Paradise Kiss has an interesting love story in that I don’t care about the romance itself so much as how it’s used to help George and Yukari realize what they need to do to grow up and become better people.
Yukari and George are both selfish, self-absorbed people at the beginning of the series, which isn’t surprising given that they’re both teenagers. Who isn’t kind of a dick at that age? They’re also both driven people: George by his compulsion to express himself artistically through the creation of clothing, and Yukari by her desire to break out of what she realizes is a monotonous, stifling life. When Yukari is discovered on the streets by George’s cohorts, Arashi, Miwako and Isabella, and taken to the lounge where the fashion design students do their work, Yukari and George find in each other not only inspiration but the realization that they can be more than who they are.
(I’ll try to keep this post as spoiler-free as possible.)
Admittedly, I was skeptical about the setup through the first three episodes. Yukari may have a boring life, but it’s not a bad life, all things considered. She has family, a home, and is never really in want of anything, which are things plenty of folks take for granted. It was difficult for me to feel too sympathetic toward her at first. The thing is, Paradise Kiss is fully aware that Yukari is a selfish, self-absorbed teenager, and every story beat plays off that. The setup seems like a wish fulfillment sort of thing where a merry gang of eccentrics takes a normal girl and gives her an amazing life, but the show never disrespects the people behind Paradise Kiss (their student fashion label) like that. They do in fact open a new world for Yukari; however, it’s a world of self-determination, hard work and confronting the ugly things in life that people would rather ignore.
Yukari and George’s relationship perfectly encapsulates this. Yukari is stricken with George at first. He’s a tall, regal, handsome man with a lovely voice and a charming way with everyone he meets. He has a unique look to him. He’s an artist. He does whatever he wants. He has the type of life Yukari would like to lead if she were just a bit stronger. Yukari has a dependence on George that made me raise my eyebrow at first; however, it’s played off well because George isn’t that perfect gentleman Yukari imagines him to be. He’s kind of a dick, really — George treats Yukari quite coldly if she doesn’t live up to his expectations. They have a strong physical connection, but emotionally . . . very messy. Again, teenagers in love.
It’s that emotional messiness that pushes Yukari to better herself, though. She takes a good, hard look at her life and how she relates to George and decides what she wants to be. Yukari wants agency; she wants to be someone who forges her own path, whatever the consequences. She makes many good choices and many bad choices throughout the series. Those bad choices mainly come as a result of running away from things. There’s always a tendency to hesitate bubbling inside Yukari. She struggles with who she wants to be and why she wants to be that type of person. It’s when Yukari is able to face up to her problems that she can grow up and move on. Even then, life isn’t perfect, but when is it ever? I like that there’s some residual uncertainty, a black tinge to the light. There are few big decisions that are wholly good. Still, you have to face up to them as best you can. There’s a moment in episode 10 where every decision Yukari has made culminates in one moment that actually made me feel proud of her. Bit of a rare feeling for a fictional character, but there you go.
George, meanwhile, moves forward by degrees compared to Yukari’s leaps. He’s mostly comfortable with who he is and what he gets out of fashion. But there’s a point where his confidence in his art shifts to arrogance. He creates mostly for himself, which is fine, but he eventually reaches a point where he’d rather stop creating altogether than compromise his talents through business. It’s such a youthful ideal: if you can’t create your way, then your creations are irredeemably corrupted. That stubbornness and refusal to look beyond his own lens is perhaps George’s greatest flaw. He’s physically attracted to Yukari, and he clearly cares about her, but there are points where he looks at her and sees his artistic muse and nothing more. Perhaps that’s the thing with art and artists: it’s difficult to see the world in anything but that unique view.
But he’s able to find his own path by the conclusion, one that makes sense for him and opens up his world just a bit wider. It’s difficult to write about George’s development without spoiling, because a lot of his growth comes through confronting specific ugly things in his life. His eccentric persona feels natural, but it’s also a mask. His friends understand the most: George buries himself in creation to ignore that ugliness. But he has an enviable life, enviable talents and the opportunity to do great things with both. He mostly needs some knocks on the head to not waste what he has and to stop being such a prick.
One other striking element of Paradise Kiss is its aesthetic. It’s built much like a grounded teen drama: urban environments, very little background music (and when it does show up, it’s only in places that make sense), and a style of editing that makes each episode feel more like a set of intertwining vignettes than separate, concrete stories. It’s an interesting style that works well for the show. Admittedly I was thrown off at the beginning of the show because it establishes an entirely different pace compared to most anime. Even the comedic timing struck me as odd. But it grew on me hugely as the series developed.
This presentation style goes a long way toward humanizing the Paradise Kiss crew. Many people upon seeing these students would judge them immediately based on appearance. They’re not particularly outrageous people, though. They work hard, they have their own dreams and they forge their own paths but also help each other out. They have the typical flaws of youth (look at this 26-year-old asshole writing shit like that), but they’re ultimately good people. The evenhanded tone of Paradise Kiss doesn’t sensationalize them.
Maybe you’re wondering why this isn’t a live-action series, then? Well, it’s because, I think, this subject works much better in animation. I sneaked a peek at the Paradise Kiss live-action movie and thought it looked largely ridiculous. Maybe I’m judging harshly. None of the fashion in the Madhouse animated series looks ridiculous, though. The colors pop. The characters wear the clothing well; they become different people, comfortable in the skin they’ve created for themselves. I can’t imagine the big dress Yukari wears at the end looks anything but silly in live action. Here? It’s pretty fuckin’ amazing. The style — like the characters have stepped straight from the pages of a fashion designer’s art book — is just better animated.
And, of course, the ED is the best.