One winter evening, two young women with the same given name meet for the first time while traveling to Tokyo by train. Nana Osaki, an ambitious young woman with a rough upbringing and a strong will, desires fame and recognition as the singer of her band Black Stones more than anything else. The outgoing and flighty Nana Komatsu, in contrast, comes from a traditional household and considers the pursuit of love and a happy marriage to be the most important aspect of her life. Through a realtor's fluke, the two become roommates soon afterwards, and in spite of being dramatically different people they become very close, with the punk singer soon nicknaming her outgoing friend "Hachi" out of endearment, Hachi becoming an ardent fan of Nana's musical endeavors, and the two of them slowly growing to appreciate their mutual importance to one another while simultaneously being forced to confront the unhealthy aspects of their personalities.
There are many possible mistakes that writers can make, and a particular fumble that often stymies their attempts at realism is when they create two contrasting characters and then fail to deliver the subtle development and careful juxtaposition necessary to make the combination effective. The problem, frankly, is that many writers assume that putting person A and person B in the same environment will spark drama and thus automatically create an interesting story, but the reality is that great care must be taken in order to draw anything of substance from such an encounter, and quite often the result is melodramatic, with the two either eventually becoming friends for no clear reason or cat-fighting to comic effect. Though such antics may amuse, they soon become tiresome, and just as with other media anime has given me its fair share of head-butting characters who typically draw a great deal of eye-rolls and precious little else. So what does this have to do with the subject at hand, the anime adaptation of Ai Yazawa's NANA? The answer is simple: NANA attempts this often-botched tactic and thrives with it. While not philosophical or conspicuously intellectual, NANA is nonetheless a shrewd series, one that frequently forces the viewer to re-evalaute her opinion of the characters, effectively juxtaposes its initial atmosphere of wide-eyed optimism with the pain that emerging personality defects and drifting friendships bring to its characters, and presents us with an endearing, funny, and deeply human relationship between two completely different people at its center. Indeed, NANA is among the most relatable anime series that I have watched, one in which the audience is often left to confront the difficulties of love, empathize with the frustration that its characters experience as they find themselves feeling distant from their lovers or infatuated with selfish and childish people, and share in the laughter that this oft-downcast show still somehow manages to incite.
If I were to write everything that I like about the central relationship of this show, I would bore the reader with endless detail and nullify the enjoyment in watching it, so I shall do my best to sum it up in a manner that hopefully allows an incoming viewer to appreciate its key successes while still being able to interpret it for herself. My opinion is that NANA succeeds because it takes advantage of the difference between its two leads: it neither tries to prove that they are irreconcilable nor trivializes the distinction with a gimmicky "mutual interest" but instead shows right off the bat that a punk singer and a hopeful housewife can enjoy each other's company and never forgets the sentiment of their first encounter. Their lifestyles, personalities, and ambitions are highly dissimilar, and yet Ai Yazawa's characters are developed to a point where the fascination, empathy, and protectiveness they develop towards each other is tangible: the punk singer is aware of the happiness that being around someone with a different outlook brings and relishes it even as she jokingly teases her roommate by comparing her to an over-zealous dog. Neither of the characters is instantly easy to warm to, as Nana Komatsu (called "Hatchi" due to her personality) is sometimes selfish and childish enough that even Mr. Rogers would lose patience, while Nana Osaki's prickliness and sharpness are cringe-inducing, but both become very easy to like after a short time. Perhaps one factor is that neither ever behaves mean-spiritedly, but in truth what draws me most to both characters is that I can understand their defects perfectly and empathize with their desires: though Hatchi's overarching desire to become a housewife is old-fashioned (and virtually everybody in the series teases her for it), it is sincere and grounded in an overarching desire for love, making the failures and Pyrhhic successes she experiences easy to empathize with in spite of her oft-ridiculous behavior. Their relationship is hardly static, as NANA uses its 47-episodes to develop them at a steady and organic pace, and Hatchi becomes wise to a point where the depth of her narrational observations outweighs her flighty personality, with Nana growing slowly warmer and less distant in the meantime until she ceases to be a mysterious and semi-mythical figure and instead becomes the emotional center of the show. We learn backstory at just the right pace to sort out our feelings about the characters, and aren't asked to comprehend the full meaning of their relationship until a quarter of the way through, in which time we have fully adapted to the two Nanas and learned the facets of their personalities as their character arcs were kept separate and at the end of which we are firmly on their side. It is this carefully-plotted yet entirely believable growth that makes NANA as good as it is.
The show hardly skimps on its secondary characters, either, and at the moments when the two Nanas do not take center stage we are treated to a cast that complements its leads well and makes for an array of engaging stories in its own right. We are introduced to Hatchi's boyfriend Shoji and quickly learn the tribulations of their relationship without ever being told which side to side with: Shoji is kind, loyal to a fault, and in need of more than simply being the husband that Hatchi attends upon, while Hatchi for her part fails to understand his preference for directly-spoken love over flirtation and fawns on him to an almost pitiful extreme at points. Indeed, perhaps the factor that most draws the two Nanas together is their ability to land in relationships that provide every spiritual satisfaction for some time and then suddenly cease to work: Nana is left alone, frustrated, and aching when her lover and bandmate Ren is recruited by a rival band and departs, and he remains lost to both her and the audience thereon after, even when the two manage to reconcile later in the series. Just as the two Nanas are frequently put in a delineating light, there is a clever contrast between the clean-cut art students that comprise Hachi's group and the social outcasts and punks that make up Black Stones. Though the groups do interact, the show alternates between the two for the most part: sometimes we are drawn into Hatchi's social life, and sometimes we are embroiled in the musical endeavors of Nana Osaki, drummer Yasu (an outwardly intimidating but brotherly character who proves to be the most consistently likable figure in the series), the childish and impulsive guitarist Nobu, and Shin, the extremely underaged, heavily pierced, and impossibly flippant bassist of Black Stones. I'm quite grateful that this series had as many episodes as it did to tell its story, as without this expanse of time, numerous intriguing characters would have been reduced to bit players, but with it, not a moment is wasted, almost everybody is used to their full capacity, and the drama is thus almost perfect. The show's take on romance, meanwhile, is refreshingly free of the misguided belief in "true" love, while the relationships that occur are always meaningful if not always right for the people involved, and my curiosity over the characters' love lives remained alive until the very end, meaning that I can add Nana to the relatively small list of shows whose romantic intrigue never became trite. Regardless, character-driven drama is hardly ever this good, and I will commend both Ai Yazawa and the staff responsible for this adaptation for doing such a fine job.
On a technical level, the animated adaptation of NANA is more than satisfactory and aided massively by Ai Yazawa's artistic skill. Though her style contains many of the basic design trademarks seen in today's Shoujo Manga, it is still distinctive, with the characters being alluringly beautiful in their realism and enjoyably cartoonish at the same time. Though there are virtually no action scenes and a fair number of episodes use digital panning, what animation there is looks quite good, although the large amount of super-deformed animation takes time to get used to. The backgrounds are highly detailed and suitably drawn to fit each scene's mood, with rock concerts being appropriately chaotic, smokey, and permeated by strobe lights and nighttime walks along Tokyo harbor being as serene as a real-life one would hopefully be. One aspect that I found particularly enjoyable, in addition, was the show's usage of erotic imagery over fan-service: though no explicit sex is visible, we are treated to many gorgeously-drawn bodies and some beautiful scenes of tender love in lieu of any panty shots or "choice" moments of cleavage, and appropriately for a show that approaches romance so candidly the characters' sexualities are treated candidly for the most part as well (while a somewhat stereotypical gay man appears at one point, he is at least treated as a character with a personality and a respectable job). Though the relatively high frequency of nudity may unsettle conservative viewers and will make this inapprorpatie for children, I see it as a big step above anime's usual embrace of ecchi antics and refusal to discuss sex in itself, and the scenes are indeed quite beautiful to watch. Finally, the music, while not entirely to my taste, is good and heartfelt: as a large amount of the drama revolves around the rivalry between Ren and Nana's bands and the latter's singing remains important to her throughout, music is quite important to the plot and the majority of the music is thus performed by the two in-show bands, while the background music is generally quite pleasant and unobtrusive.
I will end a lengthy love letter with a pithy signature and say this: if I were asked the dreaded and ever-frustrating question of naming my favorite anime series, the name of NANA would very likely pop into my head. Bear that recommendation in mind next time you have a chance to see it, and I hope that you find it to be satisfying. It was certainly worth the long time I spent watching it, and having finished it now, it is not a show I will be able to replace.
Simply put, I love this show to death. Unless you absolutely need action scenes in your anime or cannot deal with seeing premarital lovemaking, I urge you to give it a try. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Melissa: Best for 18 and over. Sexual situations (sex happens, though not explicit), high school dropouts, drugs, infidelity, pregnancy...the list goes on.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream couresy of Hulu (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (47/47)
NANA © 2006 Madhouse Production
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