Completely entranced by Paradise Kiss, I sought out the work's prequel manga, Gokinjo Monogatari because I was so interested in Happy Berry designer Mikako Kouda. Why was her last name different from Miwako? How did Happy Berry come to be? Fortunately, the mangaka's earlier work proved that, even in a more traditional shoujo setting, she can bring a novel look at romance and high school awash with delightful characters.
Though it takes place in the same setting as its sequel, Yazawa Arts Academy, it kicks off with a more straightforward and less surreal arc that focuses on the relationship between Mikako's childhood friend Tsutomu and the hottest girl in the school, Mariko. But Aizawa can't keep the act up for long and the story soon sprawls out into an engaging examination on the relationship between love, personal dreams, and friendship centered around Mikako and Tsutomu.
That Aizawa chooses to give her characters goals and dreams and forces them to question the course of their lives that sets Gokinjo Monogatari apart from other shoujo manga. She knows that for everyone--even lovestruck teenagers--happiness is the ultimate goal, and love is merely one part of that. When Ruriko Kouda wrestles with her divorce from Mikako's father, for example, the mangaka opens her work to the possibility that the most obvious choices aren't always the right ones, which gives her story much more room to work.
All of this builds on solid scene-by-scene writing that combines the pithy interaction between the prickly Mikako and the natural-born ham, Tsutomu with a cast of quipping secondaries who display a delightful disdain for the fourth wall (I especially love the part at the end where the cast discusses who's gonna be the hero of the sequel). The overall effect allows her to build a moving, heartfelt story with few slow bits and enough self-awareness to keep the melodrama to tolerable levels.
If there's an autobiographical component to the manga, it's the relationship between Mikako's development as a designer and Aizawa's artwork. Like her protagonist, the mangaka shows a brilliant innovative streak in her character designs and costumes but finds it hard to keep her characters on model in the more casual scenes. The sloppy, but endearingly plastic result shows her potential, even if the work can be mechanically inconsistent at times.
First, you have to remember that Gokinjo Monogatari dates from the mid-nineties. Sure, Mikako is what we'd call tsundere nowadays, but instead of being her primary character trait this personality comes about as the result of a powerful concoction of self-reliance, youthful possessiveness, considerable confidence in her ability as a designer, and plain old vanity. Carrying the burden of her mother's divorce and hard-partying lifestyle around with her while she pursues her dream of owning her own clothing label, the female lead struggles to know her own heart in the first half of the manga, and then wrestles with the new feelings and choices that emerge from her success in that endeavor. Across from her, Tsutomu learns how tough it can be to act as peacemaker in a volatile group of high school friends, all the while looking for his place in the wider world. His heartfelt kindness and sober maturity blow up in his own face toward the end of the manga as he learns to love a woman with an unshakable future. He transitions between friendly humor and serious introspection with an ease that should be familiar to anyone who's ever been a high school student.
Of course, the secondary cast help the two heroes in admirable fashion, from the sober punk-rocker Risa and space-filling programmer, Jiro to the firey Yuusuke and Mariko, each actor adds dimension, advice, or perspective to the story. The Yuusuke-Ayumi-Mariko love triangle in particular brings a more traditionally shoujo romance to the manga and offers an opportunity for Mikako and Tsutomu to see the pain of loving someone from a distance as they examine their feelings for each other throughout the middle portion of the manga.
This manga is a must-read for shoujo fans. Not because you'll get swept up in the power of the romance on display here, but instead because you'll find that these characters' LIVES have you turning each and every page. By placing the primary focus away from Love and more on the interplay between dreams and reality, each interaction and development gains more meaning and impact in the end. True, Gokinjo Monogatari lacks Paradise Kiss' languid surreality, but the earlier work's energy and sincerity more than make up for it.