Judge Geoffrey Miller got in touch with his feminine side watching this girly anime. Does this review make him look fat?
"Past the hustle and bustle of everyday life is a stairway leading to an underground sanctuary. The air is thick with what smells like Chinese pastries, and from behind a door painted hot pink, I can hear the hysterical warbling of someone singing. The place was like their hideout, and they called it 'the studio.'"
I've seen a lot of anime in my time, from the established classics (Akira, Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion) to the lowest trash imaginable (see my dossier for examples). But if there's one anime sub-genre I've stayed away from, it's shoujo, the soppy romantic dreck (with occasional detours into "magical girl" nonsense, such as the ever-popular Sailor Moon) aimed at Japanese schoolgirls.
Shoujo sucks for a very simple reason: Anime romance sucks. It is bloodless, awkward, unrealistic. It's not unusual for a pair of would-be lovers (whether they be the main plot or a sub-plot) to not do so much as kiss until the last episode. From what little shoujo I've seen, it's that same pattern, except with the melodrama cranked up to 11.
Paradise Kiss is shoujo, and its premise is a recipe for pain. Yukari Hayasaka is an 18-year-old girl whose life revolves around studying and cramming to get into a good university, mainly at the bequest of her overbearing mother. One day, she's scouted by a fashion design student and asked to become a model. Initially reluctant, she eventually agrees, finding a new passion that overrides her studies and falling for a prodigious fashion designer. As unpromising as it sounds on paper, Paradise Kiss is, in execution, a pleasant surprise.
Paradise Kiss, Vol. 1 contains four episodes (out of a total of
Yukari is in many ways the epitome of the average teenage girl, but she's an unusually bright and self-aware one. From her introduction, lost in thought while reading Catcher in the Rye, through her decision to join with the Paradise Kiss fashion design group and model for them, she exudes a feisty intelligence. It's difficult to imagine this girl acquiescing to her domineering mother's demands for long, and she doesn't, soon ignoring her studies to concentrate on modeling.
To say that Paradise Kiss is about fashion or love would be only partially correct; it's really about Yukari coming of age. So it's a good thing that she's an instantly appealing character. You'll be rooting for her right from the beginning. When she starts to question the emptiness of the path her mother has laid out for her, we want her to break free and find happiness on her own. When she gets involved with the talented but suspiciously enigmatic George, we're worried she's getting in too deep, too fast. Yukari is an easy protagonist to identify with because she isn't just an 18-year-old Japanese schoolgirl; she's an 18-year-old, period, with all the universal fears, anxieties, and dreams we experience at that age.
Of course, Paradise Kiss is still deeply rooted in fashion, but not necessarily the sort of catwalk-strutting fare you might expect. It's a little bit kawaii and a little bit rock'n'roll, mixing up the latest Japanese styles (like the ones popularized by Harajuku girls) with Western sensibilities. There's a lot '70s glam androgyny going on; it's not mere West-meets-East cross-marketing synergy that the ending theme is Franz Ferdinand's Bowie-biting "Do You Want To." There are lots of "girls who are boys, who like boys to be girls" here, as Blur might put it.
The show has a unique sense of style in and of itself. Its washed-out colors and hyper-realistic character designs have become quite common in anime, but the frequent flights into fantasy are an unlikely twist. Yukari's internal monologues are often accompanied by surreal little vignettes that peek into her brain. Paradise Kiss is too grounded in reality and conventional narrative to go as far out as say, FLCL (though the ending sequence is directed its animation director, Hiroyuki Imaishi), but it does things the average shoujo certainly wouldn't (like juxtapose chibi characters against an ukiyo-e backdrop).
There are still problems, of course. A few too many hard-to-believe soap opera-esque coincidences rear their heads. Some of the dialogue is infused with a little bit too much of Dawson's Creek-esque precociousness. The frequent scene transitions—horizontal wipes (with accompanying "swoosh!" sound effect) adorned with pastel-colored animals—are like Kurosawa after a bad acid trip. It also would have been nice to see more of Yukari's home life and interactions with her mother, which are hinted at and alluded to but only shown very briefly.
The disc is a quality production, with an anamorphic widescreen transfer and an agreeable dub (with a script that tops the more accurate subtitle translation). There's a decent assortment of extras, including some behind-the-scene featurettes originally for Japanese TV, commercial spots, an art gallery, and a DVD-ROM preview of the manga.
I'm not a teenage Japanese girl, so Paradise Kiss clearly isn't aimed at me. But I don't need to be in the target demographic to recognize that it's a cut above the average shoujo. Despite making concessions to its genre's conventions, it is unusually complex, mature, and daring. With so much anime lacking in inspiration these days, hopefully some of its panache will prove both motivational and instructive.
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