by Ai Yazawa; adaptation by Allison Wolfe
published by Viz; $8.99 US
Nana is a little slow-starting, but the result is more than worth the time invested. A few volumes in, it becomes incredibly addictive. Like many manga series these days, the first volume is prologue, leading into a simple premise. Two girls named Nana come to Tokyo to follow their dreams and in search of love; they wind up rooming together and learning from each other.
Book one is made up of two stories, each one introducing a different Nana. The first, Naive Nana, is largely average, with no distinguishing characteristics except for her boycraziness. She falls in love instantly with highly inappropriate choices. As the book opens, she’s being dumped by the married man she’s been sleeping with.
More disturbingly, she has no drive and no purpose in life besides being in love. Nana constantly refers to her bad-luck name and the poor omen of the number 7 and the “demon lord” who’s cursed her for no known reason. Her friends think she’s joking around, but she says it in one of those “ha ha only serious” ways. She’s looking for anything to seize upon to make herself not responsible for her own life.
Best friend Jun wants to go to Tokyo to art school, and since Nana thinks she can meet boys there, she tags along. Soon she meets Shoji, and after confusion over whether she’s capable of having a male friend (no) and some drunken evenings, she’s involved with Shoji and trying to find her way to Tokyo to follow her friends.
Nana’s casual acceptance of relationships based on nothing but physicality is disturbing, especially her affair with the married man. That pairing was based around nothing but sex, and Nana’s inability to comprehend how she was being used makes it hard for me to identify with or even understand her. In short, she’s an idiot (or, as a friend of mine calls her, the “wishy washy wimpy one”). But that’s just where she starts.
Thankfully, the author gives her enough luck to survive, and as I read more about her, her touching faith in the future is beginning to grow to me. When she gets to Tokyo in book two, she stumbles into a great job and coincidentally encounters the second Nana.
That Nana, a singer and punk rocker, is the kind of strong personality the first Nana needs to learn from. When musician Nana’s boyfriend gets picked up by a Tokyo band on the rise, she refuses to follow him until she can do it on her own terms. She’s determined to take care of herself, even if it requires sacrifices. The two Nanas first encounter each other on the train to the big city, where Naive Nana spills her guts to the more reticent Punk Nana. Although the same age, the two seem like they’re from completely different generations in their temperament and attitudes.
Like Ai Yazawa’s previous manga series Paradise Kiss, an underlying theme here is that the family you build and choose is better than the one you happen to be born into. Naive Nana is a mostly ignored middle child, and Punk Nana was an orphan raised by a harsh grandmother. The two of them have made small groups of close friends with shared interests to support them instead.
Also similar to ParaKiss, here fashion plays a large role, with the characters wearing darling outfits and always conscious of their looks. These mixed-up girls are gorgeous to look at, and the boys even more so. Each volume surprises me in where Yazawa goes with this city/country mouse approach, and their relationships quickly become more engrossing than I imagined.
In book three, Naive Nana is fired up after hearing Punk Nana sing. Naive Nana wants to help Punk Nana achieve her dream. That means finding bandmates. Again, Naive Nana is seizing on those around her to live life for her, and while she might be helpful, she’s still putting off her own needs and dreams (which she doesn’t even recognize).
Naive Nana is also risking things that matter to her due to her own selfishness. She means well, but she’s still got a child’s self-centeredness, thinking only about herself and what she wants and needs. The result is a boyfriend who may be tempted elsewhere, and more drastically, no money to pay rent.
That crisis is averted by an unexpected windfall, illustrating one of the things this title does so well: no one does what they’re supposed to. A band member chooses uncertain art over his steady career. The boss at Nana’s dream job flakes out and makes changes. Nana’s parents tell her something completely surprising to her. The result of these twists is honest surprise for both the characters and reader. There’s darn little status quo, just like life, which keeps the ride exciting. And in a situation like that, Naive Nana’s instability, the way she goes with the flow and changes her opinions daily, may be more of an asset than a problem.
By book four, things have begun changing. Naive Nana’s got a new job, a new view of relationships, and a new attitude about how life may not be so easy to get through. Punk Nana is filling a lot of her emotional needs, saving Naive Nana from the pain of falling in love. (As she tells us. She often gets short monologues around scene or chapter breaks, lettered on drawn-over night cityscape photographs.) She’s trying to separate love, sex, and friendship into clearly defined boxes, which doesn’t always work.
For all that these characters are dealing with the concerns of young adults — finding a job, choosing whether to follow their dreams, making decisions about whom to sleep with, planning lives together — they often behave like children, acting on impulse. That’s somehow appropriate for a series revolving around the magic and mystery of music and performance. For instance, this volume’s climax takes place at a concert where Punk Nana’s ex-boyfriend is playing. (Although there’s a near-incomprehensible bonus section that completely ignores the fourth wall.)
Book five reaches a whole new level, as Punk Nana and her ex, after much drama, meet again. The emotional impact is palpable. It’s rare to see anything this authentic and deep portrayed so honestly on the printed page. The after-effects send Naive Nana into a new period in her life, ready to try for a more serious relationship of her own.
There’s plenty of soap opera as the two band’s members get to know each other, with cross-connections and crushes and shared history. Naive Nana’s resolution works about as well as those kinds of vows usually do — caught up in the flush of the moment, she isn’t thinking practically about the future. That’s part of her charm.
Having the characters be aspiring or semi-successful rock’n’rollers adds a level of glamour to the struggles of young adults growing up. Naive Nana (who’s now being called Hachi, after a faithful dog) can’t figure out who to crush on, a normal enough problem for a girl barely out of her teens. Having one of her choices be a famous musician just makes it all more dramatic (and fun to read) and adds plenty of additional obstacles to the chase, like overzealous bouncers and the seduction of hotel suites.
Hachi’s got another new job as book six begins: promotion girl. She wears cute outfits and hands out free samples on the street. She’s depending less on wishes and fortune-telling, a major step forward for her, although she’s still mood-swinging based on her crush.
Both bands are back in town, and the soap opera’s up, especially as one of the gorgeous guys acts like you’d expect an attractive young musician to act: getting what he can in bed. There’s a fabulous, realistic scene where two of the band members argue about trying to protect Hachi: although they have slightly more positive motives than the guy they’re debating over, they’re still young men, and their impulses aren’t entirely pure, either.
They cover an awful lot of ground in philosophizing, especially about the nature of love in principle and practice. There’s only so much you can do to protect friends from heartache. At some point, they have to learn their own lessons in order to grow up. Love’s only the starting point in forming adult relationships. There are still hard decisions to make after the feelings start, and taking responsibility for your own choices is painful.
This volume is a major leap forward for both the characters and the readers. It’s astoundingly deep in the way it handles significant and basic human motivations. I find myself caring deeply about these characters the more I read about them.
Hachi’s becoming obsessed with her idea of Nana’s true love. Given how romantic Nana’s relationship can be, it’s hard to blame her. Hachi wants to be loved, but until she’s able to relate to individual people instead of fixating on the condition, she can’t be. She is starting to think about how her choices affect others, not just herself, although she hasn’t yet figured out that process has to happen before you make the choice, not after.
Nana’s band Blast is gaining some success as book seven starts, and a record company executive is interested. Hachi’s feeling left out, since her friends have dreams and are working towards them, and she’s only making food that gets ignored when they’re too busy to come over. It can be very difficult to be honestly happy for friends when they know what they want to do and are succeeding famously at it, especially when you don’t have a clue about your purpose. It’s a tricky situation to handle.
Sex is always a good temporary worry-reliever, and at least Hachi’s got someone for that. It doesn’t work long-term, though, and her loneliness is palpable through the pages. From someone who seemed too much of an idiot at the beginning, she’s now become to the reader someone to care about. I want to hug her and help her figure out her place in the world.
She needs something to love, something to focus on outside of herself, whether it’s a person (with long-term potential) or a function. She’s hanging around with Blast, but they’re making decisions she can’t be part of. One big decision is still hers, with another rival for her attentions. He’s a different kind of guy, one who approaches her soul first, one who wants a girlfriend instead of a friend with benefits.
Then there’s her continuing search for love as an object in itself. She’s using as models dramatic love stories that might not
The more time I spend with these characters, the more I’m growing to know them as if they were real people. Flawed as they are, they’re likable… and still ridiculously attractive. After reading more typical shôjo manga, the art here seems like it’s from another universe, deeper and more meaningful.
The youthful faces are the perfect vehicles for the characters’ passion, confusion, uncertainties, and dreams. Yazawa does an incredible job of capturing just the right expression for the scene, with underlying subtleties, with remarkably few simple lines. I’ve also reviewed, separately, Book 8.