(Episode Eight: Deep within the Velvet Goldmine.)
Whenever there’s a discussion of the “diversity” of manga, one of the titles that’s bound to come up is Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss (Tokyopop). A fashion manga by an acknowledged mistress of the form, the series runs in the Japanese mag Zipper and is apparently part of an entire Yazawa Universe populated by young fashionistas. Reading Steve Diablo’s explanatory Afterward (“Where Punk And Chic Collide”) before I actually dive into the first volume of Yazawa’s series, I can’t help wondering if I’ve ventured out of my depth: girly shoujo manga whose main characters model and design clothes? Will the book contain paper doll cut-outs?
We’re introed to the world of Paradise Kiss through Yukari, a waifish high school girl who we meet as she’s stressing about preparing for college entrance exams. (Her anxiety about making it into the right school illuminates some of the jokes in GTO.) As she rails about the city, the young teen runs into a safety-pinned punk, who eyes her up and down and sez, “Blimey! You’re ace, kid!” Fearing for her safety (“I’m gonna be robbed! Possibly raped! Most likely murdered!”), Yukari tries to dash off, only to bump into a tall transvestite named Isabella. She passes out in Isabella’s arms, waking to the sight of a girl with pink hair.
It’s the kind of introduction that could only happen in comics: six pages and we’re already in the series’ fashion studio, Paradise Kiss. But once Yazawa drops her heroine into this brave new world, she relaxes the pace. The pink-haired girly, we learn, is named Miwako. The English accent affecting punk rocker is her boyfriend Arashi. Along with Isabella, the three are seniors at Yazawa School for the Arts, and they want to recruit our heroine to model for a senior show. Thrown by the trio’s oddness and their offer, Yukari (who Miwako keeps calling “Caroline”) dashes out of the studio, dropping her student passbook as she goes.
Already dissatisfied with the straight-laced collegiate track that he parents have chosen for her, “Caroline” is ripe for the more free-wheeling art school demi-decadence that the Paradise Kiss crew embody. She’s been slipping in her college prep studies, so we know she’s destined to return to the studio. When the group’s dapper handsome “leader,” George gets a glimpse of her passbook picture (“That bitchy look of hers is perfect for our image,”) he pursues Yukari in order to win her over. Though initially wary of George (“Like a video game, the last one to appear is always the boss character,” she thinks,) she ultimately follows him back to the studio.
Yukari is attracted to the avowedly bi-sexual George – but she’s also carrying a torch for a boy back in her school: Tokumori, who turns out to be a childhood friend of Miwako. The rest of Volume One is devoted our heroine’s initiation into the world of glam fashion. George, after viewing the flick Velvet Goldmine (“George is under the influence of yet another movie,” Isabella notes,) has been inspired to design an outfit that would fit that movie’s milieu. First thing they do to “Caroline” is trim her schoolgirl hair into more severe looking bangs; when she returns to school, she is both complimented by Tokumori and ridiculed by her other classmates (“You cut your bangs too short. It looks like a wig.”)
Yazawa clearly has a memory for youthful art school mores. Each of the would-be artists has character traits that fit the persona they’ve adopted (except, perhaps, for Isabella, who mainly just stands around looking striking). Miwako wears the baby doll dresses designed by her sister (a character from an earlier Yazawa series, we’re informed in the Afterword) and lacks the confidence to develop her own unique style; Arashi is a would-be punk rocker who’s prone to snap judgments and displays of sudden temper. At one point in the opening volume, he sends a hydraulic punch George’s way for flirting with Miwako – a manga-esque display of teenboy territoriality.
Paradise Kiss is rated for teen readers aged 13+, which puts it in an older age-range than old American fashion-centric comics like Millie the Model or even Vickie Valentine. I don’t think Millie ever had to worry about being sexually assaulted on the street, and the snap judgments expressed by Arashi (“You think your shit don’t stink? You think going to college makes you better ‘an us? Sod off!”) definitely wouldn’t have passed the Comics Code. Still, the basic dynamics remain the same: girl is attracted to boy – who may or may not be attracted back. Is he leading her on for his own purposes? Should Yukari pursue him or the “safe boy” from her old school? And what about the fact that the latter knows one of the other players in our tale?
In terms of presentation, Paradise Kiss appears to follow many of the conventions of shoujo manga – or at least those conventions that I know about: female figures (including Isabella) are frequently surrounded by flowers, bubbles, feathers or butterflies in the panels; whenever Yukari gets emotional, large tear drops appear on her head, at times resembling horns; flushed or distressed faces are often suggested by a row of tilted lines across the character’s cheekbones. Yazawa’s art can be elegantly graceful as well as comically frenetic; her fashion creations owe as much to Aubrey Beardsley as they do Ziggy Stardust. Periodically, the cast of Paradise Kiss breaks the wall to acknowledge that they’re in a comic. In one chapter, for example, when a picnic is cancelled due to rain, one of the characters observes that they’re not following the original script.
This self-consciousness thankfully doesn’t unbalance Paradise Kiss‘s blend of adolescent angst and comedy, though. If her series isn’t as innovative as Tokyopop claims it to be (Jaime Hernandez broke the ground on adolescent punk romance, after all, years ago), it’s still miles ahead of the American mainstream’s weak attempts at capturing the current young girl audience. (Okay, this is absolutely the last time this year that I’m gonna mention Trouble!) Though the basic outcome may never be in doubt, it’s still fun watching Yukari learn to become her own woman under the contentious tutelage of the Parakissers. If only American company comics also knew a way to effectively dramatize coming of age that didn’t involve giving their protagonist mutant powers. . .