Saturday, December 8, 2007

NANA: More Than Just Girls' Manga

I have to say that I don't read a lot of manga. It's only very recently that I began reading them. Still, I'm quite picky with the stuff that I read, mainly because most stuff out there are the same.

Official Anime Website
Official Manga Website

DVD scans from
NANA 1 & 2 Special Edition (live-action) @
NANA anime series @ YesAsia
NANA anime series @ Play-Asia

Then There Are Those That Defy Tradition

But this is not saying that there are no exceptions. So it is incredibly refreshing to stumble upon a manga that takes a cliche plotline (two girls meet, become BFF, and all that destiny crap), fuses it with a genre from a completely different medium (music!) to create an almost wholly different, wholly new genre.

Genre limitations? No such thing. Genius transcends boundaries.

The mangaka Ai Yazawa of Paradise Kiss fame has come up with yet another genre-defying masterpiece. With this latest incarnation of hers, NANA attempts to fuse together a two-dimensional graphic medium like manga with music. The result is astounding to the point that NANA has acquired an almost cult-like following in Japan and several other countries, largely boosted by its adaptation into an anime series, two live-action movies, and tribute albums.

'Seven' – What’s Behind the Number?

NANA is the story of two girls sharing the same flat and the same name, Nana ("seven" in Japanese). The number 7 is actually a recurring theme in the manga, with Yazawa playing around with its apparent significance, sometimes cheekily as how one of the two Nanas is called Hachi ("eight") and often undisquised (e.g. their flat is Room 707).

That said, another striking aspect about NANA is the trendy style of clothes the characters wear. Yazawa is no stranger to fashion, as seen from her previous works. Her sense of style has always been intuitive and hip, catering especially to her readership: girls in their late teens or early 20s. But in NANA, her influence under Viviene Westwood clearly shines through, showing punk clothes and accessories that are so vividy detailed one would really think that they are based off actual items (and they are!) Or inspired some.

You will rarely find an anime or a manga that shows characters in different sets of clothes. A change of duds is almost sacrilege in the manga genre since the clothes are how readers identify a character. Of course, this puts anime characters in unrealistic light (I mean really, do they everrrr take a bath? Like, how smelly are they? Excuse me while I regurgitate my dinner).

NANA does not suffer the same handicap. Every chapter, every volume features STYLE -- edgy (as in Oosaki Nana's), girly (as in Komatsu Nana's), punk-gothic, eclectic, or preppy. You will never see a character that wears the same clothes, although some accessories and jackets may be re-worn, but always pairing it with a different blouse or skirt or pants to form a different outfit -- just like we do in the real world.

For Otaku and Audiophiles

Now, mixing fashion with manga, although novel, is not that remote a possibility. It is also not that difficult to achieve. But when you combine two genres that are so obviously disparate (two-dimensional art and audio) and running away with it with your integrity as an artist still fully intact.... Now, that’s more than managing it.

The manga features a microcosmic glimpse of the very exciting world of the music business and everything that comes with it – celebrity status, popularity contests, rabid fans, paparazzi, the whole gamut actually but in a slightly smaller scale. And in so doing, the manga has managed to transcend its two-dimensional boundaries and wow me with the awesomeness of it all hit that spot that makes you go "woah."

"Hey, Nana, do you remember the first time we met?"

The first time I ever came across NANA was when someone mentioned it in passing. I was not particularly interested because the title sounded silly. But by the first volume, I was hooked to the story. It's not just because Yazawa-sensei has come up with an original way of telling a story. It's because NANA is a genuinely good story that does not only focus on the lives of the main characters but branches, in soap opera-like fashion, into several different sidestories about the other characters.

So from a simple premise of two friends, the story picks up, gradually acquiring complexity as we are given several glimpses of the characters' motives, dreams, ambitions, loves, mistakes, heartbreaks.

It is not so much as romance but a deep connection between two people who are as different as different goes. It is not so much as meeting someone and living happily ever after but living through each of life's tangles one tangle at a time. It is definitely not so much as realizing dreams but darned trying. And this, in my opinion, is what makes the story of NANA absorbing.

It certainly takes a more mature outlook on life like a young adult who is seeing things as they ought to be seen yet not quite willing yet to shed naive ideals, because they aren’t called ‘ideals’ for nothing.

It is about growth. Nothing fancy. Nothing grand. There is no saving the world in NANA. Heck, the characters are actually pretty self-serving. No grand immortal love schemes going on, although Yazawa is not beyond extravagant declarations or wistful musings on destiny and love-against-odds. Not even allowing things bordering on retarded to escape without a bit of treatment, even as some of the things are probably treated more lightly than they should be.

(At one point in the manga, one of the main characters goes on a crash diet and faints as a result. It provides the perfect comedic relief, not to mention fertile ground for a proverbial meeting. But the danger that the character puts herself in is unduly diminished).

NANA is heavily grounded on realism though not necessarily realistic. Some portrayals are actually hard to read (there is a rape scene and pre-marital sex seems to be an accepted practice) and might even raise a few well-trimmed eyebrows. But NANA has no pretensions to political correctness. Neither is it a medium to preach morals to today’s youth. It is simply a story that could be about you or someone you might know.