Paradise Kiss: Yukari and Me
July 31, 2010
I haven’t yet been able to participate in the Manga Moveable Feast, but the feature this month is Paradise Kiss, and I’m always up for recommending that one.
Paradise Kiss has been among my absolute favorite series since the first time I laid eyes on it eight years ago. I could go on and on about the excellent characters, the emotion exploding off the page, the wonderful art the likes of which I hadn’t seen before, but I think the root of my obsession is the way that I identify with it.
WARNING: Long, boring personal essay ahead. Also, this came out when I was 18-20, so keep that in mind, too. It came out at just the right time for me, eerily so, and I wouldn’t feel the same way, nor have the same long story to relate, if I read it fresh today.
There’s a lot you can say about sympathizing with characters in manga. So many are wish fulfillment-type stories written for younger readers. What young boy doesn’t want to imagine himself a hero with special powers, and what girl doesn’t want to be the diamond in the rough that the popular boy falls for? The better stories use a less transparent character with more personality. Flawed characters who struggle with decisions are more “realistic,” but we don’t necessarily want to be them. Genuine flaws (more than the “I’m no good at anything!” type) make them easier to identify with, though.
Two series with flawed characters I enjoy immensely are Nana and We Were There. In the case of We Were There, it’s a turbulent ride through a young relationship, and in Nana, it’s the normal girl in the middle of a group of celebrities. I can identify with Nanami in We Were There because it’s easy to identify with the teenage girl that has a crush, then deals with the emotional ups and downs of trying to figure out whether the boy really likes her back. We Were There also does a good job of showing things from Motoharu’s point of view. He’s no hero, he can’t be perfect for Nanami, and he has an idealized girl from his past that he has to constantly compare her to. In Nana, it’s boy-crazy Hachi that’s easy to identify with. She wants more, more, more from life, and doesn’t have much luck with either love or work. But landing in the middle of a group of musicians that she makes fast friends with is exciting, and being the normal one among extraordinary people makes for an interesting story. Her flaws might be that she is not a responsible person, and she hurts people she loves both intentionally and unintentionally.
But can any of us really relate to Hachi? Hachi’s situation is storybook stuff as much as any magical girl series is, it’s just what older women dream of rather than the young ones. A lot of people can relate to Nanami, and there’s a lot of emotional resonance in her story. But there’s also a kind of generic facade. I mean, what girl can’t relate to getting her heart broken in high school?
For me, it’s different when it comes to Paradise Kiss. When I first picked it up, I related to Yukari. I really related to Yukari. Let me count the ways.
With Paradise Kiss, the initial hook for me was that it took place among art school students. When this came out, I had just moved to Chicago from a small town in order to attend art school, so yeah, I had to pick it up. Also, in 2002, shoujo romance manga itself was still a novelty, especially aimed at teenagers (magical girl series had been around for a few years, though). This and Peach Girl were pretty much all that was out there, and they blew my mind. They were exactly what I wanted to read.
Peach Girl is never something anyone could relate to (and thank God for that), but that doesn’t make it any less appealing. And Paradise Kiss may fall into the same trap as Nana, because really, who gets scouted as an art school model while walking down the street, then makes a fabulous career out of it?
Even so, the stars were aligned just right when I first laid eyes on Yukari. From the first page, Yukari’s disdain for the large crowds of people not doing anything clicked with me. My school was in downtown Chicago, and I’d never seen anything like the huge crowds of people that are out on the streets at any given time there. Moving around in the crush was incredible, but also extremely claustrophobic. That first page more-or-less echoed my thoughts on the trip to the bookstore to purchase it, and it was love at first sight.
The pressures in Yukari’s academic life were also something that clicked with me. The shoujo heroine under academic stress is by no means unique to Yukari, but it was one more point in her favor. I never had her problem of overbearing parents and unrealistic personal goals, but I had just come fresh from the academic pressures of high school and college applications and could sympathize with all her troubles. And again, girls dealing with high school weren’t common in translated manga back then, hard as that is to believe, so the fact that Yukari was my introduction to the genre, when I was still at an age to enjoy it, also helped me identify with her.
Her initial disdain for the Yazawa students was also something I could identify with, since being dropped in an environment of somewhat coarse and entirely right-brained individuals compared with the small-town people I was used to was not something I could easily cope with. The culture shock Yukari experiences when learning about the world of the Yazawa students was something I really identified with too, for the same reasons.
Yukari’s prickly nature as a defense mechanism was not so much my style, I was more inclined to keep my mouth shut and disappear into the background, which is why I liked her even more. She spoke up and escaped where I didn’t have the courage to, though she winds up doing a lot of things against her will anyway. The modeling stuff because George is relentless, but the academic stuff because she can’t bring herself to go against her mother. In that, I could sympathize as well, since I wanted badly to leave the school after my first year and couldn’t bring myself to say so after all the things my parents had done to make that possible.
Perhaps I should be ashamed to admit this, but even with all the appealing non-romantic story elements Paradise Kiss has going for it, I would not have enjoyed it as much had it not included Yukari’s complex love life, complete with the torrid affair that went bad. When you see so much of yourself in the heroine, don’t you want her love live to be exciting? Isn’t the constant affirmation of physical affection and love one of the rules of ladies’ comics in Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga?
If I’m going this far, I should probably admit I had a Hiroyuki. I followed him out to Chicago, though he lived in a completely different part of the city, so it’s less creepy than it sounds. We were “together”, but not as close as I would have liked. But there were a lot of eerie similarities between Hiroyuki and him. An academic overachiever that Yukari looked up to in every way and saw as a sort of hero from afar? Oh yeah, I felt her pain there. That was really want cemented this series as a forever favorite as of volume one.
So. Yukari’s a prickly underachiever that struggles academically and wants nothing more than to please her mother and maybe one day get to date the boy who has a crush on her. This isn’t all that unique, is it? All the same, they work out for Yukari, and it was her that I was attracted to, not the magical Paradise Kiss studio, when I initially started. The art school featured in the book wasn’t much like the one I attended, so the element I thought I could most identify with wound up being secondary, though still far more interesting than anything else I was reading at the time.
So what about later volumes? Of course George, Isabella, Arashi, and Mikako are developed and given their own stories as the series goes on. All of them have their own flaws and problems that are easy to identify with (with the exception of maybe George and Isabella, although there are plenty of people who have their problems, too). Certainly the point where the reader identification with Yukari stops, turning into wish fulfillment, is where she gives up school to become a fashion model, or where the handsome rich boy shows up to tell her she’s a wonderful woman who can be happy.
So why do I still identify so strongly with Yukari, nearly ten years and almost 1,000 manga series later?
I had a George, too. Not nearly as romantic, of course, and not a rich fashion designer with lofty goals and awesome clothes. But he was exotic, and bent over backwards after I kept coldly rejecting him, and a lot of the other things about George, personality-wise, were an absolute match. As were a lot of the things that happened between George and Yukari. It was also the friends George hung out with that insisted on including me in everything that finally made me comfortable at college and made me realize that what I was doing was right. They were all real people, and bits and pieces of the Yazawa students fit all of them. Except Isabella. I was always disappointed by that.
Perhaps part of me only filled in the gaps and saw similarities where some links were tenuous, but they were always there no matter how many times I read the series, and me growing up didn’t help mature my perspective. The similarities are eerie.
I’m no fashion model (in case you couldn’t guess). I didn’t rebel in the way that Yukari did. I never went on to have the spectacular life that Yukari lived (proving that even the most sympathetic manga have to have some element of wish fulfillment). But every time I picked up a volume of that series, it made me cry. It still does, and I have never reviewed any of it, because it’s just too personal. The character emotions and the things they deal with in their lives are spectacular, Ai Yazawa is an excellent writer, and I was of the right age when I read this, but all the same, I still really feel this one.
Ultimately, my George was good for me, and I was always privately disappointed that George and Yukari didn’t wind up together. In the context of the story, the two are tremendously bad for one another. It’s obvious that both needed each other to open up possibilities that weren’t previously there, but both also hated what the other brought out in them when they were together. Even so, I read that and know there’s a way, buried in there somewhere. But to work out their differences and have both professional and personal success goes against the themes of Paradise Kiss, and is yet another thing that makes me still love it after all these years. Realistically, neither Yukari or George would have lived a particularly fabulous life had they gotten together, since one would have had to sacrifice themselves for the other.
Plus, had they gotten together, we wouldn’t have had that scene at the end where Yukari finds the storage space. And that stands as the absolute most bittersweet, beautiful, and emotionally striking scene I will ever read. That scene is what I think of every time I remember Paradise Kiss. Perhaps that’s mostly wish fulfillment again, and who wouldn’t love such a gift from a departed lover? But in the context of the story, it is most perfect.