By Ai Yazawa. Released in Japan by Shodensha, serialized in the magazine Zipper. Released in North America by Tokyopop.
When I first picked this series up several years back, I was getting into the habit (which I still have) of researching a series before I read it, to find out what I can. Paradise Kiss was a rather unusual oddity in that respect. It was put out by Shodensha, but did not appear (as one might expect of this material) in their josei magazine Feel Young, but in a fashion magazine for young adults, Zipper. It was also a semi-sequel to another serial of Yazawa's, Neighborhood Story, that had run in Shueisha's Ribon 4-5 years before ParaKiss came out.
I had worried that I wouldn't be able to get ParaKiss as its prequel had not (and still has not) come out in North America, but there's nothing to fear here. ParaKiss takes place several years after Neighborhood Story, and most of the cameos that the prior cast make are seamless (Miwako's sister Mikako being the exception, as she was the star of the previous series). No, the sequel uses the world of Neighborhood Story, but has its own story to tell, about fashion, getting over your past regrets, and finding the right future.
It also features one of the great supporting casts in manga. Each of the six characters I'd call leads (Yukari, George, Arashi, Miwako, Isabella and Hiroyuki) are well-written characters with their own lives and problems, and the manga succeeds very well in avoiding a typical shoujo pitfall of having everyone be there to facilitate the heroine's romance. Partly this is because they're all so interesting in and of themselves (it's arguable that the Arashi/Miwako/Hiroyuki subplot is more fascinating than Yukari's), but partly because for once, this is a romance you may not want to see helped along.
Don't get me wrong, as a hot couple, Yukari and George are pure win. (They're also fairly explicit, something that startled me as I re-read this series in the children's section of my local library, as it sat next to Pokemon Adventures. And people wonder why there's always articles about evil manga in the papers.) But it's made fairly clear from the start, and hammered home several times, that as a lifelong romance, the two would be horrible together. This is not something we see a lot of in shoujo romance, where the hero bringing the heroine out of her shell and showing her how to live life would be offset by his sweet moments. Sweet moments for George are few and far between.
But then, this is not just about the romance, it's about Yukari's realization that she can be so much more. As she begins to do model work and realize how much she enjoys it (and how good she is at it), her maturation is almost startling. The manga actually manages to have it both ways, having Yukari become a famous successful model while at the same time having people complain about how wretchedly difficult it is to actually do so. But then, this is a cast full of Beautiful People. :)
The ending was slightly controversial at the time, and still provokes some discussion. The anime adaptation did not help, as they made Yukari's breakup with George seem like a sad and depressing thing, and did not feature the flashforward epilogue. But it made sense with Yukari's character, whereas trying to shoehorn her in with George did not. It's very refreshing seeing the bad boy lose for once. Also, I love her monologue about getting less model work as she ages, but being able to use all the contacts she's made to parlay that into other work that keeps her career going. The whole epilogue is the definition of a feel-good happy ending, even if it ends with Yukari saying she's going to cry.
I haven't mentioned the art, have I? Well, it is why this ran in a fashion magazine, rather than Ribon like all her other stuff. It helps to make Paradise Kiss less of a manga to read and more of an experience, a world to immerse yourself in. There's lots of sensory stuff here, not just the pretty visuals. And it's the sort of manga where I look back and realize there's so much more that I can still talk about. I didn't even mention Yukari's relationship with her mother, or Arashi and Miwako's somewhat tortured relationship. And to think it's just five volumes long. One of the best manga Tokyopop put out. Highly recommended.