It’s been said that genres are reading instructions. A book bearing the label science fiction earns certain exemptions of tone and content right out of the gate that a book labeled fantasy or romance or literary fiction does not. Romance is a label we associate freely with broad brushstrokes of emotion (e.g., hate-that-is-actually-love), coincidence, and a great many other things we’d only tolerate in small doses, if at all, in something not sporting that label.
In other words, a genre is a label for a specific kind of suspension of disbelief, and that may explain why many people turn their nose up at certain genres. Some people find the suspension of disbelief re: human behavior or motivation required for a romance to be far more absurd than the suspension of disbelief re: physical reality required for a fantasy, SF, or four-color comic story. I don’t believe this mechanism underlies all instances of why people snub a romance for something else, but it sure explains why many people never try out certain genres at all. They have evolved a certain discipline for their suspension of disbelief. They do not let themselves play outside of those strongly-painted lines.
It’s a shame, because within any genre there is always the possibility for happy accidents and lively discovery. Shojo manga, the whole subdivision of manga nominally intended for girls, has many titles with plenty of crossover appeal. Having a mainstream breakthrough experience with one of them doesn’t much increase the odds of the others following suit — the Dark Knight Trilogy hasn’t caused mainstream moviegoers to pick up too many Batman comics — but it can at the very least expose the reader to new territory. The very best of shojo manga has included some territory I might never have discovered on my own: Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, for instance, or Moto Hagio’s remarkable work that freely crossed between labels: romance here, fantasy there, science fiction at times, all of it remarkable.
Ai Yazawa’s Paradise Kiss starts and remains firmly in romance territory, but that doesn’t come to work against it. If anything, it ennobles the label. This is one of those stories where people who are a bit prickly on the outside but basically good on the inside learn how to selectively shed the eccentricities they used to keep the world at bay, and let someone else’s sunshine in. None of this comes without a few bumps, of course, and half the fun is watching the people in question hit those bumps and bang their heads on the ceiling.
Chief among them is Yukari Hayasaka, the high-school girl stuck in the tunnel vision so common to people her age. She’s cramming so frantically for her college entrance exams, everything else has temporarily ceased to exist — including any sense of where her life would go after all that folderol is over and done with. Anything that throws her out of her nice, comfortable little rut is bad news … such as being accosted on the street by some folks with outlandish clothing and ‘dos, and being told, hey, you’re really pretty, how’d you like to model for us? Yukari, not being born yesterday, immediately assumes something vile afoot, and spurns the bunch of them.
Well, she would have spurned the bunch of them, if she hadn’t stupidly left her school ID in their “Atelier”, or workshop / hangout space. It’s up to George, the lead designer for this group (the Paradise Kiss of the title), to lure Yukari back into their fold, kicking and screaming. She doesn’t think she has time for a bunch of oddballs who dork around with sewing machines, but a little of their company helps her realize they take their work quite seriously … and she really does look good in one of their outfits. She grows particularly close to Miwako, the baby of the bunch, whose bubbly cheer and little-girl mannerisms stand in stark contrast to George’s haughty, detached, and presumptuous attitude. (Such icy attitude is, as anyone who has read more than two romances in their life knows, merely a façade to be cracked open by the right girl.)
So far, so good. The pieces all seem to fit into the formula. Yukari is drawn to George while at the same time having her patience tested by him. Her attention drifts further from her studies, and from the goody-twoshoes life she’s been living up to this point. What comes next is more than a little surprising, though. At one point she is compelled to lie to her mother about what she’s been up to lately, and attempts to enlist George in the lie (as Mom would blow a gasket if she found out her daughter was spending time with a boy, let alone the likes of George).
Then comes one of the many little things that pushes the story that much further away from “romance” and that much closer to … well, not being hidebound by the label. Yukari discovers, to her stupefaction, that George isn’t going to lie for her sake. If she really wants to be an independent girl, as per all the noise she’s been making in such a direction, she needs to do it aboveboard and honestly. What’s the sense in “growing up” if you’re not going to do it all the way, and do it the right way? He makes this point not just once but many times, and soon she has a choice: she can either be a “good girl” (and a fake one at that), or an actual grownup who takes human relationships seriously. Yes, a grownup, like these odd folks in outlandish clothes who do take their adult responsibilities seriously even if they don’t look the part.
Another key element of Yukari’s maturation comes through when Miwako reveals herself to be part of a love triangle taking place in another part of Yukari’s life. Before Yukari got mixed up with George, she was attracted to a classmate, Hiroyuki — as nice and straight-laced as George is adventurous and provocative. Turns out Miwako was also fond of him, a while back, but time and happenstance intervened — and now Yukari wonders if she should try and hitch the two of them back up. It doesn’t quite work out like that, but the whole way Yukari makes the attempt is telling. She doubts herself to do the right thing by Miwako, but she tries anyway, and we see how a very good person lies under all the fluster and worry imposed upon her by the current moment of her life.
It took writing this entire review for me to find the right words for how Paradise Kiss may be labeled as a romance, but is a good deal more. A “mere” romance is just about love, but this story is about becoming worthy of being loved.