It’s difficult for me to imagine that anyone really needs me to sell NANA to them but the truth is I will enjoy writing this, and if it encourages one or two more people to jump on the NANA bandwagon, that will thrill me.
NANA is the story of two young women, both named Nana, who meet on the train to Tokyo and, through a series of coincidences, end up becoming roommates in an old seventh-floor walkup. In many ways that apartment, number 707 (“Nana” in Japanese means “seven” by the way), is nearly as important a character as the two Nanas themselves.
Written and drawn by Ai Yazawa (author of Paradise Kiss, among others), NANA contains some of the most authentic human beings I have so far encountered in manga. Yazawa’s characters are rich and complex, each just a little bit (or more than a little bit) broken as most of us humans are, and because of this, their relationships with each other and their choices, both good and bad, feel so real, they could come straight out of the reader’s own life. It would be so easy for a story like this, which focuses mainly on relationships, to fall into soap opera-like melodrama but the intensely real characters save it from doing so, time and time again. This is especially surprising in a manga where a good portion of the characters are rock stars.
“Nana’s handshake was surprisingly warm… and it made my heart warm too.”
When I began reading NANA, it seemed at first that the story was going to be mainly a chronicle of the two protagonists’ relationships with men, but by the end of the third volume, it had become very clear that it is, above all, a story about their relationship with each other. It is that relationship that drives everything in this story and it is the one we as readers care most about. In the simplest terms, NANA is a love story.
Nana Komatsu follows her college boyfriend to Tokyo, where he has finally been accepted into art school. With no real ambition of her own, she stumbles through various entry-level jobs, finding joy only in her relationships and in the excitement of her roommate’s musical career. She is talkative, clinging, often selfish, cheerful, and warm. She is nicknamed “Hachi” by Nana Osaki, for her puppy-like devotion and need for care and attention. As the series progresses, however, it becomes clear that despite the fact that Hachi often feels helpless and seeks out those who will take care of her (sometimes to her own peril), she has an endless capacity for love and a natural gift for taking care of others. Though she is outwardly needy, her warmth and exuberance frequently give the other characters strength.
“You probably don’t remember, but I was really serious about building a gorgeous house with a big garden… So that you, whose boyfriends always make you cry, could come back as often as you wanted, and smile.”
Nana Osaki comes to Tokyo to pursue a professional singing career, having left behind her hometown band after the exodus of her guitarist boyfriend. She is fierce, ambitious, tough, charismatic, reticent, and loyal. Abandoned by her mother as a child, Nana resists being cared for by others and does not trust easily. Over time, however, we are made aware that she is probably one of the most fragile characters in the series and is surprisingly dependent on Hachi. She has a quick temper and tends to hold grudges. She is very competitive, and relentless in her drive to prove herself and to become a better singer. Prickly and complicated, she cares deeply for the people in her life and somehow manages to be both self-deceptive and self-aware at the same time.
“You were a stray cat, strutting… so free and full of pride. But I could see your open wound.”
The Supporting Players
“If you knew what I was really like, you’d be disappointed.”
NANA has many supporting characters who come in and out over the course of the series. I’m going to focus here on those who play the most prominent roles throughout and who most greatly impact the lives of Nana and Hachi. The bulk of the plot of NANA revolves around two bands, Nana Osaki’s band, BLAST (short for Black Stones) and the band her boyfriend, Ren, left home to join, Trapnest. Most of these characters are members of those bands.
Junko Saotome (Jun) As Hachi’s best friend from school, Jun provides a “big sister” figure for Hachi, though she tends to fall into a lecture just when Hachi is feeling her worst. A prominent figure in the first few volumes of the series, Jun moves into a sporadic supporting role later on, but she and her boyfriend, Kyosuke, remain a steadying influence throughout, as an example of the kind of balanced romantic relationship that most of the other characters lack and perhaps wish for. She tends to be Hachi’s harshest critic in many ways, despite her affection for her.
Ren Honjo BLAST’s former bassist and Nana’s lover, Ren moved to Tokyo to join Trapnest as they were turning pro. He is talented, passionate, possessive, and as the series progresses, battles a dependence on drugs. Raised in an orphanage along with Yasu, he found joy as a child playing guitar in an old, abandoned warehouse. Ren tends to crave a quiet family life, very much at odds with his chosen career. He lacks Nana’s ambition but is easily pulled along by the ambitions of others.
Yasushi Takagi (Yasu) As Jun watches over Hachi, Yasu watches over Nana and, to an extent, everyone. As BLAST’s drummer, he is responsible for keeping the band together onstage and he seems to take on this role in life as well. He is quiet, steady, and devoted, especially to Ren and Nana. He shaves his head bare and wears sunglasses most of the time, even indoors. I find his devotion to Nana incredibly moving and he is a surprisingly gentle and warm man for someone who keeps so much of himself hidden from the world.
Nobuo Terashima (Nobu) The son of wealthy hotel owners, Nobu leaves that life to pursue his musical dreams. In a lot of ways, Nobu is the male version of Hachi. He is loud and exuberant, tends to talk too much when he’s had a few drinks, and loves readily and without restraint. He is BLAST’s guitarist and becomes the main songwriter after Ren leaves the band. It is incredibly difficult not to love Nobu, because he is possibly the most sincere, guileless character in the series. While he shares Hachi’s sense of whimsy and warm, unguarded, demeanor, he lacks her excessive neediness, which keeps him from falling into the same kind of traps Hachi sets for herself (though he has a few of his own). Nobu is, plainly speaking, a gem.
Shinichi Okazaki (Shin) BLAST’s bassist, replacing Ren, Shin is one of the most complex characters in the series, though at fifteen he is considerably younger than any of the other characters. Raised in a loveless environment, he leaves his family and makes most of his living off of older women who pay him for sex. He is smart and insightful, serving as an unlikely confidante and sometimes roommate to Nobu, and regularly trounces everyone else at mahjong. He views Hachi as a mother figure and loves her for being kind to him without expecting anything in return.
Takumi Ichinose The leader of Trapnest as well as its bassist and musical arranger, Takumi is a brilliant businessman and maintains powerful control over his band. He is extremely driven, often ruthless, occasionally tender, controlling, and possessive, and he evaluates every situation in terms of how it will affect the band. He’s incredibly complex, and though I tend to view him negatively, nothing is ever that simple in NANA and I can’t deny he is a very compelling character. Takumi is shrewd and perceptive and though he’s not without feeling, it is difficult for others to be sure of his motivations.
Reira Serizawa (Layla) Reira is the lead singer for Trapnest. I’m romanizing her name as “Reira” because Viz does but she was actually named after the Eric Clapton song, “Layla.” Reira is a beautiful songstress, though one might think of her as being in a cage like a songbird–reminiscent of Johanna in Sweeney Todd without the lecherous judge looming over. She is, in many ways, controlled by Takumi, both by his will and by her own feelings for him. She is lonely and fragile, though she sometimes plays the bad girl to cover it up. She has a long history with Takumi, Ren, and Yasu, and her feelings about singing and about herself are frustratingly tangled up with her feelings for each of them.
“Please. Make up an excuse… even if it’s a lie, I’d believe anything.”
Relationships are the focus of NANA and it is the authenticity of them that is this manga’s greatest draw. The worlds of the two bands portrayed in the story are endlessly interwoven and necessarily tight-knit due to the realities of the music business. As with most groups of people bound together like this, everything tends to be pretty incestuous and there is a great deal of emotional drama at the center of it all. This is one of those aspects of the story which could so easily cause it to deteriorate into melodrama, but this never happens. Everyone has been brought together both by the pieces of them that are most broken and the dreams they cling to in order to battle demons of the past. These people love each other, hurt each other, heal each other, and through all of it they are bound together by a shaky combination of fate, obligation, and free will.
“‘Trapnest’ means a motherly nest that comes with a trap. Once you’re in there, you can never get out. It’s a typical name that a guy who’s afraid of strong women would think up.”
The relationships are wonderfully nuanced and each of them is so compelling, it is admirable that Yazawa is able to maintain so many of them over the course of the story. The relationships shift over time, often dramatically, but there is never a sense that these shifts are simply for manipulating the plot into one direction or another. Everything feels extremely real and natural throughout. I’ve had conversations with people about “‘shipping” in NANA and something I’ve heard several times is that people can’t choose one or two favorite relationships because they are all so interesting. It’s difficult for me to talk about them in any specific detail here because with this kind of story everything is a spoiler, but what they say makes a lot of sense. Each relationship in this series is mesmerizing, even when it is making you scream and throw your book on the floor.
“The music had no words, so Nana made up lyrics on the spot and just sang. It was like she put a crazy spell on me. That haunting voice took over my whole body.”
This may seem like a pretty strange heading to see in a write-up of a manga series but the music in NANA is one of its most compelling features. Because the story revolves around the careers of two bands, each at very different points in their careers, the Japanese music industry plays a huge part in the over-arching plotline. More importantly, however, we are swept up in the characters’ love for music and their creative processes, as well as their ambitions and insecurities over the music they create.
This manga is steeped in music and it never seems to matter that we can’t know exactly what it sounds like. We still feel it with all our hearts and souls, just as the characters do. It’s truly impressive how Yazawa manages this in an unavoidably silent medium. Perhaps even more impressive, is that I was personally disappointed by the music in the anime series of NANA, not because there was anything wrong with it but because what my imagination had created, based on Yazawa’s writing, was more powerful than anything they could create in the studio.
NANA is ongoing in Japan, with 20 volumes released so far, and is licensed by Viz in the US. The Viz editions are pretty far behind the Japanese (12 volumes released in English so far), though they are on a bi-monthly release schedule, which is faster than most of the manga I read. Though I’ve complained in the past about Viz’s cheesy-looking volumes, complete with Barbie-doll pink Shojo Beat branding which I think cheapens the series (and don’t even get me started on the horrifying back-cover write-ups), the advantage to this is that the volumes are, in fact, cheap. A volume of NANA retails for $8.99, which is two or three dollars less than what I pay per volume for most of my favorite manga series.
Some content was edited for the English editions, though I’m not certain of the extent. I do know that pages detailing how BLAST got their name (from Yasu’s cigarettes, Blackstone), were removed, which I have to admit was really confusing for me when I first read the series, because without those pages, it is not made very clear that “BLAST” is short for “Black Stones” so when, several volumes in, they started printing “Black Stones” on everything, I had no idea why. Overall, though, the Viz editions are very smooth reading, and whatever is lacking in presentation is more than made up for by Yazawa’s stylish art inside.
This series is incredibly addictive and very difficult to put down. I’d advise readers, however, to resist scanlations. The wait between printed volumes is only a little longer than the wait between scanlated chapters and the difference in quality is substantial. This advice will be more difficult to follow once the English volumes have caught up with the Japanese releases, which must inevitably slow down Viz’s schedule, but please, I urge anyone who enjoys this series to purchase the official licensed volumes when they are available. I promise you will not regret it. Volume 13 is set for release on November 4th.
The Bottom Line
NANA is an incredibly compelling and emotionally engaging read and each volume will leave you begging for more. The characters are wonderfully complex and their relationships are unusually realistic. The series is plotty, suspenseful, often sad, and surprisingly uplifting. These are characters you live with, and take into your heart. I love NANA like I’ve loved just a handful of manga series. It is the kind of series that makes me want to proclaim my joy to the world. Or perhaps just to write a post like this. :)
It is a treat to read a manga with two such richly-written female protagonists and though I’d recommend this series really to anyone, I consider it a must-read for any comics fan.