Paradise Kiss / Paradaisu Kiss
Yukari is a typical cram-schooling attending high school senior whose entire livelihood is devoted to her studies. However, an unexpected encounter on the streets will suddenly transport her into a foreign landscape. Unwillingly pulled into the world of high fashion, glamour, and romance, Yukari struggles to find her footing. And as she gains new and completely different experiences, meets new friends, and even falls in love, she must also overcome her conflicting self-identity and discover her true purpose in life.
Paradise Kiss is a shoujo drama/romantic comedy anime based on the shoujo manga of the same name and created by Ai Yazawa (probably better known for her latest manga, Nana). It is a refreshing, albeit somewhat transparent look into the fast paced world of fashion and "avant-garde" culture, as well as being a coming of age story involving teenage rebellion and identity crisis. It is funny, yet somewhat touching; outlandish in its presentation and yet down to earth in its message. And while its roots don't dig particularly deep, it manages to entertain us with its unique style, if not necessarily leaving us with a lasting impression.
Told from Yukari's perspective, the story is based upon her transformation from a shy but hard-working student to a confident and popular fashion model. As such, each episode is peppered with her inner monologue, which serves a bridge between the viewers and what's happening on screen. This method of storytelling certainly helps the viewer better understand Yukari's character, though it obviously narrows the perspective. This is not to say the other characters aren't important as nothing could be further from the truth. Yukari’s new-found friends and acquaintances are all interesting; albeit somewhat "stock" characters. George, for instance, is cool and arrogant yet shows genuine care towards Yukari, who he seemingly falls in love with. Miwako, despite her age, has an adorable childish demeanor while Arashi, who at first glance seems like a loud-mouthed-walking-punk-metal cliché, actually enjoys sewing and fashion design. Then there's Isabella, a high-class lady who acts as a mother figure, but isn't exactly a lady at all. In fact, it's really these characters and Yukari's interaction with them that drives the show from start to finish. This is definitely a show which is almost completely dependent upon the characters rather than the storyline itself.
The shows sense of fashion is also one of its main attractions. In each episode, we see the main characters wearing some varied and stylish clothing, from modern to retro designs to everything in-between. The designs themselves are colorful and attractive, and give the show a unique look and feel. The creators have definitely done their research as the fashion design is what sets this series apart from similar shows in this genre.
The art and animation are somewhat of a mixed bag however, and definitely not one of the best productions from Madhouse (the studio behind previous works such as Perfect Blue, Trigun, X-TV, and Metropolis). While the art itself is detailed and colorful, the actual animation is a little disappointing in that there isn't really very much of it. A lot of the scenes have very little movement and the director seems to have a habit of cutting away to stills rather than finish animating the ends of certain scenes. While the animation itself isn't exactly necessarily bad (the stills are in fact very detailed and beautiful and there are brief moments in which the animation is fun and lively), it seems more attention could have been put into making the animations smoother and more fluid. It's somewhat of a shame that such excellent art design is put to waste via generally uninspired animation work. The sound however, is overall very well done with some superb voice acting both on the original Japanese track and the English language track. In fact, the dubbing impressed me right away and despite a few weak points, is definitely one the best I've ever heard. Just as impressive is the show's music, from the techno J-pop opener "Lonely in Gorgeous" by Tommy february6 to the pop rock ending theme "Do You Want To" performed by the popular Scottish band Franz Ferdinand.
Paradise Kiss is definitely an embodiment of modern "pop" culture and as such deals with many issues including teenage identity crisis, the complexities of romance, and the importance of self-exploration. Yukari, despite being a hard-working student, finds that her life is rather empty and monotonous. In fact, her personality goes into complete disarray when she meets the four fashion students, and soon to be new friends, from Yazagaku. Her struggle to find real purpose in her life is certainly an experience that many viewers can relate to and understand wholeheartedly as is her rebellion against her strict mother. Through her relationship with George, we can also see that love and romance isn't quite as simple and straightforward as we think, and doesn't always end up the way we imagine it will. And Yukari's personal transformation shows that who we are now isn't necessarily who we should be or who we want to be.
Unfortunately, the show suffers from a storyline that moves so slowly, we wonder if it's going anywhere at all. In fact, there is probably more story covered in the last few episodes than in all the previous episodes combined. This naturally leads to the ending feeling a little rushed and out of place. And despite the excellent characters, the story itself leaves much to be desired. Many of our lingering questions, for instance concerning Yukari's attraction to George or Yukari's relationship with Hiroyuki, are never answered. Not to mention we don't really get a good sense of closure. What little story we do get seems somewhat superficial and secondary in importance to the pretty dresses and stylish fashions we see on screen. If there is a lingering issue with Paradise Kiss, it's that the eye candy seems more important than the actual plot (which is fairly unusual in a shoujo series). This is why the anime often feels somewhat shallow, soulless and transparent much like the advertisements we would see in fashion magazines. Finally, the show just seems a little too short. We simply don't spend enough time with the characters to really get to know them. Yes, the characters are interesting and pretty well developed for a 12-episode series, but somehow it feels that the anime should have been 24 episodes long instead.
Yet despite its brevity or emphasis of style over substance, Paradise Kiss is nevertheless an enjoyable anime that is definitely unique in its look and style. It certainly has its share of ups and downs, but there is a lot to like here especially for those who want something a little different from the norm. It's certainly not a show for everyone and those who are just interested in your typical genre entertainment should probably look elsewhere.