child abuse car" of the subway), but I didn't have that reaction to Yukari's Mom hitting her in ParaKiss. I took it more that, as long as Yukari was living at home, she had to follow her Mom's rules and it was up to Mom to enforce them. Also, we know that Mom rules with an iron hand (and the slaps are an indication of that) and that, if Yukari doesn't play the role expected by her Mom, she has no choice but to leave home—she doesn't have any room to maneuver otherwise.
 
Erin: I think I'm with Jason—the slaps were really shocking to me. But maybe what was more shocking was Yukari calmly icing her face down so that it wouldn't swell. Like Miwako twinkling at Arashi after he basically date raped her, the calm acceptance of what is and always will be, to me, abuse was really startling.
 
Sarah:Maybe I'm just less inclined to react or something, or to attribute such behavior to cultural differences. I did review a Japanese film earlier this year (Tokyo Sonata) in which a father strikes his young son, knocking him down the stairs and giving him a concussion, which necessitates a trip to the ER. There's nothing in the film about an investigation into child abuse or anything, mainly just sorrow at the rift in the family (the man is upset about being unemployed, the son is defying him by taking piano lessons). This is one of those times when I wish I had a cultural expert on-call to tell me if (in the case of either the film or Paradise Kiss) there really is a difference in the acceptability of parents striking their children and/or if Japanese society just preferred to deal with such things informally (as opposed to in the US, where you are legally required to report even suspected cases of child abuse to the authorities).

Jason: Alright, let's wrap by talking about the ending of the series and sum up what you thought about the series as a whole.
 
Personally, I enjoyed the ending. It felt like an ending from a classic Hollywood romance: it's a happy ending, but not a pandering one that gives the audience exactly what it wants. In some ways, it felt like a nice mirror image to the ending of Casablana, with George and Isabella as Rick and Louis on the pla—, er, boat remarking the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
 
Erin: I love love love the ending. Isabella and George floating off onto the sea. I really think that maybe, perhaps, Isabella was hinting at something a bit more than friendship. I also think that maybe, perhaps, George would take her up on it. I like the thought of that, for some reason, probably more than I like the thought of George and Yukari getting together.
 
Yukari is still stubbornly “Caroline” in my mind, by the way...
 
I hated the way Yukari and Hiroyuki ended up just sort of drifting into their future but loved the way it was presented—yes, the girl from the shojo manga gets her man and, no, it's not the way they planned it to be. Be careful what you wish for, perhaps?

Sarah: The "settling for reality" ending reminds me of the ending of Honey and Clover: people don't end up with precisely the dream careers or heated romances they envisioned, but all make reasonable choices for adulthood.

Jason: Overall, I was fairly blown away by this series. I loved its realistic personality, and I loved its unusual pacing. If Paradise Kiss followed the pattern of most shojo manga story arcs, the big fashion show would have been the climax to the whole series, with the two romantic leads finally getting together in the denouement. But instead of being the end goal, these were instead just another step in the road because Paradise Kiss isn’t just a fashion show story: it’s Yukari’s story. This series was about character development, not plot, and I really appreciated that. This was one of the most engrossing romances I've dug into in ages, and I'm glad I had the chance to check it out.
 
Erin: I love Paradise Kiss. I do. I love the way it is so dramatic and so serious, for the most part, and so surprising. For some unexpected reason, considering that I am the Queen of the Fluffy Ending, I love that no one ends up truly happy (except for maybe Miwako), and I love the fashion aspect of it and I love the scene where Yukari finds the storage unit...yeah, I'm a fan.
 
Sarah: I really liked the whole series, much more than I usually do shojo material which often seems superficial and repetitive. Instead, we got a series of unusual and complex characters even if the setting and some of the events in the story were quite conventional.

I hadn't thought of the Casablanca connection, but now that you point it out it seems obvious. It's sort of a dreamlike ending to what had been a somewhat gritty series and, although I don't really buy it, I guess it's nice to think that fairy tales sometimes do come true and that friendships can last into adulthood. And that misfits can find their place in the world.
 
Click here to read the other entries in this month’s Manga Movable Feast, as compiled by Soliloquy in Blue’s Michelle Smith.

 

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