Yukari’s career of choice does present some issues. Yazawa chose it due to her love of fashion – she went to school for fashion design before she became a mangaka – and she displays some truly incredible fashion design throughout the series. Nonetheless, I am leery of a coming-of-age story where a woman’s primary asset is her appearance. Yukari was blessed with natural good looks, and because of that all she needs to do is knock lightly and all the doors will swing open. Mikako tells Yukari, “The fact that everything is falling into place is just proof that this is the right path for you.” If only things were that easy in reality! Yes, it takes initiative for her to knock, but it’s all too convenient. “If my longer-than-average limbs will be weapons for survival, maybe I should be a bit grateful to my parents for making it so.” In a world where a woman must be, above all else, beautiful, it is complacent at best to set a story in a world where beauty is favored above all other qualities. The modeling industry runs rampant with abuses: eating disorders, sexual abuse, racism, and a multitude of other problems. Yazawa’s vision of the industry is a kinder, gentler one, where the right friends, long legs, and a desire to make it suffice. Yukari’s success is due to her initiative, yes, but she is helped along amply by those around her, with no real obstacles other than her mother’s obstinacy. While this is preferable to a salacious soap opera where she is exploited at every turn, it all just seems a bit too glossed over.
There is, on the other hand, a distinct advantage. Yazawa’s version of the fashion world is one dominated by women, allowing Yukari to meet and be mentored by accomplished women in her field. Mikako, star of the prequel manga Gokinjo Monogatari, has gone from temperamental teenager to a highly sought-out fashion designer and the president of her own company; she even continues to go by her maiden name, despite marrying her high school sweetheart and lead photographer, Yamaguchi Tsutomu. Shimamoto Kozue is a former fashion model using her knowledge of the industry to start her own agency. In Japan, it is rare for women to progress above the position of office lady; industries where women are not only taken seriously but are at the forefront are rare. In this context, it makes more sense; the story of a young woman taking charge of her own life belongs in a world where women can take charge. She needs role models and mentors, women who have succeeded due to their drive and determination, in addition to friends and peers.
“Watching this slightly rude, but clearly prettier woman laugh at me, I felt like I got a glimpse of the world I was entering into,” Yukari thinks as Shimamoto laughs at her so hard she falls on the floor. This is a world where none of the usual rules apply, clearly.
Mikako and Shimamoto aren’t just businesswomen; they’re a bit strange. Quirky. Off-beat. They’re the kind of people who would feel restricted operating in the normal business world of sober suits and polite bows and endless keigo. The very same kind of people as Paradise Kiss has, and that Yukari is learning – and really was always meant – to be, now that her mother is no longer trying to stuff her into a pigeonhole she doesn’t fit. After her meeting with Mikako, Yukari walks through the streets of Harajuku and says to herself, “It’ll be fine. I won’t lose. Even if my folks desert me, or I stick out from society, I won’t vanish.” That, more than anything else, is the most important lesson she learns from these older women. There’s plenty of time to learn about makeup application and business savvy and the best way to pose on a runway.
What Yukari needs to know, from older and more experienced women, is that there is room for someone like her in the world. That she can exist outside the restrictive mold she’s been forced into her entire life and not only get by, but flourish. Although Yazawa presents an idealized picture of the fashion and modeling world to achieve that, it is an important message for youth not just in Japan but the world over to receive: that being oneself and living by one’s own rules and values can be far more rewarding than simple conformity, and above all else, you will survive.