There was an underground space located on a winding side street away from the main road. A mysterious sweet scent, like pastries in a Chinese shop, drifted outward. The walls were painted shocking pink, and wild music echoed inside. Inside there was an old bar and pool table and three large sewing machines. They called this hide-out their ‘atelier’.
Yukari Hayakawa is a high school girl studying hard for examinations and is on her way to cram school when she’s approached by a flamboyant couple of art students. It seems she’s just the person they’ve been looking for to be their new model! And so, Yukari (or Caroline/Carrie as they nickname her) is introduced to the atelier of Paradise Kiss, a fashion label the group of students are working on together. Yukari is at first surprised (she’s never considered modelling as a career) then torn between being flattered and overwhelmed by the free spirits that make up Paradise Kiss: pink-haired, cute (and petite) Miwako; punk Arashi with his piercings, Miwako’s boyfriend; elegant transgender Isabella, the gifted pattern cutter for the group, and the charismatic and self-styled bisexual George (Jouji) who designs the clothes. Resistant and sceptical at first, Yukari finds herself falling under George’s spell and being drawn further and further away from the conventional career path her parents have planned for her. Torn between the glamorous world of the fashion students at Yaza Arts College and the increasing demands of the examination curriculum and her parents, Yukari begins to make unexpected choices as a new career beckons. And then there’s George. The talented (and he knows it) capricious and attractive young designer sweeps Yukari off her feet; before she knows it, she’s hopelessly smitten – even though she’s sensible enough to keep questioning why. To add to the complications, Hiroyuki, a fellow high school student whom Yukari was crushing on, turns out to be a childhood friend of Miwako and Arashi and is harbouring unresolved feelings for Miwako. What’s Yukari to do? Abandon her stultifying – but safe – daily routine for the uncertain but exciting world of fashion, even if it means being rejected by her parents?
Mangaka Ai Yazawa is best known in the West for Paradise Kiss and the effervescent NANA, both titles being made into popular anime TV series and live action films. What’s surprising is how fresh and relevant this manga is, even twenty years on – surprising because it’s set in the world of fashion in which everything is about ‘now’ (only the cellphones look a little dated). The main reason it’s still such a fresh and engaging read is Ai Yazawa’s stylish and influential art, coupled with a vivid cast of characters and an engaging, witty writing style that frequently breaks the fourth wall, such as when Yukari, offered a lift by George in his new sports car, learns that he’s only just passed his test and he reassures her breezily, “It’s all right. We can’t be killed off in the 2nd chapter.” Yukari is an endearing heroine: strong-minded (even though she thinks she isn’t) self-critical, sceptical at first about Paradise Kiss and then suddenly swept up into the excitement and creative buzz generated by the four young artists. She’s certainly no pushover – and it’s hard not to sympathize with her as she struggles to decide for herself what she really wants to do with her life, while being pulled in so many different directions. The dialogue (ably translated by Maya Rosewood) sparkles, making it an engrossing read as the reader is drawn into Yukari’s predicament.
And then there’s the wonderful graphic art. The series was first published in Zipper, a fashion magazine (which also turns up in the story, merging fact and fiction again) and the mangaka jokily names the art college Yazawa Arts. Ai Yazawa presents her readers with a dazzling range of images. She can do comic or cute chibi, if necessary (especially when Yukari is having a meltdown) but she uses a striking variety of different panels to tell the story and her distinctive character designs owe something to the decadent style of Aubrey Beardsley and art nouveau. Miwako (and her older sister designer Mikako) appeared in Ai Yazawa’s earlier manga series Gokinjo Monogatari/Neighbourhood Story 1995-8 (never published in English) and it’s fascinating seeing the cover art and realizing how much the mangaka’s style changed in that short time.
This 20th Anniversary edition from Vertical Inc. is a very welcome release, eight years after they brought out their licence rescue (in three volumes). The first US edition was from TokyoPop in the early noughties and came out in five volumes. So; five-in-one? This is one hefty paperback book – and even though it’s been well bound and the pages turn easily, it’s not easy to read unless you have a lectern handy! We’re treated to eight gorgeous colour plates, including one of ‘the’ dress that Yukari is engaged to model. And, as in more recent shojo/josei manga dealing with the fickle world of fashion (Princess Jellyfish comes to mind) there’s a good dose of realism injected into what could so easily have been a fluffy wish fulfilment tale. If you’ve never read Paradise Kiss before, you’re in for a treat – and even if you read this josei classic back in the day, Vertical’s new edition is the ideal way to revisit the series.