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"Paradise Kiss" Preview - Because You've Grown Out Of Batons And Into Vuitton

ImageAnime and manga in the US all too often gets grouped into at best a handful of categories, and at worst, two: shonen and shojo. As such, a lot of folks would say Paradise Kiss is a great shojo title. However, it’s a bit misleading to say that. Not the great part, as Paradise Kiss is one of the best anime released this year in the US, but the shojo part. Those expecting Cardcaptor Sakura or Full Moon Wo Sagashite, or even something a little more subtle like Aishiteruze Baby or Kodocha are going to be disappointed. Paradise Kiss is a great josei title – a contemporary, witty drama about a high school romance set against a high-fashion backdrop, so little kids aren’t at all going to be enamored of it, but that’s fine as josei titles are aimed at teenage girls and young women, and for that audience it works wonderfully. In fact, if you’re a teenager or a twenty-something who has ever experienced a crush – male or female – I’d be surprised if this anime title didn’t resonate with you at least little.

Paradise Kiss starts off by introducing us to the series’ heroine, Yukari Hayasaka, a very straight-laced and almost bitter senior in High School. She’s making her way to cram school one day when Arashi, a young man dressed in the old UK punk-rock style, suddenly stops Yukari to compliment on her looks, raving about how she’d be perfect for something. Yukari panics and tries to make a run for it, but she ultimately runs into one of Arashi’s friends, Isabella, a very, very tall person who looks like a woman, and Yukari faints at that point. She awakes in an odd room, greeted by, Miwako, a perky girl with Imagecotton candy pink hair, and for half-a-moment, Yukari believes she’s died and gone to heaven… until she spots Arashi and Isabella. Turns out those three folks are students at the Yazawa Arts fashion school, and their reason for being interested in Yukari is that she’s so good-looking she would be the perfect model for an upcoming fashion show/final test. Of course, a stick in the mud like Yukari won’t have any of that nonsense, and proceeds to book it, but she drops her address book in the process. Well, she finally realizes said loss when she’s back at school, so she figures she’s stuck going back to the student’s fashion studio. However, it looks like she won’t have to get there by train, as a dashing and dandy young man by the name of George Koizumi is waiting out in front of her school in a vintage Jaguar, ready to take her to the studio and to her notebook… sort of. First, he takes her to the fashion school, and gets her a hair cut courtesy of one his friends, and boy, it does make a difference – it’s not an everyday style, but on her it works wonderfully. It’s at that point George finally takes Yukari back to the studio, gives her the notebook she had been looking for and makes a proposal: she has three days to decide whether she wants to be their model. Cue the most perfect ED theme I’ve heard in years courtesy of Franz Ferdinand and roll the credits.

From there, it becomes a story of the growing romance between Yukari and George, the trials of getting the right materials, designing and making the dress and Yukari’s slow but sure realization that maybe just being blindly academic isn’t all she wants from life. Of course, Yukari’s mom isn’t happy about it, going so far as to slap her daughter by the end of the last episode on the disc, and Yukari’s mom doesn’t even know half of what’s been going on. I don’t even want to know what going to happen when she finds out Yukari is dating a smooth operator like George. All in all, it looks like it’s going to be one heck of an interesting and exhilarating romance for young Yukari, and yet a surprisingly believable one at that.

In fact, everything about the Paradise Kiss world: the color choices, the character design, the character interactions and personalities, the backgrounds and even the props, have a certain realism about that is beyond fantastic, though not flawless.

ImageVisually, Paradise Kiss is definitely on par with a lot of other visually realistic manga adaptations that Madhouse has done. Any one familiar with Madhouse’s work on Beck and/or Gunslinger Girl can expect the same level of visual acuity and realism. The backgrounds evoke the quality of work Madhouse put forth on the film Tokyo Godfathers, and it shares that muted and realistic palette. It also perfectly captures Ai Yazawa’s visual style on Paradise Kiss – the same crisp lines are in use, the design of the outfits is dead on, and perhaps most impressively still, they worked out how to make her particular style move nicely. They even worked out how to pop between Ai Yawawa’s realistic designs and her comedic designs. However, like with Beck and Gunslinger Girl, there are few glitches that stand out in Paradise Kiss. The animation is usually quite smooth, but the mouth movement does read a little stiffly at points (though that could be a side-effect of the stretched. 4:3 aspect ratio of the screener copy – when manually corrected to 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, it wasn’t that noticeable) and there seems to be some rotoscoping in the crowd scenes, though at least it gives those scenes some depth and movement compared to other anime.

When it comes to the execution of the story and the quality of adaptation, it’s a similar story to the visuals. The interplay between the various characters, and the willingness of the director to not pull any punches when it comes to the serious and mature aspects of the story (these aren’t fake teenagers – when they are in a relationship, they actually make love to each other, occasionally in places that aren’t what one would call standard such as a pool table in an atelier) is really quite unusual, or at the very least, it’s part of a relatively recent trend of keeping away from pulling punches when adapting a manga. That frankness and realism is welcome, and in general, it keeps a lot of what made the original manga so unique and fresh compared to it’s contemporaries at the time. However, it ends up dropping most of the fourth-wall breaking, self-referential humor that gave the original manga an extra bit of levity and sharpness. It’s not that the comedy is entirely removed, it’s just only in play when it’s not breaking with realism. Thankfully, Yukari’s occasional but hilarious daydreams are kept in, and they are handled wonderfully, allowing a little outright Looney Tunes-type “gravity doesn’t exist until you take notice”-style comedy in an otherwise straight up drama.

ImageHowever, even though the Japanese staff did a great job writing and animating Paradise Kiss, I’m not so sure I’m sold on the English voice cast and general English adaption. Bang Zoom is definitely one of the better Los Angeles-area studios, but somehow Paradise Kiss feels a little flat in the dub. Even the mix feels a little dry, and it seems that the music is brought down much too noticeably when the characters speak over it, like the compression on the mix was too heavy or the engineer was being over-zealous on the levels. Granted, part of the mix issue might be chalked up to the fact that it is a screener copy and the fact the Japanese VAs are recording in a multi-person studio which is going to add just a small amount of reverb-coloring on the voice whereas the English VAs are in single person booths with effectively no reflectivity or reverberation coloring the vocals. However, considering you have characters in rooms that are definitely going to have a certain degree of reverb to them, it’s jarring to have something that is pushing towards visual realism but sorta lacks that aurally. Beyond that, little choices in the translation are annoying, such as using the word “studio” instead of the world “atelier,” in spite of the fact that the original Japanese dialogue said “atelier” and that the word “atelier” is used in English. Part of what make Paradise Kiss work is the lingo, and even in Japanese, the terms used were exactly what fashion students would use, so to have it a little dumbed down at points is disheartening. On the whole, it’s listen-able as certain cast members were pretty solid, and I suspect that even if this is the finalized audio, most people won’t notice any issues with it. It’s just cloying when you know some of the VAs and the studio itself can and have done much better work previously.

ImageBesides, even though the mix and casting isn’t great, the music used is. The opening theme, “Lonely in Gorgeous” by Tommy february6, is catchy and toe-tapping, exuding a feeling somewhere between modern J-Pop, Daft Punk and Rod Stewart in his “Do You Think I’m Sexy” disco-era. It will get stuck in your head for days, trust me. The end theme is a real treat too, as “Do You Want To,” a cut from Franz Ferdinand’s second album You Could Have It So Much Better, is not only a rare instance of popular Western music being used in an anime, but perhaps the most fitting usage I’ve heard since “Country Roads” turned up in Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart, or at least since Madhouse Animation’s last notable use of Western music, namely using The Delgados’ “Light Before We Land” as the OP for Gunslinger Girl. I mean, it’s just eerie how well “Do You Want To” fits with theme of Paradise Kiss: it’s almost like you could have had George singing the song it fits his character so well. Better still, every episode on the screener perfectly segued into “Do You Want To” – truely a wonderful piece of direction and timing. Better still, the rest of the music hits the right notes too – the dramatic reprises of “Lonely In Gorgeous” and the quick fragments of punk rock manage to really accentuate and complete the tone of Paradise Kiss, resulting in some of the most enchanting music direction in an anime I’ve heard in a while.

I guess to sum it up, a quote might be in order:

“When I woke up tonight I said
‘I’m gonna make somebody love me.
I’m gonna make somebody love me.’
And now I know, now I know, now I know,
I know that it’s you!
You’re lucky lucky, you’re so lucky!”

-Franz Ferdinand, “Do You Want To”

I think if you’re into romance anime, Paradise Kiss – between the forbidden romance and it’s blend of Cinderella-storytelling and real-world interactions – is going to make you love it. It won me over at least.

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