I started watching Paradise Kiss, an adaption of beloved artist Ai Yazawa’s josei manga, with somewhat academic motives. As I’m doing a senior project on Japanese street fashion and Lolita, I wanted to see how the show explored the fashion subculture. I got that and so much more with this emotional coming of age story. Yukari “Caroline” Hayasaka is an average student at a top high school in Tokyo whose world is changed when she is scouted by local fashion students to model for their upcoming show. She falls in with the eccentric bunch at the Paradise Kiss studio, facing challenges, finding friendships as well as romantic drama with the studio’s charismatic designer Joji “George” Koizumi, and ultimately learning how to be her own person

A Believably Colorful World

Believable qualities are going to be a theme for this review, because Paradise Kiss really excelled at this. The world of the fashion students certainly has an almost magical allure, but it makes sense experiencing it from the point of view of Yukari, a girl who has lived a rather mundane life. The studio’s crew can definitely be outlandish, but it’s rarely flamboyant just for the sake of it.

Realistic Characters

In short, the characters act like real people. I’m not sure I realized how rare this is for anime until I watched Paradise Kiss. Yukari can be frustrating to watch at times on account of her decision making skills and mood swings, but she acts very much like a teenage girl who has never been on her own, and she grows up in a real way. Even George doesn’t seem like a caricature of the artistic type. He’s ridiculous, selfish, and arrogant, but he does have some deep seeded issues that make him quite sympathetic. The fashion world is not without it’s flaky, temperamental, and loud inhabitants. George is a reflection of this. The characters who could have been played as flat or merely comic relief - studio members Miwako, Arashi, and Isabella - also have fleshed out personalities.

Maturity

Paradise Kiss tackles some mature themes, namely the anxiety and emotions associated with one’s first sexual experience. The amazing thing is that it’s played completely straight. This is an anime with some rather explicit sexual content, but zero fanservice.

Stunning Visuals

You would hope a show revolving around avant-garde fashion design would have some impressive art, and fortunately it delivers on this front. The character designs are gorgeous, and look nearly identical to Ai Yazawa’s art. The fashion itself is a feast for the eyes, including both the characters’ street clothes and the Paradise Kiss creations. One of the coolest things for me was Miwako’s constantly changing wardrobe. She is usually wearing styles from specific J-fashion subcultures, including Lolita and Fairy Kei.

Bookends

Paradise Kiss has one of the best openings and endings I’ve ever seen. From the pounding, heady, and cosmopolitan feel of “Lonely in Gorgeous” to the super fun “Do You Want To?” by Franz Ferdinand, the choice of OP and ED really fit the show. I never skipped over either, and in fact I looked forward to them every episode.

Sidelined Characters

There isn’t a main character in Paradise Kiss who isn’t interesting, but a few of them felt a bit forgotten in the grand scheme of things. I would have liked to have seen more exploration of Isabella, the transgender group mother figure. She gets a very touching backstory in one episode, but otherwise she can seem like an afterthought in the rest of the series. The same goes to some extent for Arashi, Miwako’s punk rocker boyfriend who despite his looks, is often the voice of reason.

Expert Emotional Manipulation

This should be a credit to Ai Yazawa and the show creators, so it’s not truly a bad point. George’s character is so well done that the viewer ends up getting pushed around by him right along with everyone else. Look, he is a terrible person. And a terrible boyfriend! The writing for his character keeps pulling Yukari and us back for more, though. It’s exciting but makes you want to reach into the TV and shake him sometimes. If I had a dollar for every time Dyram said “fuck you, George!” I would have about seven dollars.

Paradise Kiss is something special. Just watch it. I can’t do justice to how emotionally compelling the story and characters were, in such a beautifully nuanced way that didn’t slip into melodrama. Even if you would normally never touch a “girly” demographic with a ten foot pool, give Paradise Kiss a chance and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.