Source: Ai Yazawa, Paradise Kiss: 20th Anniversary Edition
By: Beata Garrett | @clearsummers
Oh boy, Ai Yazawa has done it again. I’m always fascinated by how Yazawa depicts relationships and the incredibly messy emotional entanglements and issues her couples go through. I read the Paradise Kiss: 20th Anniversary Omnibus Edition, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and it did not disappoint on this end. Of course, the messy couple at the forefront of this manga is George and Yukari, but Arashi and Miwako have a rather messy and unhealthy relationship themselves.
Paradise Kiss follows Yukari, a high schooler who meets a group of fashion students that recruit her to be their model for an upcoming school contest. She’s reluctant at first but soon gets won over by the gang’s leader, George. George is charismatic, eccentric, and the two soon enter into a relationship. Although their physical attraction is great, their personalities cause many cracks to appear as they butt heads over almost everything. Paradise Kiss is also about searching for independence as an adolescent, walking your own path, and the bittersweet innocence of youth and romance.
Source: Stage 14, Paradise Kiss
Paradise Kiss is great because it deconstructs the idea of easy and true romance in multiple ways. George is presented as a prince but it’s made clear that he’s only providing a brief respite for Yukari’s problems (her dissatisfaction with her mother, school, etc.) by taking her away from them. He does it physically as we often see him picking her up and driving her in his car and actually invites her to live with him at one point when she runs away from home.
Source: Stage 23, Paradise Kiss
Emotionally, he also provides a respite but his own ambition and her role in them makes him less of a haven as time goes on. Honestly, it felt as if he was a brother or father at some points berating her for talking about her issues with him and both Yukari and the reader realize that he has an ideal woman whom Yukari just cannot be…let alone any other woman.
At one point, Yukari is venting to George about her turbulent relationship with her mother. George listens to her but doesn’t understand why Yukari is complaining about her mom. He tells Yukari, “Poor mom, having her daughter lie to her then say such hateful things about her […] Either you have to study because your parents are nagging you about it, or you blame me for manipulating you into not studying. Do you mean you have no free will?” (Stage 14, Paradise Kiss). He goes further and articulates that there’s a fundamental incompatibility between the two as they are now:
Source: Stage 14, Paradise Kiss
This was the moment that made me realize George and Yukari’s relationship was doomed. Yukari vents to George because that’s what she truly needs as a young girl who has no friends and a difficult home life: someone to lend her a sympathetic ear and to reassure her. However, George has no interest in being that person. He’s busy with his own goals and doesn’t have the patience to consider things from other people’s perspectives. I would argue that he lacks some sort of emotional intelligence as his bluntness betrays his inability to understand what his romantic partner needs.
Other characters who know George point this out. A fellow student named Kaori who recently came back from studying abroad tells him, “You’re fine as a friend, but not as a boyfriend” (Stage 45, Paradise Kiss). There are strong hints of attraction between the two and in many ways, Kaori represents George’s ideal, independent woman whom he greatly admires as an artist too. However, she notes that there can be nothing between them because even crying will lead to him being disappointed by her. His response shows that even George knows his ideal woman is a fantasy, but what does that mean for him and Yukari, then?
Source: Stage 45, Paradise Kiss
While it would be easy to villainize George and hail Yukari as the innocent, George is right at points. The most valuable advice he gives Yukari is nailing it into her head over and over that she has her own free will and agency to make choices about her life. While it can ring hollow at points as this is coming from a rich boy, it is true nonetheless.
Source: Stage 33, Paradise Kiss
There’s also a fascinating commentary on gender norms in dating and how it negatively affects a relationship. Yukari often waits for George to call her but after a week of not talking to each other, George tells her, “You never bothered to call me, either” (Stage 33, Paradise Kiss). Yukari’s instantly defensive and it emphasizes the tricky power dynamics in their relationship. In Yukari’s eyes, she’s always waiting for him while he remains undisturbed by her and her desire for him. And while it appears that way to her, the reader gets glimpses into how special Yukari is for him. But, and this is wonderful, that doesn’t mean they’re right for each other.
As Yukari begins her career in modeling, she has to make many decisions that set her against her mom’s wishes. It’s great to watch her grow with George as a motivating force but still feel that it truly is her making many of the decisions. As she gains independence in other aspects of her life, she begins reflecting on her relationship with George and what it truly means to her as a person and partner. Near the end of the manga, she realizes their relationship has exhausted her and that it can’t last:
Source: Stage 44, Paradise Kiss
This is where the bittersweet aspect comes in. Because, in the end, the two wisely decide to break up. Not just because their jobs are taking them to different places as George is moving to Paris while Yukari stays in Japan, but because they don’t fit together. At one point, Yukari wonders why they can’t make the relationship work when so many other people do it, and it’s made clear that neither of them are what the other needs. One of their friends remarks that George needs someone who will follow him and Yukari has never just done this despite wanting to fit his ideal. She’s a complex person who struggles to conform to what George wants but also to remain true to herself and fight against it. She grows in ways that challenges their relationship and is the person who has developed the most at the end of it.
Source: Stage 48, Paradise Kiss
The ending is one of my favorite manga endings. It’s a beautiful reminder that you can spend time with a person, appreciate that time, and leave with good memories. As George leaves for Paris, he gives Yukari a key to a storage room that has all the outfits he’s made over the years. George may not have fully expressed how much Yukari means to him in their goodbye, but this act says everything that needs to be said. While there was turmoil and the couple ultimately split up (with Yukari marrying someone else years later), their memories and feelings for one another remain in the clothing George gives to Yukari.
Paradise Kiss is not faultless, but I truly admire Yazawa’s ability to juggle such a difficult romantic relationship. George and Yukari are complicated individuals who brought out the best and the worst in one another over the course of their time together, but neither take the full blame. It’s very easy to write one person in the relationship as the villain and harder to do bad romance like Yazawa does it.
Paradise Kiss will always have a place in my heart and I highly recommend Yazawa’s other manga, NANA, for those interested in reading more of her work.