Content Consideration: Discussion of toxic relationships.
Spoilers for the Paradise Kiss manga, anime, and live-action film.
Paradise Kiss is the work of Yazawa Ai, known as the queen of josei manga, and is perhaps her best-known series alongside the epic-but-unfinished Nana. It’s also one of manga’s greatest coming-of-age stories, following a studious teenager who gets roped into modeling by a group of fashion students and finds something she feels passionate about for the first time in her life. The deceptively simple story cuts straight to the heart, and its exploration of gendered issues has held up shockingly well in the 25 years since its initial publication.
Its enduring popularity has led to multiple reprints of the original work, as well as both an anime and live-action film adaptation. Sadly, the subsequent versions of the story erode the focus on the protagonist’s agency that make the original so special, serving as a prime example of how different framings can tell the same plot and lose all of the effectiveness.
Key to protagonist Hayasaka Yukari’s journey is her relationship with Koizumi George, the visionary designer who drew the other members of the Paradise Kiss label together. Theirs is a tempestuous relationship with extreme highs and lows. Yukari embraces her inner strength and chooses a professional career as a model with George’s frank and unfettered presence beside her, and George confronts the emotional vulnerability he’d hidden behind a flirtatious, flighty exterior. But they bring out the worst in one another too, with miscommunications growing into huge fights or digs into old wounds.
Their relationship troubles come to a head beginning in the penultimate volume, when ParaKiss introduces Kaori, a friend of George’s who had been away studying abroad. Everything about her screams “protagonist of a shoujo manga”: she has a short, practical haircut compared to the long or ornate hairstyles of other women in the series; she’s a scholarship student at a fashion school noted to be loaded with nepotism; and she earned George’s genuine respect and interest after turning down his playboy advances. And when she hears the news that George might be giving up his dream of becoming a professional designer, she’s the one who comes running.
Kaori’s appearance sparks a familiar scenario, where the plucky heroine gives the male lead the unvarnished talking-to he needs in order to become a better person. Except, of course, that Kaori isn’t the protagonist of ParaKiss.
The impact of Kaori’s appearance is two-fold. First, the reader is forced to reassess the implicit biases of stories about “pure” heroines and shallow or “bitchy” rivals, because suddenly the person cast in the latter role is a character we’ve spent the entire story empathizing with. And second, Yukari must confront the fact that being George’s lover is not the same as being his partner. As Yukari sits silently through Kaori and George’s argument over his future, her internal monologue fires on all-cylinders: she chastises herself for acting jealous and cruel to Kaori because of her own insecurity, and eventually slides into wondering if George only sees her as a sex object.
Those worries grow, until on New Year’s the two manage to have a frank conversation. They admit that they’re both trying to make each other into an ideal rather than growing together as real people, and that they fight more often than they don’t. Though Yukari makes a last, half-hearted plea for them to work things out, neither is willing to give up their goals to follow the other person—and they’ve both grown enough to realize it would do nothing but make them unhappy.
In the end, they make the decision to go their separate ways, knowing that their lives were forever changed by their time together. George goes to New York with his childhood friend Isabella, for whom he’s been making gender-affirming clothes since they were small; and Yukari continues her modeling career in Japan, eventually finding a supportive husband in her one-time crush Hiroyuki.
Though Yukari has moved on, she keeps the important memory of that time in her heart. The final emphasis is on her growth from a teenager who shaped her identity based on her mother’s desires to a successful adult woman able to make hard choices without regrets.
It’s a perfect ending to a beautiful story that is rarely told in fiction: a relationship that was of life-changing importance for both parties, that both still look back on fondly, but that ultimately needed to end in order for them to keep growing as people. It’s a much more common story than people growing up to marry their childhood sweethearts, and yet the latter downright gluts the market by comparison.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the escapism of romance stories, but it feels important to value a story that—among the many things that keep it grounded in reality—reassures readers they aren’t broken if they had an impactful relationship but weren’t able to “make it work.” It also changes the ParaKiss manga from a love story to a coming-of-age story, with romance playing an impactful part of Yukari’s growth but not the be-all, end-all of it.
Which brings us to the anime adaptation of Paradise Kiss. The first eleven episodes are mostly a faithful adaptation of the first four volumes of the manga, and Yazawa Ai’s beautifully drawn fashion looks even more stunning in color. (It’s also accompanied by an absolutely kick-ass ending theme courtesy of Franz Ferdinand.)
But that leisurely pace leaves only one episode to adapt the fifth and final volume of the manga, which is both longer than the others and also contains most of ParaKiss’ most interesting development of its relationships (although not always successfully, particularly in the case of Miwako and Arashi).
With only 23 minutes to spare, episode 12 of the ParaKiss anime slashes the manga’s final volume down into a series of vignettes. Technically, all the same things happen: Kaori appears and causes a fight, George decides to go to Paris but leaves the clothes he designed behind as a gift, Yukari becomes a famous model, and she intends to see the Broadway show George designed costumes for on her honeymoon. But while the manga laid out the inevitable collapse of George and Yukari’s relationship, the anime frames it as a tragic parting filled with unresolved feelings, up to and including the implication that Yukari hasn’t gotten over him a full decade later.
Many of the scenes implicitly called into question in the manga are instead played for straightforward melodrama. During the fight with Kaori, almost the entirety of Yukari’s inner monologue is cut, with the exception of one line: “He was always relaxed and smiling in front of me. Why didn’t you tell me anything?” The storyboards also elect to hold on to a nearly still close-up of Yukari’s face for most of the conversation, a visual coding of isolation that is both related to and yet completely opposite from the manga, which instead zooms out to make Yukari look small and fragile, a frozen doll in her own life.
It’s an apt metaphor: one shows us the entire conflict and Yukari’s inability to act in response to it; while the other obscures it, showing us Yukari’s face while shutting us out of her thoughts. In a sad and unintentional metaphor for the anime’s entire finale, we look at our heroine while only hearing about the man in her life.
The baffling “you’re almost there” can also be found in a later implicit sex scene. While manga Yukari tearfully wonders about the implications of George swearing he hadn’t slept with Kaori because she’s “not that kind of girl” (unlike the one currently in his bed), the anime has a brief flash of Yukari’s silhouette against a pinned butterfly on the wall. It’s a poignant image, given the butterfly’s recurrence as a motif throughout the story, but once again it comes at the expense of all of Yukari’s thoughts about her boyfriend’s Madonna/whore complex.
In fact, most of the finale isn’t about Yukari at all. It’s about George. We see, in full, his scenes of agonizing over his career choice, talking to his father, seeing Kaori off (though it also cuts a great deal of clarifying dialogue about Kaori not being interested in him), and crossing paths with a teacher. But Yukari is almost a non-entity in her own ending.
By the time the anime reaches the New Year’s break-up, all it has time to include is George saying he’s going to New York. When Yukari says she plans to stay in Japan, the scene closes on George affirming her choice—which, with all of the discussion leading up to it cut, makes his approval seem more important than her realization and decision.
There’s no acknowledgement of their now near-constant fighting. No recognition of the fact that Yukari initiated this open and honest conversation, finally taking charge of things and making a decision after feeling led around by George for the entire story. The anime chooses to erase the tale of a young woman learning to make hard but important decisions for her own good and reduces it to one about tragic lovers torn apart by circumstance and little more.
From there, the finale only has to trim a few more things: Yukari’s fiancee isn’t mentioned by name, nor is the fact that he’s all right with her continuing to wear the clothes she got from George. The flashes of her successes since high school are blips we see in passing, without any hint of her work on set or as a businesswoman.
We don’t even get to hear the lines in passing about the fact that she’s now thinking about how to transition out of being an active model as she nears her 30s, a poignant moment from the manga that showed how her growth as a person continues to help her even as she has to leave her dream career behind. The result of these changes is that the anime ends up being about a woman whose entire life has been consumed by a single love affair that lasted less than a year when she was a teenager.
As a manga, ParaKiss excelled in exploring how romantic love, to paraphrase another excellent series, is a potential part of someone’s life, not the terminus. The anime strips it of that nuance, reducing it to the tragedy of a woman who never got over her first boyfriend. The live-action adaptation took it even further, rewriting the ending entirely so that George and Yukari explicitly ended up together.
The repeated revisioning and subsequent watering-down of ParaKiss in popular culture embodies a kind of sexism that can be difficult to pin down and discuss compared to things like the issues in popular shounen titles. It isn’t a refusal to tell women’s stories, but a decision to tell them in a trite and marketable way under the assumption that the more complex story—including but not only about romance—wouldn’t be good enough to sell on its own.
It reflects the same dismissiveness as the comparative dearth of josei titles localized in English or adapted into anime. But the ParaKiss manga got to have the last laugh: all these years later, it’s the only version still in print.