As a brief warning, this essay contains several spoilers and covers the series up until volume 17. While there are only a few really specific details, anyone not wishing to ruin some of the surprises may want to wait until they've read up until that point.
All text taken from the series is based on the Viz translation of the series, and all materials from secondary sources are not cited, but I will happily provide that information to anyone curious.
1. Heading out to Tokyo
I am always somewhat annoyed when I read the glowing praise directed towards Ai Yazawa’s NANA. While everyone reads with such joy and affection, they seem to either ignore, or fail to notice, the sub-textual commentary made throughout the series. I do appreciate that people have found such an immense amount of entertainment and pleasure in reading NANA, but the limited discourse has left me a bit wanting for more than gossip surrounding Shin’s past or when Nana O. will realize what her relationship to Misato is. That’s all fun, of course, but there’s something else happening in the series that I think deserves a little more attention. Ironically, it’s a statement directly related to gossip and relationships, and how what might be considered the fodder of soap operas should be considered as a completely worthwhile area of literary discourse.
Though I don’t intend to get terribly political with this essay, I should at least explain what is necessary in order to understand the position NANA finds itself in with regard to the rest of the literary world, and the world we live in today. Although much progress has been made by societies in general, I do not think I am saying anything controversial when I make the point that there is still a level of inequality between men and women in modern societies. Regardless of where you are in the world this case can be made, but for the sake of this essay, I will only be discussing Japan, France, and the rest of the western world to a lesser degree. Literature in particular is largely dominated by male voices, and though there have been many substantial contributions made by women, there is still a large gulf in the comparative numbers, and what some might consider appropriate subjects matters whose fanbases are defined by gender.
Love and romance is largely considered the domain of the harlequin novel and other types of paperbacks for lonely housewives. Even in NANA there is a sly little nod to these types of books when Shin is seen reading “The Married Woman Next Door” (Volume 11, 31) which amusingly happens to be written by Ai Yazawa herself. This book falls into the hands of many others, ironically all men looking to read a dirty book. However, women still make up the bulk of the readership for these types of books, even today, and it perpetuates the stereotype that books on romance and love are aimed at woman and not worthy of the attention of a more sophisticated audience, and the sexist undertones in that are pretty obvious. I am not arguing that these particular books deserve more credit, but rather the subject is worthy of attention as the primary thematic concern.
There are plenty of other works that have examined such a topic with a serious intention before, but what makes NANA so interesting is not that it retreads old ground, but does so in a way that is both modern, and a deliberate attempt to subvert the norms assumed of Shojo manga, and the more common western notion of the romance genre.
I must confess, my experiences with Shojo is limited. Much like romantic fiction in North America, they seem to fixate on romantic pursuit. The intense desire for the heroine or hero who searches for that special someone, and when they find them, desperately work towards making that magical relationship come together. NANA does not take this approach. Instead, people fall into the arms of one another almost by accident. Nana K. and Shoji are together from the beginning of the series, and prove an axiom that defines the series; getting into a relationship is not as nearly difficult as staying in one. This key difference is a realistic and subversive notion that contradicts the popular idea of romantic pursuit. A woman, or a man for that matter, is less an object that is to be obtained and more a person within a relationship that must be maintained.
Yazawa is not shy about putting her characters into difficult situations and bringing their flaws to the surface. Her depictions of love and romance are so much more than what pops into one’s mind when they think of something that might fall under the genre of romance. There are no bold pursuits or grand gestures of love, just simple words and tender moments. There is no show or theatrics, just the undiluted emotion of the love people share for one another. Friendship and romance are two things we all cannot live without, and rather than thinking of them as segments of a grander story, they deserve to be treated with all the respect and care Yazawa shows them as she places them firmly in her spotlight.
As a work that would fall under the banner or realism, NANA paints a portrait of relatively recent Tokyo. Granted, the series takes place nearly a decade ago and the slang may have aged, but the people and their situations are still incredibly relevant. With that in mind, NANA becomes a very valid depiction of modern society, and more importantly, the difficulty of women within that society. This is a direct succession to the tradition created with its namesake, Nana by Emilé Zola. A striking description of Parisian society in the second half of the19th century, Zola’s Nana is also a commentary of how the place of women in that society seems to be one where they are identified by their sexuality and become objects of that sexual desire directed to them. While the Nanas in Yazawa’s work are far better off than the Nana in Zola’s with regard to the rights offered them, there is still immense social pressure which defines their roles.
As a prostitute in Paris, Zola’s Nana is incredibly spunky and energetic. She shares the bold attitude of Nana O. and the ignorance of Nana K. Like both those girls, Zola’s Nana is also a victim of her society. The intense desire for sex that runs through Paris in the book is epitomized by Nana herself as she stands on the opera stage in triumph as Aphrodite in the first chapter. Every single man is eating out of her hand, and their financial future is completely dependant on their ability to resist her charms. Indeed, by the end of the story she has sapped every man of his fortune and left every single person unfortunate enough to share her bed a husk of what they once were.
Although this seems to portray Zola’s Nana as a terrible figure, it is also made clear that she is the product of her society. As a society defined by men, women can only act in reaction to these impulses, and the overriding desire that defines this particular vision of Paris is the desire for sex. Every single man within the text is either searching for it, or trying to profit off the desire for it. Nana’s death at the end of the novel frames her as a figure of flesh, stripped of all its gaudiness and allure and completely abandoned by the men around her. The sounds of men marching in the background, heading to war, serve as a contrast to the woman who surround her and mourn her passing. They all are aware of their position, the precarious value they posses which is directly relative to the sexuality they possess.
The two Nanas in Yazawa’s work are similarly defined by the men around them, although neither of them seem to revel in the self destructive path which shackles Zola’s Nana. Both travel to Tokyo in an attempt to make it on their own as independent women. Of course, Nana K. is really just following her boyfriend, and she betrays her intention by immediately serving the role of domestic house sitter, but she is still very much committed to finding a job and place of her own when she is reminded that she cannot count on Shoji for all her needs. When both Nanas find themselves on the firmest ground with regard to their goals, Nana O.’s desire to be a famous singer and Nana K.’s desire to be a wife in a traditional family, both of those goals are realized through men.
Zola’s characters are, according to him shaped by three factors; heredity, environment, and le moment. Yazawa’s are similarly shaped by the two later circumstances, but less so by the first. Both Nanas in Yazawa’s series contrast to their parents, but both are still very much shaped by their relationships with them. Yazawa does not present personality as an inheritable trait, but rather the relationship with parents being the source of definition. Yazawa’s work is not so analytical or detached, and could be considered a more emotional exploration of how society impacts the women within it.
Both works also highlight the importance of female relationship. Zola’s Nana has her most loving intimate relationships with her former colleague Satin, and Georges. Although Georges is male, his sexual relationship with Nana, and one of the few that could be considered romantic, begins with him wearing women’s clothing, an obvious nod to the tenderness of femininity. The relationship between both Nanas in Yazawa’s series also display the important role women share in each other’s lives, or more aptly, the role friendship plays. Their relationship is completely removed from sex, and aside from a few bawdy jokes, completely free of any homosexual desire. The power of sex is so overriding that there seems to be no room for friendship for the women in Zola’s work. However, Yazawa is allowed a freer hand to explore that friendship in a society that permits such an essential.
The character of Shin in Yazawa’s NANA seems like a direct link between the two works. Aside from the cute similarity of dressing up as girl that he shares with young Georges, Shin is also a prostitute. As a successor of sort to Zola’s Nana, Shin’s experiences with Reira are a direct attack to his ignorance towards love. Zola’s Nana never has the luxury of meeting her Reira, or rather, she cannot acknowledge the unlimited affection offered by Georges. Shin is shaped by Ryoko, and she represents his home of sorts (Volume 17, 50). A past of women using sex to reach their ends, and the universality of this approach. Shin living as a prostitute is an example of women having the financial freedom to obtain sex like a commodity as well as men, but his growing love for Reira contradicts this cynical notion of equality. Yazawa seems more intent on presenting a society where sex is not purchased, but rather goes hand-in-hand with love. Shin’s suffering is the product of this difficult lesson.
Yazawa has clearly followed along a thread that connects her to Zola, and she does so much more to make the subject her own. Her women are not so shackled by a society which identifies them so singularly in their role as sexual creatures. However, her characters do still find themselves trapped in a society which does emphasize those values over other talents or abilities. Caught between tradition and modernity, Yazawa’s NANA battles against the oppressive tone felt by women living in a society still largely defined by its patriarchal past. Of course there is more to changing that than just portraying the plight of women.
3. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols
As a prominent feature of Ai Yazawa’s NANA, punk rock music is a major facet of the series and what it represents. As a musical genre that was an incredibly counter cultural force when it appeared, the punk rock movement was a screaming defiance that represented the civil unrest in the western world. That scream is perhaps best embodied by the Sex Pistols through their brief career in the late 70’s.
Aside from various overt references throughout the series, and the obvious similarities between Ren and Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols stood for much more than just a rage against society. It was a deliberate attempt to change the face of music, the Sex Pistols were less a satire and more a direct confrontation of the ills in society. Nana is dissimilar in that it is somewhat of a social satire, but where the share common ground is the hope that it is possible to change that society through action.
That optimism matched with such a distinct fashion style promotes individuality and equality. Vivienne Westwood is also mentioned several times throughout the series and she also has an obvious influence on the fashions worn by many of the characters. Her clothing has often been associated with the punk movement, and the Sex Pistols in particular, but her presence points to an even deeper relationship between punk rock and NANA. Punk is not the new individualistic movement shared by persons who happen to hold a common opinion, but rather a fashion style that is adopted by a wide variety of people. This more recent perspective of punk as a fashion style, and one that is even considered passé according to one of the producers at Gaia, forces the characters in NANA to distinguish themselves from the poseurs.
Nana O. calls Nana K. out as one when she mentions her knowledge of the Sex Pistols coming from the film Sid & Nancy. As a story that not only took many liberties with the real life events it is based on, it is also looked down upon by lead singer from the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten. He considers it a deliberate attempt to cash in on the life of his friend, Sid Vicious, and it can be perceived as another example of corporate culture making a profit from the real life suffering of individuals struggling with the very real problem, something easily seen in NANA through Search Magazine’s relentless exploitation of Nana O. and her past.
Nana O., and the series itself to a larger extent, bypasses the poseur label and establishes itself as a real voice for social reform. The punk movement, once again according to Johnny Rotten, was also an attempt to show women that they were not second class citizens. NANA takes the shape of a seemingly familiar genre known as the romance and flips the conventions usually associated with it. Much like the Sex Pistols not being the only band to perform punk music, NANA is not the only comic series to attempt to make a realistic look at sex, romantic relationships, and friendships, but much like the Sex Pistols, it is one of the best examples of how to do it right.
4. Love is serious business!
The most challenging task attempted by NANA is its desire to make the subject of love and romance as something that should be taken seriously. Of course, to do that there needs to be a deliberate attempt to subvert the notion of a male dominated social sphere where love takes a backseat to pragmatism and rationality. Both Nanas show themselves to be women who are shaped by the men around them, however, they also distinguish themselves as women who refuse to let that be the end of their stories and carve their own personal path to happiness alongside the men in their lives.
Although she has had a wide variety of men in her life, Nana K.’s spending habits and desire to be the perfect domestic wife are both most completely satisfied by Takumi. And, with a little effort from Nana K. herself, some of her emotional needs are satisfied as well. Takumi himself is a representation of the negative qualities that would constitute a stereotypically traditional man. He’s analytical, serious, and concerned with his work above all else. Takumi’s method of expressing his emotions are similarly insensitive and disregard Nana K.’s feelings as well as expecting her role to be one that exclusively supports him (Volume 9, 20). Takumi’s interest in Nana K. and his promise to care for her by marrying her is entirely contingent on her becoming pregnant, and has little to do with her as a person. Of course, it should also be said that Takumi does seem to have genuine feelings for Nana K.(Volume 9, 174), but his difficulty in expressing himself and showing adequate consideration for her does make him appear more cold and distant than he perhaps truly is. Even in this situation though, Nana K. distinguishes herself by not simply submitting to her fate, but instead trying to carve out the type of life she wants with Takumi and making her life a happy one. Nana K. does truly love Takumi and she is willing to do what it takes to make things work.
Also in a similarly difficult position, Nana O. finds her destiny also shaped by a man as her quest for fame gets its major push not on her own merits, but through her relationship with Ren. Nana O.’s deal with the record label Gaia seems to be on the verge of collapse with Gaia showing little interest in the type of music Blast performs. However, this soon changes when Nana O. herself becomes a hot topic as the girlfriend of Ren from Trapnest. This method of identification catapults Nana O. to fame, but merely on the strength of being associated with a man. She does not attain any sort of fame based on her own merits, but rather becomes famous through association. She is less a singer and more of a novelty. But Nana O. is willing to accept her fate and turn her situation into an advantage (Volume 10, 97). Rather than being a victim, Nana O. is willing to fight for her dream, and she is not willing to let the media make her out to be nothing more than the girlfriend of celebrity who actually has talent.
Other romantic relationships also display further examples of incredibly trying challenges and their requisite compromises. Nobu shows remarkable growth as the seemingly attractive stereotype of the heroic boyfriend is shattered in his relationship with Nana K. and his subsequent relationship with Asami. Nobu learns to give up the idea of being his girlfriend’s hero in the case of Nana K., and then he finally learns how to support her in a very real way without any illusions of rescuing her in the case of Asami. Through some incredibly difficult trials, Nobu learns the path to stronger relationships, and even if he is less suited to Asami than he is to Nana K., their relationship proves that he has learned how to offer support that does not propose to be more than it could be, or maybe should be. Nobu has learned that women do not need a man in their life to solve their problems, and though his intentions were never so malicious as that, they were coloured with the benevolent sexism that can afflict men who assume women need to be protected.
Reira is another figure who represents a stereotype, in this particular case a princess who needs to be pampered. As the songstress from Trapnest, she is often the source of jealousy from both Nanas (Volume 12, 152, Volume 15, 130). She is often isolated from the world of romance as no man seems to be worthy of her company, at least according to Takumi. The only exception to this rule that is ever really displayed publicly is her relationship with Yasu. With Yasu as the paragon of responsibility, this admission seems to be an even stronger example that Reira is only ever allowed into the best of hands. This relationship aside, the only other example of Reira having a chance at being happy for her own sake, and not from the joy she gives others, is her relationship with Shin. More than just a means of teaching him about love, what he shares with Reira allows her to break free of her image as the perfect princess to find a more fulfilling path of a relationship with flaws. The very beginning of their relationship is signified by this when she hires Shin as a prostitute. Reira cannot be perfect, she must have flaws, otherwise the burden of being so flawless threatens to crush her.
5. I Still Have That Key to Apartment 707...
Friendship is another essential relationship within NANA, and no friends seem quite as close as Nana Osaki and Nana Komatsu. The love they have for one another goes further and runs deeper than the love shared by any other two characters throughout the series. Regardless of the situation, they always seem to be on the side of each other, no matter what. Considering Takumi for a moment, Nana O. is perfectly capable of supporting Nana K. in her relationship with Takumi in spite of her distaste for him. Conversely, Nana K. supports Nana O. and Blast regardless of the fact that she was once a huge Trapnest fan and that she is married to that band’s leader.
The most important factor in both their lives seems to be the happiness of each other, and the unabashed love they have for one another that never really wavers is an example of how strong a friendship can be. They certainly have their share of trials, and Nana K.’s relationship with Takumi may be the most striking example of an obstacle placed in the way of their friendship, but even that seems to dissolve into the background after the simplest of letters reveals the heartfelt feelings they have for each other. Much like Ren observes, Nana K.’s message to Nana O. reads like a love letter, and acts as a demonstration of the feelings the two girls share for one another.
As opposed to the female bond shared by the Nanas, another prominent friendship is the exclusively male one shared by Yasu and Ren. As longtime friends, their relationship is firmly cemented in a mutual trust and care for one another. Though little time is given to them specifically, the feelings they have for one another carry an undertone where Yasu knows Ren well enough to know that Ren needs Nana O. more than he does, although he also knows that Nana O.’s feeling for Ren are probably stronger than her feelings for him as well. However, there is a distinct feeling of inequality between them from Ren’s perspective. Having Yasu hand him everything in his life, Ren pushes away from Yasu’s care at times, even though it originates from Yasu’s genuine concern for him, and not the pity it can be perceived as. In spite of this issue, Ren and Yasu share a deep bond between one another, even surmounting Yasu’s universal care for all those around him.
A less turbulent friendship is that between Nana O. and Nobu. As Nana O.’s first real friend, a tremendous bond was formed between them, and they serve as a fine example of how men and women can be friends without any sort of romantic or sexual tension. When Nobu is nominated to be the one to check on Nana O. after she reads about her mother’s situation, it is not just because he is her closest friend available (with Nana K thought to be unreachable), but because unlike Yasu, he can offer Nana O. comfort without any assumed ulterior motive. The purity of his care, as solely being care, shows how they can comfort one another regardless of any preconceived notion as to whether that sort of thing is possible between men and women. This is another example of a subversive convention, although perhaps it is one that is less salient to its target audience as that sort of friendship is happily becoming a norm. At least in my experiences.
The last friendship I would like to touch on is the one between Jun and Nana K. As perhaps one of the rougher figures, Jun is almost like a parent to Nana K. doling out harsh advice as opposed to a shoulder to cry on. Jun does all this out of her care for Nana K., and her understanding of how she works. Perhaps the most striking example of Jun’s desire to help Nana K. improve herself is seen when she notices a new example of maturity in her (Volume 15, 177). Instead of scolding Nana K. as she usually does, Jun offers a warm smile to her friend with the knowledge that the irresponsible girl who followed her boyfriend to Tokyo has finally started to grow up. Though this cannot all be assumed to be the work of Jun’s harsh advice, it does show the intention behind all those nasty words.
Friendship, as a relationship without sex, seems to make things easier, or at least simpler. Throughout the series friendships are rarely tested the way relationships are, and much like in real life, they offer more comfort than strife in their very nature. Aside from the two Nanas, the friendships of the others seem to work like most other friendships, operating on a superficial level most of the time, with a deeper connection in times of crisis. However, the friendship between both Nanas transcends these moments, and the two girls are filled with such an incredible amount of love for one another that it is hard to believe that they are not more than just friends. But friends they are, and will always remain, and perhaps they are the definition of what it really means to have a best friend, someone who will stand with you against any obstacle, and face it with you holding your hand in theirs.
6. The Family Times
It is difficult to talk about NANA without mentioning the rampant commercialism that surrounds it. As the most popular Shojo series of all time in Japan, it is not too surprising to see that NANA has spawned a wide variety of merchandise and adaptations. I should mention right off the bat that I see nothing wrong with any of this, and it is to the credit of the series that it has spawned such a passionate following that it could create the demand for such products. However, with the use of a series of ads in the back of each volume of the manga, all written by Yazawa herself, it seems to be inserting itself into the series in an odd way.
The Family Times, Ai Yazawa’s flier which advertises products related to any manga series she has created in the past, is an odd addition to the English language edition of the manga. While I have no insight as to the reason it was included, especially since most of the products will likely never be released in North America, it does make me wonder why it was included. Some of this may be some incredibly long grasps at straws, but I think there is a reason that the merchandise is included not only in the back pages, but also in the content of the bonus stories.
As a hugely popular series, and one that has no doubt made her a lot money, Ai Yazawa surely must be under some scrutiny as to what she does with her series. Much like many other writers in the past, Yazawa must find herself under public pressure for more. More is an incomplete term, but it does represent the vague demand placed on her. Happy to oblige, Yazawa seems to use one of her characters to voice an opinion on entertainment for a large audience. Asami, a woman very familiar with performing for the sake of an audience rather than herself, quite nicely outlines how easy it is to create something for yourself, but how much more difficult it is to create something for someone else (Volume 16, 71). This defence of Nobu’s pop sound which distresses his artistic side seems to be an attempt to bridge the gap between both perspectives. There is no shame in writing something for a wider audience, because at least then you’ve brought pleasure a lot of other people. In reaching many different people in a way that can bring so much joy, and to do so while still maintaining such a high degree of artistic integrity, Yazawa seems to take up both challenges or being artistic and popular.
In a sense, Yazawa is much like the Nana we know from Zola’s novel, and the Nanas in her own story. However, while Zola’s Nana traded her flesh, and Yazawa’s Nanas fought against the social pressure labelling them by their sexuality, Yazawa seems to be seizing a tremendous amount of financial success and fame by taking a feminine genre such as the romance and creating something that defies convention and while still appeasing the masses who supposedly prefer more conservative storytelling.
7. Not quite over
Though I’ve gone on for quite a while, I still feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface on so many topics. Naturally, this leaves many questions up in the air. I am not going to take stabs at the plot (though I have theories of course! ), but there is still so much more about NANA that has yet to be said. Heck, I can even think of several problems related to what I wrote myself.
As far as feminist fiction goes, many others have treaded the same ground as NANA. In some ways, it could be considered rather archaic as women have made much progress over the last hundred years, and thankfully that progress seems to be continuing. The problems of both girls could easily be translated to the seventies or sixties, though perhaps my own mind is trapped in the North American perspective of such eras. Maybe NANA is a few decades late, but that doesn’t make its message any less valid, or any less necessary. So long as these injustices exist in any shape, they should be raged against, even if that rage takes the lovingly soft shape of a carefully wrought romance that can break your heart without a second thought. These difficulties still exist for men and women, and until they are completely gone, stories like NANA will be needed. Perhaps the possibility of always having those difficulties means we’ll always have great literature, but much like NANA itself, there is something to admire in the continuously rewarding pursuit of an unattainable perfection.
Maybe my perspective on this is entirely backwards. This entire essay is rather academic and filled with a rational analysis, but is this any better than an emotional one? Considering the subject matter, maybe a more intuitive approach is necessary, or maybe just one that focuses more intently on the emotional experience of reading the series. I personally think that might be too subjective, but when speaking of the subjective nature of art, it is entirely possible an emotional reading may resonate especially well with a large group of people.
I do hope that after reading all this, you’re not suddenly out for my blood for ending with such an inconclusive conclusion. But with an unfinished series, I hope that this cop-out can be allowed. There is so much about NANA that I was not able to touch on, and as much as I would like to blame that on the Demon Lord, I feel like I have taken up enough time with this rough introduction to my thoughts on the series. Perhaps when it finishes I will get a chance to rewrite all of this into something even bigger and more complete, but considering how long I went on for, I might be better off going for something concise.
To all of you NANA fans though, and there are far too few on this continent, I hope you all continue enjoying the series and I hope you can take something out of this essay that might help you appreciate it even more, or hopefully, appreciate it in your own unique way. This is really just a reflection of what I believe about great art, and that is the subjective experience you have with it is never quite the same as anyone else’s, and when talking about a particularly great series, it can be really exciting to read about the experiences of others. So I hope to do more reading than typing about NANA in the future, because the best way to preserve great art is to appreciate it.