On a snowbound train two young women meet. Despite being the same age, heading the same direction and, most curiously, sharing the same name, Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki couldn’t be more different. Nana Komatsu—or Hachi, as she is soon to be known—is a flighty, love-addicted bundle of energy in hot pursuit of her relocated beau. Nana Osaki—or just plain Nana—is a scarred and defiantly independent musician looking to make her name in Tokyo’s punk rock scene. To the delight of both, and consternation of their respective friends, they fit together like two long-lost pieces of the same puzzle. As they settle into their life together—they decide, after some divine intervention, to split a flat—Nana reassembles the shattered pieces of her old band and Hachi negotiates the thorny byways of true love. But as both know all too well, life is a thug with a crowbar up its sleeve, and it’s only a matter of time before it clobbers you over the head. That’s the beauty of friendship though: having someone there to pick you up and drag you to the hospital when it does.
You can’t talk about NANA without talking about the relationship around which Ai Yazawa coils her knotty tale of life in cosmopolitan Tokyo. It’s not a romantic relationship, at least not in the conventional sense. Neither is it a friendship in the conventional sense. Rather, Nana and Hachi’s relationship is something in between; two people finding in their friendship the soul-mate that they could never quite find in their romantic relations with the opposite sex. It’s an incredibly odd and yet somehow very real relationship, and probably the most conspicuous example of Yazawa’s vaunted skill with characterization. Creating an ostensibly mismatched pair who fit as seamlessly together as Nana and Hachi is a tricky business, and doing so with the honesty and gimlet eye for emotional consequences that Yazawa brings to bear is worthy of the overused epithet of “genius.”
But for this first set of episodes, that isn’t really so important. We could speak of Yazawa’s uncanny insights into the complementary faults that make the two so compatible, or her deadeye accuracy in capturing the conflicting feelings of those on the outer edges of friendship, or the organic flow the two Nanas’ relationship as it forms, intensifies, and ultimately cracks. But that is fodder for a later date. NANA will eventually become anime’s single greatest statement on the power, both constructive and destructive, of a single friendship, as well as one of the few dramas of truly epic breadth and depth, but here in the throes of its introductory growing pains it is only (only?) a nigh-perfect snapshot of that queasily uncertain time after high school and before the rest of your life.
Already the series’ signature mix of unflinching realism and deeply-felt sympathy is firmly in place, effortlessly shaping a cast of believably flawed and infectiously likeable characters and almost unconsciously tossing off scenes of heartbreaking honesty. It gets that intangible aura of directionlessness and looming, unstoppable change frighteningly right, and it wraps it all in a rich and achingly ephemeral sense of time and place. Watching NANA is unsettlingly like living through your twenties all over again—only cooler and sexier. Director and master technician Morio Asaka filters Yazawa’s fashions and urban environs through his own cinematic sensibilities to create a living, breathing and very seductive Tokyo, and he polishes each scene until it shines like a dark jewel. If you aren’t completely won over by the time Nana, decked in her punk finery and wreathed in moonlight, performs solo for Hachi, well, you may want to check your pulse. Likely as not, you’re dead.
Viz continues their winning streak with another fine dub. Kelly Sheridan attacks the role of Hachi with bracing enthusiasm, the supporting cast is strong, and the scripting is tight and, when need be, inventive. The real revelation, however, is Rebecca Shoichet, whose slender resume gives no warning of the smoky charisma she brings to the role of Nana. Nevertheless, the difference in the depth of Japan and America’s respective talent pools shows. Sheridan, Shoichet and the rest are taking over for a cast of voice-acting superstars, nearly all giving the performances of their lives. No matter how careful and professional the dub, it’s hard to compete with a Japanese track that can cram the likes of Kenji Hamada and Emi Shinohara into peripheral roles and populate the main cast with talents like Akira Ishida and Tomokazu Seki, to say nothing of the underrated Kaori and magnificent Romi Paku. Sad, but true.
A short but telling interview with Morio Asaka and the usual art gallery and clean OP and ED (a pair of rocking angst punkers) are on hand to stave off extras starvation. If you want to be well-fed, though, go elsewhere.
It’s almost futile to rave about NANA. Praising its construction, its wonderful central relationship, its cast, its intelligence and emotional maturity—it’s all woefully inadequate. Go on about the black-leather luminescence of its art or the artful stylization of its animation as you will (with MADHOUSE and Asaka behind it, you’d be amiss if you didn’t), deify Ai Yazawa if you want (the Goddess of Ugly Love?), parse, analyze, and deconstruct—it stands up to it all—but ultimately none of that can communicate the magic of the show; the way it can make your heart to that little two-step, the way it makes your blood stir and your chest hitch a little. Hell, by episode two, it has you feeling like dizzy little Nana. Like a fool in love. And in love with someone you just know is going to break your heart. That’s a feeling no words can do justice—you just have to experience it for yourself.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A
+ A nearly flawless adult drama: powerful, insightful, and most importantly, human; in short, one of the greatest anime of all time. No joke.
− Can be difficult to watch; recap episodes; Sid Vicious is not, repeat not a role model.
When Shoji meets Sachiko, the accidental namesake of Hachi’s imaginary rival, he knows he’s in trouble. And sure enough, mere episodes later everyone is in a world of hurt. Hachi, upon learning that Nana’s ex is Trapnest guitarist Ren, throws herself into reuniting the separated lovers, as much to distract herself as to help her friend. The result isn’t as clean as she’d like, but it does afford her a chance to meet her idol Takumi, Trapnest’s bassist. Whereupon a whole new world of hurt comes knocking.
NANA isn’t terribly enamored of plotting. Not that it’s plotless—anything but—just that it doesn’t try imposing narrative order on the chaos of its characters’ lives. On the surface that can make it feel a little rudderless. But such a judgment misses entirely the point of NANA. NANA isn’t about events, it’s about people and experiences. Its purpose lies not in constructing a neatly cresting narrative, but in capturing the reality of life and the poignancy of change at the cusp of adulthood. And it does so with the multifaceted perfection of a fine gem.
The question going into this set is whether the series can maintain that perfection: its honesty, potency, and indeed plain old excellence. Firing on all cylinders for fifty episodes isn’t easy to do, and all twelve episodes (well, eleven if you discount the recap) pass with the expectation that the show will trip up somewhere, will somehow flop, fall flat or at least stumble or slip. Even if just momentarily. But it never does. One wonderfully formed scene after another the series does nothing but impress. If the previous set was falling in love with a series you know will break your heart, this is the series breaking your heart. Nearly every scene glitters with telling little touches that open foggy windows into the hearts of its protagonists, while pointing the way towards swelling changes that wash with tide-like regularity through their lives. A parking-lot confrontation where Hachi’s heart shatters like glass only to reform into something even more unyielding; a concert where music sets free a torrent of repressed emotion; a late-night tryst driven by a toxic upwelling of self-loathing—again and again the series builds to moments that sear themselves into the memory, and every time their power and unsparing realism comes as a surprise.
The facility of Ai Yazawa’s writing is nothing short of astonishing. Even as the series prepares itself to tear your heart out and dance a high-heeled polka on it, it is shining a light through the bewilderingly familiar prism of its characters’ personalities. Starkly exposed is both the fragility and the self-reproach that bubble beneath Hachi’s blithe self-interest. Briefly glimpsed are the doubt and need that NANA hides behind her brash front. Compassion buds in Hachi, twisted by her self-absorption, just as appreciation buds in NANA, twisted by dependence. The two intertwine, the layers of each personality complementing the other’s in ways both healing and imperiling. It’s a dance of personalities as delicate as it is powerful, and hands-down the greatest achievement in a series crowded with them.
But it isn’t the only one, nor are they all Yazawa’s. Her vision is broad, thorny and incisive—never does it flinch from ugly realities, and not once does a relationship, personality or development ring false—but without Morio Asaka that would mean little. Asaka teases every nuance of feeling and meaning from Yazawa’s story, forming hugely complex emotions with limited resources and then beaming them to us via some form of animated cinematic telepathy. No gesture, expression or visual flourish is without its corresponding meaning, no shift in the score’s tempo or insertion of a Black Stones song without its effect on us. He juggles Yazawa’s multiple storylines with virtuosic ease, deftly handles her characters, and almost off-handedly arranges some of anime’s finest concert set-pieces. Heck, the Black Stone’s first Tokyo concert is worth the price of admission alone.
Given the series’ glossy perfection, every imperfection in Viz’s dub stands out like a zit on a supermodel. It isn’t a bad or even substandard dub by any stretch. Indeed it has some potent charms, not the least of which is Rebecca Shoichet’s wonderful turn as NANA. It does, however, make mistakes. Little things that you usually wouldn’t notice in a dub: inflections missed by a margin, delicate timing thrown off by necessary rewrites, hitches in performances. In a normal series they would mean nothing, but here they are highly visible flaws that occasionally unbalance very intricate narrative constructs. The subtle doom that hangs over the series is dampened when Kelly Sheridan misses the yearning melancholy that haunts Hachi’s monologues, and too many of the series’ aching episode-end (and -beginning) transitions are knocked askew by glitches in timing. Little things, but cumulative in their effect.
For extras fun: a dialogue-free version of one of the concert set-pieces.
It becomes a kind of reflex to j
udge anime series based on their entertainment value. But NANA reminds us that anime can be much more than mere diversion, more than anesthesia for whatever pain plagues your life. There’s a quality to it, an elusive, rare and yet familiar quality. A quality that you can sense in the redemptive mysticism of Haibane Renmei, feel it in the cruel psychological poetry of Hideaki Anno, see it in moral ambivalence of Koi Kaze. Honesty, realism, insight—these are but weak synonyms for it: Truth. NANA may not quite be sister to those wonders—it is just a hair too concerned with dramatic convention to violently shatter the mold the way they do—but it has that quality, and with it becomes something more than entertainment: Art.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Heightens the intensity of an already flawless adult drama; the Nana+Nana bond.
− Character designs are an acquired taste.
As what first seemed an opportunistic one-night stand with Takumi blossoms into a decidedly warped relationship, it drives a wedge between Hachi and Nana. Nana hates the long-haired bastard and she can’t bear the sight of them together. The alienation is forestalled when Hachi’s flighty little heart flits to another, less icky flower, but the respite doesn’t last long. Life drops a bomb on poor Hachi, one with enough megatonnage to level Nana’s life too. As the two drift farther apart, BLAST is offered its first record contract and Nana throws herself into her work. But the bond they formed remains, no matter the events that conspire to cleave it. Whether it will support them as their search for fulfillment takes them in opposite directions or lay them both low is something only time will tell.
If you hate Hachi with the heat of a thousand suns, the second half of NANA will only stoke the inferno. In twenty-plus episodes it maps out, in ugly and exacting detail, the evolution of a course of action that would by most standards be unforgivably mercenary. Hachi is the main player and it culminates in a decision that could, if you were kindly disposed, be called self-serving. It’s a chain of events that seems almost tailor-made to turn Hachi-haters away from the series.
Which is a pity, since turning away means missing one of anime’s great narrative feats: the forceful insertion of audiences into the head and heart of a girl who must make one of the most universally reviled decisions in the cinematic repertoire. It is, not to give too much away, a move that has been variously villainized, scorned, and pitied. But the brilliance of NANA, and Ai Yazawa, is that they put us so far into the life and mind of Hachi, delineate her thoughts and feelings so precisely and humanely, that her decision seems not tragic or small-hearted but mature, genuinely painful…even heroic. It’s a work of masterful emotional and cinematic manipulation, almost Hitchcockian in its perversion of audience identification, but more human—and more heartbreaking—than much of what the Master produced.
And it’s not even the greatest of the series’ qualifications for greatness. At least, not clearly. The clearest victor is still the Nana/Nana relationship, a bond as difficult to summate as it is unique. It would be tempting to say that Ai Yazawa invented a heretofore unknown relationship for the two, were it not for the note of pure truth the relationship sounds when struck with a stressor. It wasn’t invented so much as discovered, or more accurately, extrapolated from real life. Brilliantly, painfully so. The stressor, for the curious, is that fateful decision of Hachi’s, which rends their friendship asunder, sending echoes of the tearing rippling all the way to the series’ final, ambiguous moments.
With the tearing, around the end of set three, focus shifts a little more to the Nana side of Yazawa’s tapestry. And with the shifting comes the music. Not in the soundtrack—though director Morio Asaka’s sparing, incisive use of ominously ascending strings and modern rock is a goosebump-raising treat—but in the lives of the story’s characters. Like everything on the series’ broad but intensely personal canvas, the musical lives of Nana and her cohorts (and enemies) are complex, powerful, and above all, real. The nasty, cutthroat vortex of muddily intermingling business, mass media and art would make an excellent series in its own right, even before it intersects with the masochistic, morally compromised romances of Hachi and the trauma of her dangerous untwining from Nana.
You don’t need to be susceptible to the rock mythos to enjoy the behind-the-music turn the series takes, but it helps. Particularly in appreciating the glamorous, dangerous sheen the musical myth-making adds to the series’ last leg. It also pays to be up on your rock history. Knowing who the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious are is a necessity, and knowing what Yasu’s ownership of Incesticide says about his musical influences or what Reira’s fondness for “Layla” says about hers is nice, if not imperative.
And holding all this together—unflinching emotional realism, high-gloss rock ‘n roll living, localized Tokyo milieu—is Morio Asaka. Asaka isn’t an auteur in the individualistic, fiercely artistic sense that directors like Hideaki Anno or Satoshi Kon are. But neither is he some studio hack. You don’t turn out series like Cardcaptor Sakura by being a nepotistic parasite. What Asaka is, is an expert and flexible craftsman. One need only listen to him evoke a previous episode’s climax with a few strums of an acoustic guitar, or watch how his transitions link scenes even as they comment—sometimes wryly, sometimes sadly, sometimes forcefully—on the events they conjoin, to appreciate the power and nuance he brings to the tale he tells.
Most viewers will probably want to watch NANA subbed. That isn’t to say that Viz’s dub is sub-par, or that it hasn’t been improving. It isn’t the former and certainly has been the latter. As their roles have grown, most of the supporting cast has risen to the task, delivering consistently good and consistently faithful performances while the leads all stay strong. The dub even dodges a potentially hairy bullet with its solid, toned-down (and irritatingly uncredited) take on BLAST’s flamboyantly gay manager. But again, the English actors are faced with a monster Japanese cast that includes a goodly proportion of the cream of the seiyuu crop, and no matter how you cut it they haven’t the same emotional range. Think of it as the Polish mounted cavalry facing down the Blitzkrieg: valiant, commendable, and doomed. Which lends the already likeable cast an additional underdog charm. So, not a total loss.
Other than a pretty cool animated music video for one of the opening/BLAST songs on the fourth set, there are no extras of note on these releases.
There is a certain danger in championing NANA’s artistic merit. Doing so can give the false impression that the show is best appreciated by cinematic eggheads. While the eggheads will find much to appreciate, particularly on multiple viewings, it isn’t so high-minded that it forgets its primary purpose as entertainment. It takes refuge from the punishing strength of its emotions in rueful humor, and the thrilling, kinetic concert set-pieces bespeak a series thoroughly versed in the appeal of pure spectacle. Even the truths it speaks, about the spaces that separate people and the terrors and delights of bridging them, are components in a vicarious web of emotion rather than sterile observations to be appreciated for their intellectual acuity. The honest internal discussions, the silences pregnant with meaning, the germs of truth, the meticulously interwoven plots, the raggedly real characters, the powerful yet terrifyingly delicate central relationship, the deliberate spurning of distaff fantasies—everything that separates NANA from its peers is there, not for intellectuals to mind-wank to, but to fill us all so full of sadness, joy, regret and, yes, love that it leaks from our tear ducts. Surrender yourself to it; you won’t regret it.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Ambitious, wickedly smart, brutally honest, and artistically accomplished—the finest romantic drama to come down the pike in a long, long time.
− Not everyone will appreciate having to immerse themselves in Hachi’s thoughts and feelings; not for the kiddies or the anime=ninjas crowd.