Summary: Yukari Hayasaka never considered a life beyond prep school and college exams, until she is approached by a group of students from Yazawa School for the Arts asking her to model for their senior art show. Yukari questions everything she ever knew when confronted with an outlook on life completely different from her own… and when she meets George Koizumi, the charismatic, eccentric leader of the group.
Potential triggers: Abuse, rape, transphobia
Would I recommend it? Yes
Paradise Kiss could easily have been a standard “Girl meets boy, girl’s life is changed forever” narrative. Luckily, in the capable hands of Ai Yazawa, it instead becomes a beautifully drawn, thoughtful meditation on adulthood, ambition, and the ways we hurt the ones we care about. With the issues of agency, identity, and non-conformism front and center, Paradise Kiss has the potential to be a powerfully feminist narrative, and while not an unqualified success, it certainly succeeds on some levels.
Yukari’s situation is utterly typical for many students who feel pressured to succeed: she goes to school all day and studies all night. Her evenings are spent at juku; weekends are for cram sessions at the library. For her entire life, she has been pressured to succeed by her education-obsessed mother, pushed into elite schools where she can barely stay afloat. She has had no time to develop any interests or hobbies of her own. “God, I’ve lived soberly for 18 years. Is this even fair? If so, instead of studying so much, I should have done more of what I wanted to do. But what would I have even wanted? I never even thought about it. My life was such a monotone world,” she complains as she revives from a shock-induced faint, convinced that she’s died.
It is her encounter with the members of Paradise Kiss: Isabella, Arashi, Miwako, and George. They are people unlike anyone Yukari has ever encountered: they dye their hair bright colors, wear unconventional clothes, have sex on the pool table, and openly discuss being gender non-normative. Such a world is a shock to her system at first, and she is quick to judge and dismiss them when they approach her about being the model for their student fashion show. “Sorry, but I’m studying for college entrance exams and I don’t have time for something like that,” she says with an air of condescension.
However, Arashi, bedecked in his punk rock couture, is quick to take her to task when she calls their fashion show “goofing around:” “Who you are or what the hell you do might not be our business, but we don’t work our sewing machines for fun! Hey, are college exams so much more superior?” Yukari is abashed, and tries to apologize and flee, but is stopped by Miwako calling her “Caroline” and inviting her back to the studio.
But it’s George who draws Yukari in, and the subsequent relationship between George and Yukari makes up a large part of the series. Theirs is not a healthy relationship, to say the least. It is clingy and simultaneously emotionally needy and emotionally withholding, frequently manipulative, and fraught with jealousy. They fight frequently over slights both real and imagined. It is a far more cynical look at first love than most media aimed at young women contains, and far more believable. Yazawa does an excellent job portraying an unhealthy, but still loving relationship between two immature, emotionally damaged people without slipping into abusive territory. Yukari doesn’t fall for George because of his dashing good looks (though those certainly don’t hurt), or because of any sort of bad boy, devil-may-care demeanor. She falls for him because he is passionate and driven. She falls for him because he takes an interest in her and listens to her problems without dismissing them. When complaining about her mother and her lack of direction in life, she stops herself and says, “I’ve done nothing but complain about my life. Hearing this isn’t fun. Sorry, I’ll stop now.”
He responds, “Why are you stopping? You’re talking about your life, right? Don’t say it’s stupid. I’ll listen seriously.”
In short, she falls for him because he respects her as a human being, something no one before him has done.
The most interesting part of the manga is Yukari’s internal struggles. Drawn out of living life on autopilot, she founders as she learns making her own decisions and figuring out her own priorities is more difficult than it seems. The first time she visits George’s apartment, it turns into a fight about her tendency to pin the blame for everything bad in her life on someone else, even as she claims, “I’m making my own decisions, and I’ll take responsibility for what happens to me.” She takes his refusal to take the blame for any negative consequences of her involvement with him as not caring. In the end, he tells her, “You may pretend to be rebellious, but in the end, you need to live by the rules. You can’t feel comfortable without someone setting boundaries. You can’t help it. It’s the way you were raised,” and sends her home.
Only a few days later, Yukari runs away from home to escape her mother’s control, the first step in her enormous personal transformation into a determined, independent young woman.
Can a series be feminist if a woman decides to change herself because of a man? It’s a complicated question with no easy answer. We all have people who inspire us, who make us want to be the best version of ourselves. Those people could be friends, family, role models, those who look up to us, and, yes, romantic partners. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. However, we can’t ignore the cultural precedent of men believing they know what’s best for women and narratives that support it – My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman are two of the most famous Western examples, and the tsundere archetype popular in moe culture is largely based around it. The difference between a woman being inspired to improve herself for her own sake, and paternalistic makeover stories, lies in how much of the woman’s motivation is intrinsic, how much she herself personally benefits, and how much she relies on that single man.
Yukari is definitely not wholly reliant on George for her change. In fact, when she first runs away, she doesn’t move in with him but stays at Arashi’s temporarily vacant apartment. While staying here, Yukari gets her first modeling job and discovers her true calling; she loses her virginity in Arashi’s bed. When she does move in with George, it is not because of any delusion that they will live happily ever after or a need for protection. It’s so she can access the purity of passion and energy that only George has, because she is naturally drawn to his personal magnetism. It’s not perfect; the two of them end up drawn into a borderline-combative back-and-forth of mind games and mental manipulation. And though Yukari always feels like he has the upper-hand, the text often makes it clear that they both feel equally helpless.
Even as she is inspired by George, she often falters at his hand and does start to lean on him. When she is accepted by a modeling agency but must acquire her parents’ permission, she plans to talk it over with George when he gets home. But he comes home horny and ready to play at domesticity, and when she tries to tell him, he waves her away, asking if it could be “more important than making love to me?” She gives in and forgets what she was even going to tell him. The next day, he’s both angry that she didn’t tell him, and that she wanted to discuss her dilemma with him. He’s being a complete a-hole.
Two meetings earlier that day help Yukari break away from her dangerously increasing dependence on George and his approval. First, she meets with Hiroyuki, who is not acquainted with George and thus is not subject to his charisma. Thus, he is able to point out the flaws in how he treats Yukari and his reasoning. “No one can be completely sure of their own will. Everyone is worried and confused and influenced by the ideas of people around them.” Yukari realizes at this point that she’s been striving toward an unobtainable ideal, influenced by who she thinks George wants her to be, and it’s making her miserable. To be an island, completely uninfluenced by others, is an ideal as unrealistic as the photoshopped models and plastic surgery-enhanced porn stars that are marketed to women. Later, when she goes to meet Shimamoto, she meets George’s mother, Yukino, who was impregnated by a married man and forced to leave her modeling career. Now, trapped in the thrall of that married man, completely dependent on a man who does not need her at all, blaming everyone but herself, she is constantly unhappy. She, who raised George, is so the opposite of his ideal. “George doesn’t want me to end up a woman like that. I’d rather die than turn into a woman like that!” she thinks as she packs her bags. “Thanks to her, my eyes have been opened. I’m going to fight!”
Yukari realizes that she must find a point between the two extremes, one where she can follow her own path and make up her mind, but still accept the influence of the people around her. This is a major turning point for her, and the point where I can accept that Paradise Kiss can be a good model for teenage girls. To find a happy medium, instead of careening between two extremes, is essential to finding balance in one’s own life and achieving one’s goals. Trying too hard to be anyone else’s ideal, be it her mother’s or George’s, did not work. Trying to live completely free of anyone else’s influence was impossible and driving her toward a nervous breakdown. Instead, able to stay aware of the ways she is influenced by the world around her, to accept that influence when it suits her but to also assert her own will, she is able to find happiness and, more importantly, agency.
The final few chapters of Paradise Kiss are bittersweet, as Yukari and the members of Paradise Kiss are forced to enter the world of adults, where that ability to walk the line between independence and influence is vital to survival. Each one has their own path to walk, different from what they had been hoping. Even George prepares to become a makeup artist, ready to leave behind his beautiful, impractical designs, more art than marketable fashion, until his father agrees to pay for him to go to Paris to study haute couture. Yukari, knowing that her chances of making it on the international fashion scene are incredibly slim, decides to stay behind and pursue her own career. When George sails away, she receives a key in the mail that leads her to a storeroom. She opens it and finds all of the beautiful clothes he made, and falls down, weeping. “He turns the black and white landscape into beautiful colors. That’s what George was to me.” For all their problems, by George’s side, Yukari learned to conceive of a world where there was more than studying and university, where beauty dominated. Armed with the strength of mind and practicality she learned in her months with George and Paradise Kiss, she becomes a successful model.