I’m going to start my discussion of the second and third volumes of Paradise Kiss with the sex scene in volume 2. Actually, there’s a couple of such scenes, but the one that comes most crucially to mind involves heroine Yukari and her lover / antagonist / homme fatale George. I mention it not as a way to denigrate the story, but entirely the opposite: if Paradise Kiss is able to take one of the hoariest, most stock components of any romance — the good-girl heroine losing her virginity to her bad-boy lover — and make it into a complex and nuanced story about whether or not the guy and the girl even deserve each other in the first place, or deserve something better than what they currently amount to.
So: the sex scene. Yukari and George, whose relationship in this series could be best described as “combative”, do finally share a bed. And unlike other romances, where sex is a balm that magically makes everything better, here it’s seen as the next of many additional complications in their relationship. They make love, with all the hesitance and ambivalence that real sex produces, and each discovers that there's something to the old adage "after sex, animal sadness". (Two other characters, Miwako and her boyfriend, are provided as a sort-of contrast: they have a healthy sex life, but over time we see that they, too, use it as a way to avoid discussing a whole passel of unsolved problems that exist between them.)
By the end of that chapter, Yukari has moved in with George. But there’s already a paradox brewing in their relationship: the closer they become, the more acutely Yukari senses that George resents dependency, loathes women who can’t do their own thing. It soon becomes clear why: his mother was, and is, like that, and at one point she meets her and has her freely admit as much to Yukari’s face. To become the kind of woman George would want, Yukari would have to become the kind of woman who wouldn’t want to be around him in the first place.
It’s this emotional rift — between them and within themselves — that pushes the third volume into the kind of territory that I wasn’t expecting to encounter. The further into it we go, the more Yukari sees (and the more we see) that love doesn’t add up to much if it comes on unacceptable terms, and that intimacy isn’t the same thing as empathy or shared understanding. You can sleep off a misunderstanding or a Tracy/Hepburn-style feud, but you can’t use the comforts of sex to transcend the very dependency that its presence entails. And as Yukari patches up her shaky relationship with her mother (the better to earn that woman’s blessing to work professionally as a model) and becomes more fearless in other ways, the more she sees being with George is a liability. That doesn’t make leaving him behind any less painful, though — and the way he handles her decision hints at what for him may be the first signs of real maturity, instead of simply emulating the same by setting standards no woman in his life could possibly meet.
With all of my focus on the very red and beating heart of this story, I almost neglected to mention the rest of its flesh. This isn’t a dour Bergman chamber drama, but a lively and splashy story that enjoys nudging the reader in the ribs every so often (most every chapter has at least one tongue-in-cheek breaking of the fourth wall), and remembers to surround George and Yukari with an electric milieu and a vivacious cast of supporting characters. My favorite remains Miwako, another member of George’s troupe whom Yukari becomes an actual friend to, and not simply a sounding board or support mechanism — all the more so as Miwako finds her lover, Arashi, has his own deep-seated insecurities that make anything beyond a frivolous relationship very difficult. I also liked Hiroyuki, a classmate of Yukari’s and a mutual friend of Miwako’s, who looks on from the sidelines and embodies exactly the sort of strength and gentle resilience of spirit that Yukari would benefit from if only she didn’t feel like depending on it would make her “weak”.
It’s not my style to second-guess the conclusion of the story, even one that unfolds along genre lines, and given that Paradise Kiss doesn’t follow genre lines to begin with, I had twice as little incentive to try and predict what happens. What we get is not the ending we want, but it is the ending that everyone, us included, does deserve. It is the tougher and more realistic ending, but it is also a more ennobling one: it gives everyone — Yukari and George, both — an opportunity to do the right things that they have not yet done, and make themselves into better people in the process. Normally at the end of a romance, I just want to shoot the happy couple off into the sunset and be done with them. These two end up in such a way that you feel proud for having known them, and for having walked in their shoes for a bit.
One of the first things you learn about manga (and anime, as well) is that they’re not genres but media — methods of expression rather than storytelling containers. Get past that, and soon you find that the genres themselves aren’t just storytelling containers either. They’re springboards and starting points — places where a story can begin with a set of ingredients and then become something more than just the sum of their parts. Paradise Kiss is like an anti-textbook example of how to create a romance, or how to start with that and end up with something far better in every respect.