by Ai Yazawa; adapted by Allison Wolfe
published by Viz; $8.99 US
It’s been a while since I’ve read any Nana, even though it’s my favorite manga series. I have a bad habit of saving the best for last — which is great in concept, except in practice, I often run out of time before I get to the good stuff. I wound up with five installments stacked up, most of what had come out this year.
So a long weekend seemed the perfect time to dive back into this world of rock’n’roll, heartbreak, dreams, and coping with other people’s expectations. I was surprised at how quickly I remembered where the characters were. I’d watched the anime in the meantime, which flashed me back to the beginning, but the versions in these volumes are much further along in life.
A trashy tabloid has caught a picture of Ren comforting Reira with a kiss, and they plan to make hay out of it in order to create drama between Nana and Ren. Various band members and their management try to handle the situation in their own ways. Nana cries to Yasu and pretends to ignore it. Bribery is attempted. The one who finally solves the problem is Takumi, who marries Hachi as part of a trade deal to provide a better story. He’s a real businessman, making decisions based on what’s best for his band and outwitting most everyone around him.
Hachi’s dreaming of a perfect little family, and Takumi means well, intending to be a good father, but as the circumstances of their marriage demonstrate, their lives aren’t normal. The intermittent narration, where Hachi mentions not being able to hear Nana’s music any more, is a melancholy fingerbowl, reminding the reader between chapter courses of the messiness of the situation and how futile good intentions are. Hachi is learning to think about others, not just herself, but based on her backward-facing reflections, the lesson came too late.
Other storylines intertwine. Nana and her band are struggling, not as successful as Takumi and Ren. Her bandmates have friends in the dorm with their own drama, as they couple up, sometimes for the wrong reasons. Even when the reasons are right, what the public may think, guided by tabloid rumors, plays too big a part. Misato, former fangirl of Nana’s, is now the band’s manager and general assistant.
I don’t have the skill to talk about how amazing Yazawa’s art is. It’s dense, full of expression and revelation. It can be cartoony at times — a favorite is when Takumi is baiting the self-serving journalists, and he’s drawn with a fishing line coming out of his head. Mostly, it’s powerful. There are more panels per page than many other manga, and the individual panels can be small as a result, but Yazawa knows how to pace her material for maximum impact.
At the beginning of this series, it appeared that Nana, with her strong dreams, would take care of Hachi, teaching the more naive girl about life. But as the story progresses, the roles reverse. Hachi wears her emotions in the open, while Nana hides her feelings, which means few people realize how alone she is, even in the midst of seeking fame and magazine photos and playing in the band. Love is painful and full of risk and must be fought for — it doesn’t fix anything. Being an artist can mean giving up everything else, although they dream of some magic future day when they can be with the person they love, when they’re no longer driven by their need to perform and pursued by the media.
Book 16 opens with a fascinating flash-forward, in which someone searching for Nana, thought drowned at sea, finds a young woman singing in England. I can’t wait to see how that ties into the present-day story. Yazawa is quite skilled at dropping these hints, more usually in lines of monologue over plain dark pages at chapter start and end. They’re a potent reminder that there’s lots more to the story than what we’ve seen so far.
The major lesson of this volume is that you can’t make other people do what you want them to. Sometimes they offer part of what you want, but the compromise isn’t good enough. You have to make your own choices, no matter how hard they are to stick to. People change and move on with their own lives, and those you care about eventually leave you. Even when you love someone, when you want different things, you won’t be happy together. Those are hard lessons, but accurate.
In more practical matters, the more successful Trapnest has gone to England for two months to record, keeping the various couples apart over Christmas. The tabloids are investigating Nana’s background, trying to find out more about the mother that left her. Left in Japan, Blast thows a party for some of their fan club to say thank you for their support, and Nana is being scouted as an actress, potentially taking her further away from Blast and her music.
This volume is extra thick because it includes a 50-page bonus story about Nobu, Blast’s guitarist, Nana’s high school friend, and Hachi’s ex-boyfriend. It starts with him as a child, running around his parents’ inn and falling in love too easily. He saw Ren play and wanted to be like him, so he worked for his guitar and struggled to follow his true love, music. Most of its revelations have to do with seeing more of young Nana, before she fully became a hard-boiled rock chick, which ties into hints from the main story that we’re going to see more of her previous life.
In Book 17, Hachi has gone to meet a woman the tabloid says is Nana’s mother, but her reception is frosty. Hachi tries to get help from her absent husband, but he’s as remote as ever. Lots of secrets are revealed, or at least hinted at, as the sprawling cast revolves around each other in a kind of giant atomic model.
The one bright side to all the dramatic revelations is this: Hachi returns to spend New Year’s with Nana, which puts everyone in a better mood. It’s almost like old times, with fun activities, except that Blast is winning music awards and getting ready to release their first album, which means increased scrutiny. Everyone is realizing that just because a couple broke up, or can’t be together, doesn’t mean that they don’t still care for each other, complicating as that is.
As in Book 16, Book 18 opens with more scenes of the characters in the future, grown older and looking for Nana. They talk a little about their legacies, giving readers the barest idea of what happened to them in the meantime, but mostly, they’re concerned for their missing friend.
Jumping back, we see Blast preparing to tour. It’s a significant event, demonstrating that they can be more than just a one-hit wonder, but the band members are distracted: Nana by Ren, returned from England and the two unsure of how to act with each other, and Shin by legal trouble. When he’s arrested, Nana wants to go on without him, a decision to put band over bandmate that causes rifts with both Ren and Yasu. Yasu’s been left to clean Nana up too many times before when she’s hurt, and he’s tired of seeing her cry. It’s hard to know when and how it’s ok to be selfish, when to think of yourself and when to sacrifice for those you love.
The bonus story in this volume shows young Takumi and Reira. She was new to his neighborhood, half-American, and unable to speak Japanese. He protected and taught her, and she calmed him with her singing. She was in love with him, but he couldn’t reconcile sex with his pure vision of her, so she took up with Yasu. Readers may have figured out some of this history before, through hints and references, but it’s nice to see it confirmed — and Reira is always beautiful to look at, at any age.
Book 19 deals with the ramifications of the choices the characters have been making up to this point. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoilers. In many other cases, “it’s more of the same” would be a negative, but here, it’s a pleasure. Nana is the near-perfect manga series: realistic, diverse characters in larger-than-life situations that grab your emotions and never let go.
If you haven’t tried the series yet, give Book 18 a try. You’ll be able to pick up a lot of what’s going on with the characters while they decide what to do about Shin, and the backup story is a lovely piece on its own.