“The basement store was removed from the main road by a maze of side streets. To reach it, one had to go down a flight of stairs to the cute little door. Sweet exotic scents filled its every corner, as if someone was making candies in a Chinese import store. Dizzying music pulsated and bounced off the loud pink walls. There was an old bar and a pool table, and three sewing machines. It was like a secret hideout. They called it their studio.”
Haute couture, a bitter but studious high school girl, a group of misfit designers, one of the most fascinating and frustrating heroes I’ve met in manga. All of these add up to a coming of age story that will hit home with most of us, even while taking us places we’ve never been.
The mangaka is Ai Yazawa, probably the most popular writer of manga for young women (josei) in
Her art style reminds me of a mix of punk and art nouveau, with pop art of the sixties thrown in. It changes from ornate dÃƒÆ’Ã‚ ©cor to beautifully delicate line drawings of her characters from frame to frame.
Paradise Kiss is one of her older series (she also writes NANA, a current favorite josei title of mine and millions of others). It’s fairly short, at five volumes, and all of them are in print in English.
Yukari is a typical grade A high school student, in love with a boy she’s too shy to talk to, spending all her time studying for upcoming college entrance exams because that’s her mom’s wish. She’s also full of anger, but doesn’t stop to think about why. One day on her way home from school she encounters a group of strangers who think she’d make the perfect model for their year-end design competition, and very strange they are: A punk with chains and pins in his face, a beautiful willowy transvestite with a penchant for 40’s style clothing, a child-like woman whose face has nothing to do with her age or experience.
They need a model, but she needs to study and has no time for their games, and she storms off, accidentally dropping her school ID. She needs the school ID. It’s her misfortune that the fourth stranger of the bunch, George, picks it up. George is… handsome, exotic, an unknown, and she’s fascinated and annoyed at the same time. He seems to be everything she is not, free from all of society’s constraints, self-confident, fashionable, popular. Her attraction to him, to their utter difference, and her need for the ID pulls her toward their little group.
I love this scene, where George “happens” to show up at the library Yukari is studying at, and proceeds to draw her in despite herself. The way she portrays the flirtation shows Yazawa-sensei’s skill (remember, start on the right and read left).
Yukari gets to know each of the characters, to understand why they made the choices they did, and why their dress is so important to them. It becomes important to her. She starts to rebel, spending time away from her books, helping them, wanting to be a part of it. There are fights at home, questions at school, questions from her friends about what she’s doing, what she really wants, and she’s sitting in the middle trying to figure it all out for the first time in her life.
Through it all they try to make this impossible dress, the culmination of all their dreams.
Eventually Yukari finds out that perhaps she didn’t want what she thought at first, or even second. But one thing is sure, she’ll never forget what happened those few months when she changed from a girl into a young woman.
I loved this manga. I put off reading it for a long time because I had no interest in fashion, and the tall thin characters seemed a bit odd. But once I picked it up I found myself dragged into the characters’ stories. They seem stock from a basic description, but Yazawa-sensei gives them all distinct, well-rounded personalities. They’re all very human, and the story grows out of their foibles and their strengths, and is told with a self-referential humor that made even awkward moments very funny.
I could relate to all of them on some level. I think older teenagers could too, if you’re comfortable with them reading about a girl experiencing her coming of age, including her first sexual relationship. The relationship is an honest one, both sweet and bitter, with some hard times, and some things that will remain treasured memories for all of Yukari’s life. It’s the way it was for many of us, I think. Which is why I think you don’t have to be a teenager to love this one. A.