Paradise Kiss brings a heavy dose of fashion to a manga coming-of-age romance by Ai Yazawa. Yukari is a student cramming for her upcoming college entrance exams. A group of fashion students pick her up on the street because of her moody look and rename her Caroline. They’ve created a studio in the hopes of merchandising their fashions, and they need a model for their creations.
Influenced by the glam movie Velvet Goldmine, each of them has their own look. Arashi is channeling the British punk era, complete with safety pin through the lip. Isabella is a glamorous transvestite, and Miwako resembles a living Kewpie doll. But it’s bisexual George, the elegant gentleman, who most captures Caroline’s attention, especially after he starts flirting with her.
The unique art is well able to capture all these varied styles accurately. The approach ranges from elegant and detailed to sparse manga shorthand concentrating on emotion. The gorgeous fashion images, inspired by classic magazine illustration styles and evoking an era of elegance, are woven throughout the story.
After her initial repulsion, Caroline agrees to work with the group in order to capture some of their excitement, since pressure to get into the right school is about to make her crack. She doesn’t know what she wants to do; she’s living her parents’ goals with none of her own. The group, in contrast, has chosen what they want to do and are pursuing it whole-heartedly.
Caroline finds seductive people who accept each other regardless of what they look like or what supposed social rank they have. She knows that this group isn’t going to be some kind of instant salvation, but at least they’re different, and as the proverb goes, sometimes a change is as good as a rest. What she’s getting into might be as scary, or even scarier, than what she’s been living, but she’s willing to take the risk that it will be better.
She volunteers to help sew beads onto her dress, taking great pride in contributing to the construction. The others worry about her sudden goal change, giving up her studies to work with them. They want to help her find her own sense of determination and drive, but only if she takes responsibility for her actions. She’s still not choosing for herself if she simply replaces her parents’ rules with those of the group.
A whole new world opens to her, beyond her work as a model, when she starts going out with George. Like her, he’s also an honor student, but his chosen field, design, doesn’t require a license or passing an exam, just passion and drive, qualities she wants to experience. The romance is complicated by a mismatch between what people say and their actions. George says he wants an independent woman, but his act of turning Caroline into his dream girl contradicts his expressed desires.
As the story continues, Caroline comes to wonder whether George really cares for her, or if she will always come second to his ego and his designs. Is he stringing her along just to get her to model for them? Is he too much of a distraction, causing her to fail her studies? Her parents make an appearance, worrying about her schedule changes and absent-mindedness. Eventually, the confrontation with her mother comes, as it must. Caroline is forced to choose between her new interests and her old plans. She’s beginning to make her own decisions, even though her only certain desire is to find out what she really wants.
The characters break the fourth wall every so often, talking about the number of pages they have or noting the rules for the role they play or even visiting the artist’s apartment and stealing her clothes. Most outrageously, they comment on what’s allowed in their genre after George and Caroline’s first night together, talking about how that kind of thing just isn’t done in manga for girls and making jokes about George having to finish at a certain time based on the page count available.
Caroline faces a lot of questions. What is the difference between love and obsession? How can you love someone you hate and hate someone you love? Is love a good thing if you become so consumed by it that you make yourself sick? Even when these young adults know what they should do for the ones they love, they can’t necessarily bring themselves to be unselfish or put other’s needs ahead of their own. They experience love as a disease, an immature compulsion or fascination, instead of a mature motivation.
In the bigger picture, how much of who we are is who we pretend to be? In other people’s eyes, we become whatever we’re acting. The characters use theatrical techniques to make their lives more interesting, building the reality they want to live. Fashion isn’t just clothing; it’s costumes for the life one wants.
There’s an air of melancholy throughout the series that sets it apart from the usual teen romance. Not everyone gets a happy ending. Even if someone thinks they know what they want, they may not be able to achieve it. Like all young adults, the characters finally have to start out on a path for themselves, deciding which career to pursue and learning more about what they really desire. Ultimately, what you think you want may not be good for you or those you’re involved with.