It’s been said that genres are reading instructions. A book bearing the label science fiction earns certain exemptions of tone and content right out of the gate that a book labeled fantasy or romance or literary fiction does not. Romance is a label we associate freely with broad brushstrokes of emotion (e.g., hate-that-is-actually-love), coincidence, and a great many other things we’d only tolerate in small doses, if at all, in something not sporting that label. In other words, a genre is a label for a specific kind of suspension of disbelief, and that may explain why many people turn their nose up at certain genres. It’s a shame, because within any genre there is always the possibility for happy accidents and lively discovery.
The very best of shojo manga operates, at least at first, in territory I might never have walked into under my own power. Case in point: Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss. It begins and remains firmly in romance territory, but that label doesn’t come to work against it. If anything, the story ennobles the label. This is one of those stories where people who are a bit prickly on the outside but basically good on the inside learn how to selectively shed the eccentricities they used to keep the world at bay, and let someone else’s sunshine in. None of this comes without a few bumps, of course, and half the fun is watching the people in question hit those bumps and bang their heads on the ceiling.
The first time ever I saw your face, I wanted to smack it
Chief among those people is Yukari Hayasaka, the high-school girl stuck in the tunnel vision so common to people her age. She’s cramming so frantically for her college entrance exams, everything else has temporarily ceased to exist — including any sense of where her life would go after all that folderol is over and done with. Anything that throws her out of her nice, comfortable little rut is bad news … such as, oh, being accosted on the street by some folks with outlandish clothing and ‘dos, and being told, hey, you’re really pretty, how’d you like to model for us? Yukari, not being born yesterday, immediately assumes something vile is afoot, and spurns the bunch of them.
Well, she would have spurned the bunch of them, if she hadn’t stupidly left her school ID in their “Atelier”, or workshop / hangout space. It’s up to George, the lead designer for this group (the “Paradise Kiss” of the title), to lure Yukari back into their fold, kicking and screaming. She doesn’t think she has time for a bunch of oddballs who dork around with sewing machines, but a little of their company helps her realize they take their work quite seriously … and whaddaya know, she really does look good in one of their outfits. She grows particularly close to Miwako, the baby of the bunch, whose bubbly cheer and little-girl mannerisms stand in stark contrast to George’s haughty, detached, and presumptuous attitude. (Such icy attitude is, as anyone who has read more than two romances in their life knows, merely a façade to be cracked open by the right girl.)
So far, so good. The ingredients all seem to be appropriate to the formula. Yukari is drawn to George while at the same time having her patience tested by him, and so her attention drifts further from her studies, and from the goody-twoshoes life she’s been living up to this point. What comes next is more than a little surprising: at one point she is compelled to lie to her mother about what she’s been up to lately, and attempts to enlist George in the lie (as Mom would blow a gasket if she found out her daughter was spending time with a boy, let alone the likes of George).
Then comes one of the many little things that show the story is only interested in “romance” as a starting point and not a destination. Yukari discovers, to her stupefaction, that no, George isn’t going to lie for her sake. If she really wants to be an independent girl, as per all the noise she’s been making in such a direction, she needs to do it aboveboard and honestly. What’s the sense in “growing up” if you’re not going to do it all the way, and do it the right way? He makes this point not just once but many times, and soon she has a choice: she can either be a “good girl” (and a fake one at that), or an actual grownup who takes human relationships seriously. Yes, a grownup, like these odd folks in outlandish clothes who do in fact take their adult responsibilities seriously even if they don’t look the part.
Another key element of Yukari’s maturation comes through when Miwako reveals herself to be part of a love triangle taking place in another part of Yukari’s life. Before Yukari got mixed up with George, she was attracted to a classmate, Hiroyuki — as nice and straight-laced as George is adventurous and provocative. Turns out Miwako was also fond of him, a while back, but time and happenstance intervened — and now Yukari wonders if she should try and hitch the two of them back up. It doesn’t quite work out like that, but the whole way Yukari makes the attempt is telling. She doubts herself to do the right thing by Miwako, but she tries anyway, and we see how a very good person lies under all the fluster and worry imposed upon her by the current moment of her life.
I would never date a woman who wanted me in the first place
Romance and sex are too often synonyms of the wrong kind, and I can go no further into talking about Paradise Kiss without describing a sex scene between Yukari and George. Again, I mention this not as a way to denigrate the story, but for entirely the opposite purpose: if Paradise Kiss is able to take one of the hoariest, most stock components of any romance — the good-girl heroine losing her virginity to her bad-boy lover — and make it into a complex and nuanced story about whether or not the guy and the girl even deserve each other in the first place, or deserve something better than what they currently amount to.
So: the sex scene. Yukari and George, whose relationship up to this point in this series could be best described as “combative”, do finally share a bed. And unlike other romances, where sex is a balm that magically makes everything better, here it’s seen as the next of many additional complications in their relationship. They make love, with all the hesitance and ambivalence that real sex produces, and each discovers that there's something to the old adage "after sex, animal sadness". (Two other characters, Miwako and her boyfriend, are provided as a sort-of contrast: they have a healthy sex life, but over time we see that they, too, use it as a way to avoid discussing a whole passel of unsolved problems that exist between them.)
By the end of that chapter, Yukari has moved in with George. But there’s already a paradox brewing in their relationship: the closer they become, the more acutely Yukari senses that George resents dependency, loathes women who can’t do their own thing. It soon becomes clear why: his mother was, and still is, like that, and at one point Yukari meets the other woman, who freely admits as much to Yukari’s face. To become the kind of woman George would want, Yukari would have to become the kind of woman who wouldn’t want to be around him in the first place.
It’s this emotional rift — between them and within themselves — that pushes the third volume into the kind of territory that I wasn’t expecting to encounter. The further into it we go, the more Yukari sees (and the more we see) that love doesn’t add up to much if it comes on unacceptable terms, and that intimacy isn’t the same thing as empathy or shared understanding. You can sleep off a misunderstanding or a Tracy/Hepburn-style feud, but you can’t use the comforts of sex to transcend the very dependency that its presence entails. And as Yukari patches up her shaky relationship with her mother (the better to earn that woman’s blessing to work professionally as a model) and becomes more fearless in other ways, the more she sees being with George is a liability. That doesn’t make leaving him behind any less painful, though — and the way he handles her decision hints at what for him may be the first signs of real maturity, instead of simply emulating the same by setting standards no woman in his life could possibly meet.
If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right — but it sure would be nice
With all of my focus on the very red and beating heart of this story, I almost neglected to mention the rest of its flesh and blood. This isn’t a dour Bergman chamber drama, but a lively and splashy story that enjoys nudging the reader in the ribs every so often (most every chapter has at least one tongue-in-cheek breaking of the fourth wall), and remembers to surround George and Yukari with an electric milieu and a vivacious cast of supporting characters. My favorite of such throughout was Miwako, another member of George’s troupe whom Yukari becomes an actual friend to, and not simply a sounding board or support mechanism — all the more so as Miwako finds her lover, Arashi, has his own deep-seated insecurities that make anything beyond a frivolous relationship very difficult. I also liked Hiroyuki, a classmate of Yukari’s and a mutual friend of Miwako’s, who looks on from the sidelines and embodies exactly the sort of strength and gentle resilience of spirit that Yukari would benefit from if only she didn’t feel like depending on it would make her “weak”.
It’s not my style to second-guess the conclusion of the story, even one that unfolds along genre lines, and given that Paradise Kiss doesn’t follow genre lines to begin with, I had twice as little incentive to try and predict what happens. What we get is not the ending we want, but it is the ending that everyone, us included, does deserve. It is the tougher and more realistic ending, but it is also a more ennobling one: it provides everyone — Yukari and George, both — an opportunity to do the right things that they have not yet done, and make themselves into better people in the process. Normally at the end of a romance, I just want to shoot the happy couple off into the sunset (or into the sun, period) and be done with them. These two end up in such a way that you feel proud for having known them, and for having walked in their shoes for a bit.
One of the first things you learn about manga (and anime, as well) is that they’re not genres but media — methods of expression rather than storytelling containers. Get past that, and soon you find that the genres themselves aren’t just storytelling containers either. They’re springboards and starting points — places where a story can begin with a set of ingredients and then become something more than just the sum of their parts. But discovering that can be difficult, because of the requirements many genres post at the door for entry. Some people find the suspension of disbelief re: human behavior or motivation required for a romance to be far more absurd than the suspension of disbelief re: physical reality required for a fantasy, SF, or four-color comic story. I don’t believe this mechanism underlies all instances of why people snub a romance for something else, but it sure explains why many people never try out certain genres at all. They have evolved a certain discipline for their suspension of disbelief. They do not let themselves play outside of those strongly-painted lines.
Paradise Kiss is like an anti-textbook example of how to create a romance — how to begin there, but end up in a far richer place than the label alone could ever hint at. It took writing this entire review for me to find the right words for how Paradise Kiss may be labeled as a romance, but is a good deal more. A “mere” romance is just about love. This story is about becoming worthy of being loved.