From the summaries I had read, I was expecting Paradise Kiss to basically be teenie-bopping wish fulfillment. Namely, the kind where an average chick somehow stumbles into an easy and comfortable lifestyle through little actual effort on her part, ala Princess Diaries.
Fortunately, this is not an air-headed, chauvinistic Cinderella story of some girl swept off her feet from poverty into economic dependence and financial stability. Rather, at its core, this is a simple but compelling coming-of-age story, in which a previously ambitionless and enervated girl finds a passion and a dream, and works to achieve this dream.
Many people (including myself) cringe at the term "coming-of-age," but thats really what Parakiss is all about. In the beginning, our protagonist is drifting without a purpose, lost in a world that she cares little about. The payoff, then, is watching her gradually strengthen and grow as she finds something that she IS interested in. In this way, Parakiss plays like a cooler, smoother Honey and Clover; although ParaKisss story isnt nearly as fulfilling or heart-wrenching as H+C, fans of one should almost certainly like the other.
The animation style is above all unique and creative. All things told, this is probably the most visually inventive show on television that I've seen this year. Granted, its not perfect; actual movement can sometimes be awkward, and for comedic moments, the show devolves into a "cartoony" look that may distract some. Still, this is more than made up for in the brilliant character design and the wonderful coloring.
The OP/ED are rock solid. The Franz Ferdinand song (which is actually fairly repetitive and dull in its full length version) works brilliantly in its shortened form, especially when combined with characters from the show in stylized chibi form dancing their heart out.
The rest of the music is pretty mediocre. Most of it consists of one line of notes repeated continuously with minimal variation, to the extent that the music grated on me a little even as I was watching the show. Still, for the most part it fits the mood the show is going for.
The animes cast is as diverse as it is compelling. Highlights include a cross-dresser, a bisexual, and a dude with safety pin pierces all over his face. However, by end of the show you love all of them. Despite their trendy, flamboyant appearances, none of these characters define themselves by their labels, but by their personalities, passions and ideas.
At the center of all of them is Yukari, our relatively normal and apathetic protagonist. For a while, she is used as a foil to the other characters in a similar way to how Saki was used in Genshiken, but this gradually changes. As Yukari becomes further entrenched into the world of fashion, she begins to grow wonderfully as a character.
In the world of the tragically hip, Western Cool and Eastern Cool are not only completely different from each other, but often mutually exclusive. Western Cool seems to focus on the sexual freedom, savvy materialism and loud music, while Eastern Cool is all about internal harmony, asceticism and the twanging koto.*
The reason I bring this up is that Paradise Kiss is perhaps the first anime I have seen that is totally, undeniably, Western Cool. Previous attempts at Western Cool in anime have been tempered somewhat with Eastern Cool (take Samurai Champloo or Cowboy Bebop as examples), but not so with Paradise Kiss. Everything feels so authentically urban, so extremely worldly, that the show seems more American than Japanese. For example, the OP is the kind of slick, well-produced material that finds itself on the top 100 billboard all the time here in the States, while the ED actually is a chart topping song by British band Franz Ferdinand. The plot is similarly Western. This is no typical shoujo; while there is romance, this is largely secondary to the protagonist's introduction to the materialistic, hip, and independent world of fashion.
As a whole, this show is most notable for the fact that it's a complete embrace of Western thoughts and values in a country generally considered to be extremely conservative. Does this represent Japan's spiritual downfall into materialism, or its evolution into tolerance? I honestly have no fucking clue, but I do know one thing: Paradise Kiss is a very good show. The characters and plot are far deeper than the show's glossy surface would lead you to believe, and as a whole I'd recommend this to anyone even mildly receptive to shoujo.
* Yes, I do realize the irony in writing an anime review and pretending to know anything about what cool is.
Yukari is a typical high school student on the fast track to attending a university, but her boring life leaves much to be desired; that is, until a motley crew of fashion design students ask her to model their new clothing line: Paradise Kiss! Now, Yukari must choose if she will reject the life her mother has laid out for her, and start making choices on her own for the first time. While taking her first steps into adulthood, Yukari also begins to realize that with freedom comes responsibility; a life in the fashion industry isn't an easy one, especially for someone unsure of her own intentions…