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Off the Shelf: ParaChara!

Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with Melinda & Michelle! As always, I’m joined by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.

Once again, the Manga Moveable Feast is upon us, this month focusing on Ai Yazawa’s short josei series, Paradise Kiss (see Michelle’s introductory post here). As has become our habit (if, in fact, twice constitutes a habit), Michelle and I took the opportunity to discuss the series together, here in this week’s column!

MELINDA: As you might imagine, I’m quite thrilled with this month’s choice for the Manga Moveable Feast. Since we’ve each reviewed this series as a whole (me almost a year ago and you just this week), perhaps for today’s discussion we can take a moment to explore each of its main characters in-depth. I know I could talk about them for hours, and I’m curious to see how our impressions match up (or not). I certainly have my favorites and I bet you do too. Perhaps I’ll ask you to begin with yours?

MICHELLE: I think with Ai Yazawa there’s always a distinction to be made between characters who are excellently developed, three-dimensional people with fascinating flaws and characters who are one’s favorites by virtue of being just plain likeable. In the latter category, for example, I would place Isabella. She’s warm and nurturing, and completely devoted to George for accepting her as she is. If I had a problem, I’d like to pour my heart out to her while she made me some tasty stew.

But in terms of a character that one could simply talk about for days, I think I’d have to go with George. He’s maddening and unpredictable, but man, those moments when he looks hurt and vulnerable really pull at one’s heartstrings. It’s easy to see why Yukari fell for him.

MELINDA: It’s interesting that you bring up these two characters specifically, because I have such contrasting feelings about them. Isabella is my favorite character in the series by far. In fact, I even joked when this title was first chosen for the MMF that my contribution would be an essay entitled, “Why I love Isabella” (or something along those lines). Not only is she a wonderfully warm and nurturing character, as you mention here, but she’s also the one who is best able to see the truth about everyone else, unhindered by insecurity or personal bias.

Additionally, she’s just about 100% responsible for my ability to like George, which took a hell of a long time to develop, to be honest. It took me several times through the series to get over my deep intolerance of George’s refusal to take responsibility for his role in the lives of others, and it was only Isabella who was able to convince me that George’s unquestioning, immediate acceptance of her true self made him worth reconsidering. I’m not entirely sure why I have such an issue with people who are willing to form relationships with others but not participate in them fully, but I clearly do. Paradise Kiss taught me that much. Heh. In any case, if it wasn’t for Isabella, though I’d have to concede that George is an absolutely fascinating character, I wouldn’t like him at all.

MICHELLE: I felt that meeting George’s mother really helped me to understand why he’s so adamant about making Yukari make the big moves in their relationship. Eventually, she realizes that all those times she was waiting for him to call her, he was waiting for her to call him. So it’s not that he’s a bastard, it’s that he doesn’t want to be lambasted for all eternity as the source of another person’s misery.

To return to the topic of Isabella, though… although I’m happy, from a curious reader standpoint, that we did eventually learn her birth name, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s somewhat of an invasion of her privacy. I’m glad Yazawa didn’t go for the gag and show us Isabella in the men’s suit she wore for her job interview.

MELINDA: Oh, I understand why George is the way he is. I just think it’s cowardly and irresponsible. Part of loving someone (any kind of love) is accepting that you have influence in his/her life (whether you like it or not) and taking responsibility for that. Refusing to make any choices in the relationship in order to avoid future blame is not only cowardly but, frankly, mean. It’s also ineffective. The only way to ensure that you can never be blamed for your role in someone else’s life is to eschew human relationships altogether. The moment he kisses Yukari, he is officially responsible for the fact that he has the power to make her miserable, whether he wants to accept that or not.

Ranting aside, of course I realize that George’s flaws are what make him so interesting as a character, and as an admirer of powerful fiction, I wouldn’t want it any other way. But I can’t deny that this flaw in particular made it really difficult for me to like him. For whatever reason, it’s not a trait I find easy to excuse, even in someone as obviously damaged as George. It pushes my personal buttons, I suppose. Yazawa is pretty good at that. :)

As for Isabella… it’s really interesting to me that you felt you were invading her privacy by learning her given name. I hadn’t even considered that. I suppose she’s so reserved and so sparing with how much of herself she reveals (understandably, considering the treatment she’s apparently had from her own parents) it felt like a little gift to me. But perhaps you’re right. Perhaps it isn’t one we should be given unless it’s by Isabella herself.

MICHELLE: You’re right, of course, in all that you say about his failure as a boyfriend. We do see him be a sweet and sensitive person at many times throughout the series, but as he says to Kaori, he just can’t help but be mean to the one he loves.

And speaking of Kaori, she turned out to be a much more welcome addition to the cast than I had originally anticipated. I love that although she’s attracted to George, she can tell he’d be a terrible boyfriend, and refuses to go down that road, no matter how much it pains her. I think that George values her too much to inflict himself upon her, anyway.

MELINDA: I absolutely agree about Kaori. I was poised to hate her and could not do it at all. And I think your assessment of George’s feelings there is spot on, too, though I admit my main reaction there, too, is to feel defensive on Yukari’s behalf. “So she’s not valuable enough to save?” I ask, shaking my fist at George.

MICHELLE: I find it hard to defend Yukari because the two of them really don’t work together very well; although her ugliness manifests in different ways, she’s often as bad as he is at causing strife.

But anyway, two characters we have yet to touch upon at all are Arashi and Miwako! When we first see Arashi, I was thinking, “Oh, here’s Nobu’s prototype!” And in some ways that still may be true—in his sweeter moments, particularly with Miwako’s niece, he’s a bit similar—but he’s also quite hot-headed, though this, too, is fueled by insecurity.

MELINDA: Hmmm, I’ll have to think about what you’ve said about Yukari, because I perceive her ugliest moments as being reactions to George treating her badly, and it’s hard for me to blame her for that. I have a lot of sympathy for anyone on the wrong end of an unbalanced relationship. It can make a person feel literally crazy, and someone like her, with no relationship experience at all, is going to be even more at a loss for how to behave. Though I’ll agree, they don’t work well together.

I had the same thought as you did when I first saw Arashi! For the most part, I think the resemblance ends up being more looks than anything else in the end, but I do love his sweeter moments, and I can see some seeds of Nobu there. I like both Arashi and Miwako a great deal, and I like their relationship a lot as well, even in its worst moments. I suppose where Arashi is a bit like Nobu is in his sincere devotion to Miwako. And though I might normally feel uncomfortable with that in the face of Miwako’s torn feelings, I feel like she is sincere about wanting to do right by him, even in the midst of her own confusion. That goes a long way with me.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I grant a lot of Yukari’s jealousy is caused by George, especially his refusal to unequivocally state what his feelings for her are. I think, perhaps, that I lack a similar affinity for those in unbalanced relationships, though I can easily imagine that such a thing would make a person feel crazy. She still channels her mother in scenes that aren’t romantic, though. The most notable being her reaction to the Grand Prix going to someone else, where she’s the only one angry and ranting and everyone else is trying to be cheerful about it. George wasn’t too kind about pointing this out, but neither was he wrong.

I can’t help but wish there was a little more attention paid to the Arashi-Miwako-Hiroyuki love triangle, even though I think the readers’ experience of the dissolution of that plot line mirrors Arashi’s own experience when he realizes that the only solution to the issue is to do what Miwako has been asking all along and simply believe in her more. I was pretty shocked to learn that he had originally forced himself on her, though.

MELINDA: I was too, and also surprised that it didn’t sour me on their relationship. I guess that’s to Yazawa’s credit. She’s able to create such wonderfully rich characters with a level of nuance that makes them greater than their worst flaws. Even George, for as much as I’ve ranted about him. I have issues, obviously, but he’s far from one-note.

MICHELLE: It didn’t sour me on their relationship, either. Put it in a new light, perhaps, but it doesn’t invalidate what they have today. And yes, exactly, even if I don’t like what these characters are doing all the time, I can still be impressed with how well they’re written. I’m glad I’m able to like them some or even most of the time, though, because I don’t tend to do well with wholly unsympathetic protagonists (see Detroit Metal City).

MELINDA: So, what about Hiro? I find I have very bland feelings about him, though certainly he’s a perfectly nice guy.

MICHELLE: I have mixed feelings about Hiro. He’s certainly the safe choice amongst all the guys in the cast, but his function as “normal guy” does come in handy a time or two, like when his outsider’s take on things helps members of the main cast achieve certain realizations. That said, I think I’m more interested in the way he is used in the story than he himself, if that makes sense. I initially assumed he’d just be the bishounen crush whom Yukari instantly forgets about once she’s swept off her feet by George, so I didn’t anticipate at all how important he would be to the overall story, even after his past connection with Arashi and Miwako was revealed. He’s like Kaori in this way—I expected him to perform like a shojo cliché, even though this is Yazawa and I ought to’ve known better!

MELINDA: I had the same reaction when I first read the series! I assumed he’d fade into the background, but I should have guessed otherwise. I suspect he’s a much, much better match for Yukari than George ever could have been. This brings me back to something you said in the beginning, though. Hiro’s probably more genuinely likable a person than George, but he’s not nearly as interesting. Then again, perhaps “interesting” is overrated in the long-term?

MICHELLE: Well, we’ve all heard of “the kind you date” versus “the kind you marry.” :)

We haven’t discussed the older generation of characters yet, but, to be honest, none interests me much. The mothers are the most significant, I suppose, and I’d have to say I’d take Yukari’s over George’s any day, despite her critical and overbearing nature. I really loved the little epilogue to the school festival award ceremony, for example, when a snapshot Yukari left on the coffee table is given pride of place and a snazzy new frame the next day.

MELINDA: I have one very favorite adult character, and that’s Isabella’s butler, Mr. Ueda. His scene with Isabella in chapter four, where he tells her how proud he is of the elegant lady she’s become is one of my favorite moments in the series. We don’t see a lot of him over the course of the series, but honestly he’s the one adult I have real respect and affection for. I’m glad Isabella had someone like that at home where she clearly was otherwise ignored.

MICHELLE: Oh, I forgot all about him! Yes, he’s very awesome. It looks like Arashi’s parents are probably pretty cool, too, though hardly glimpsed. I was wondering why he had piercings and spiked hair in the elementary school photo Miwako carries around, but then I saw his mom and everything made sense.

MELINDA: I think both in Paradise Kiss and in NANA, Yazawa creates worlds that are only inhabited by the people who truly need to be there in order to tell the story she wants to tell. It’s part of what makes her stories feel so intimate, even when they really have a large number of important characters. It just so happens that in Paradise Kiss, this excludes a lot of “adult” figures, since the story is so much about the characters coming to terms with their own adulthood.

MICHELLE: Speaking of NANA, when Kaori was trying to convince George to study abroad, I had a sudden flash to Reira convincing Takumi to postpone his marriage to Hachi. And, of course, there’s the whole “directionless girl encounters misfits, buys into their dream, and finds her own purpose in life” similarity. Are there other common scenarios the characters face?

MELINDA: Hmmmm, well, other than “self-involved parents damage their children,” nothing springs immediately to mind. :D

MICHELLE: I thought we were gonna be able to think of lots, but I’m drawing a blank, too. Is this further testament to Yazawa’s awesomeness?

MELINDA: Her awesomeness is fairly epic and well-documented, I’d say.

And with that, what more is there to say? Keep an eye on Soliloquy in Blue this week for more ParaKiss goodness! And join us again next week for a brand new Off the Shelf!

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