Nana Komatsu is a helpless, naïve 20-year-old who easily falls in love and becomes dependent and clingy to those around her. Even though she nurses ambitious dreams of removing herself from her provincial roots and finding her true calling, she ends up traveling to Tokyo with the humble reason of chasing her current boyfriend Shouji Endo. Nana Osaki, on the other hand, is a proud, enigmatic punk rock vocalist from a similarly rural background, who nurtures the desire to become a professional singer. Putting her career with a fairly popular band (and her passionate romance with one of its former members) firmly behind her, she boards the same train to Tokyo as Nana Komatsu. Through a fateful encounter in their journey toward the metropolis, the young women with the same given name are brought together, sparking a chain of events which eventually result in them sharing an apartment. As their friendship deepens, the two attempt to support each other through thick and thin, their deeply intertwined lives filled with romance, music, challenges, and heartbreaks that will ultimately test their seemingly unbreakable bond. [Written by MAL Rewrite]
The background of NANA feels like an endless white night. Things seem to be continuously in motion; beginnings and endings wrapped up in an infinite wave of falling snowflakes waiting to melt into each other. The forefront sits in perpetual twilight; characters seem to be eclipsed by their own shadows with barely enough to catch a glimpse of who they are. The entire landscape depicts the frigidity of life rising from frosty gales to a calmer ether, only to revert to stormier lands. Movement here isn’t linear. Nothing is. NANA, as a whole, is pure kinetics; an explosion of emotional energy circling, clashing and always in motion. This is all infused as a careful exploration of fate, transience, and relationships in a modernized setting. NANA as a work fully invokes the power of pathos while taking “drama” to new heights.
Based on the acclaimed manga by Ai Yazawa, Studio Madhouse adapted NANA into a 47-episode series. The story follows the pivotal journeys of two incredibly “different” girls bound by the same name and circumstance. Nana Osaki and Nana Komatsu are planets apart yet exist in the same sky, tethered by each other’s gravitational force. Nana Osaki is externally a cool cat, adorned in Vivienne Westwood – the quintessential punk queen with a voracity for musical success. Whereas, Nana Komatsu, who garners the nickname “Hachi”, is a dreamer who sees, breathes, and dreams in pink; her ambitions don’t extend beyond finding her fairytale romance. Both are headed to Tokyo to pursue their various dreams (one to establish the perfect domestic life with her boyfriend, while the other wants to form her band and actualize her musical ambitions). Fate brings these two together as roommates and the narrative unfolds to reveal the tender anatomy of relationships and the power they have to shape people and their respective worlds – for better or for worse.
Then, what makes this work more than a seemingly run-of-the-mill drama about two girls discovering the pains and gains of life? What does it possess that other philosophized-by-life dramas don’t? The answer is simple: understanding. Yazawa writes candidly about people and the world, not as a spectator, but as someone clearly living in it. Nana portrays an acute understanding of how people are and their complexities that are simply written off as natural proclivities. There is reason even if Fate seems to play some indiscernible part. There is meaning even if chaos seems to rule it out. However, what’s impressive is not the mere incorporation of “understanding”, but “HOW” the work manages to create a stylized drama that is as visceral as the cold touch of the wintry night that it starts on.
Even with its luridly icy sensation, NANA is never detached or impersonal. It may be highly temperamental, but it never indulges in its own despair. It’s often cold but driven by the innate warmth of its living, breathing cast, who aren’t just personifications of suffering or “insert-theme.” This is partly what makes it sublime in its approach to drama. The drama isn’t a descriptor or a simple add-on. An event doesn’t happen so it can be “dramatic.” It doesn’t happen only in effect. There is an ebb and flow; a serpentine path painted with emotional uncertainty. The characters drip with it, but the difference is that they own it. There is accountability here. Events happen for the characters as an extension of them. They don’t occur only as a platform for causality (which makes all the difference).
Considering how easily emotional appeals can be manipulated to rehash emotional evocations, NANA remains earnest. There is a purpose in isolating feelings; to let the characters lather in them, not just merely show them; to explore them to such a degree that the feeling/the state itself becomes autonomous. Loneliness becomes its own character, as does love, as does happiness. It is as transient as it is eternal. The characters are so refined that it’s hard to separate them from the elements that define them. Drama is all about nurturing these humanistic nuances and intricacies in its own habitat. Yazawa knows this all too well. Instead of showing these conditions as mere outputs of a decision or situation, they exist on an aqueous spectrum blurring the lines used to divide them AS a part of the being that gives them shape and substance. Then, causality only becomes a mean, just like Fate, just like chaos, not the end. Ultimately, that’s what makes NANA idyllic as a drama, and even more so, as a story driven by life.
Holistically, NANA showcases its prowess for drama through natural rawness, unflinching realism, and scope for understanding its subject matter(s) on a cellular level. The picture is impressive, but what makes it a pinnacle of its kind are the details – the pieces of storytelling that it utilizes to convey its narrative.
First, there is perspective. Works revolving around the musings of “life” usually have a philosophy driving their vision of it; Nana has perspectives. What the series employs are contrasting, continual planes that converge with each other to give a wholesome view through Nana and Hachi. Their interconnectedness matters more than their seemingly opposing natures. The perspectives confess, observe, share, and exploit the hearts of the events and the characters. The episodes start with a stream of confessional thoughts spilling onto the screen and morphing into the events that transpired them. Structurally, this does two things: One, it offers balance. Two, it contextualizes. This approach helps establish reliability because there are two narrators. This naturally aids in mitigating the problem of the unreliable narrator. The image becomes complete even if it is in broad, disconnected strokes. This show is unwavering in its personalization, and both perspectives will establish that with an uncanny persuasion.
Additionally, there is the context. The synergy between Nana and Hachi creates its own ecology. This isn’t something that is easily fabricated by romanticizing the power of friendship. It is pure symbiosis, of two lives reflected through a continually cracking mirror. As the story progresses, the bifocal gaze of the two melds into one. Even the apparent contradictions between the two begin becoming whole. At first, Nana and Hachi seem to complement each other but gradually start inverting their traits. The evolution of each character is highly dependent on this progression which is why context is crucial. Hachi and Nana, along with the supplementary cast provide this even when the truth is far from being transparent. Although, getting to the truth feels trivial anyway. What the structural decisions do at their very core is reinforce the means (never the end). The importance of every word, emotion, and event that happens is preserved and with it, parts of the individual and their entire world for that moment in time.
That is what matters. These moments where time comes to a standstill and that instance singularly defines the world. Incepted through bursts of chemical reactions – frozen yet in flames – quietly burning everything around them. A tempest consumed by shadows of the past and uncertainties of the present. Where entropy orchestrates all and everything seems to fall into contradiction; where dreams are simply just dreams; where expectations are merely mesmerizing mirages in the distance; where love isn’t a fairytale; where the importance of understanding each other becomes more important than anything else that could ever exist. All of this is the essence of NANA’s characters. Hachi, Nana, and the rest of the cast are crafters of their own moments. They coat the ashen night-sky with them. Constellations composed of moments; visual strings connected by the last and the next, in a cycle of change. It is through these anecdotal glimpses that these characters take form.
The characters embody this candid usage of memory, singularity, and understanding. There is much emphasis on individual events and actions. These subtleties develop to reveal how the characters are constantly at odds with themselves (even when the tone seems to be lighthearted, and all seems to be well). This is why the symbiosis between Nana and Hachi becomes so vital because their moments are not only reflected in each other but formed by each other. Additionally, it’s their relationship that breaks the feigned insularity of the other characters. That doesn’t mean they don’t have their own identities as does the rest of the cast. Everyone has a dynamism to them: their own palettes, shades, and gradients. Good. Bad. These words have no place here. Bound by insecurities, identity, and passion; constantly seeking themselves in a game of hide-and-seek, these characters are more than just adjectives and a system of traits. The show doesn’t waste time in judging its characters because it has so much to say about them.
Even then, the one that seems to be the most misunderstood and unfairly scrutinized is Hachi. She is by far the most superficially flawed character. That is never shied away from. That makes her easy to hate or dismiss as a standard shoujo lead. Hachi is perplexingly idiotic. She flings herself into the worst situations and finds herself in a never-ending state of ambivalence. Not only that, she creates disharmony between many other characters like Nana and her band members. Unlike, Nana who is easily likable due to her strong candor, intense personality, and devotion to her principals and goals, Hachi is unstable, unreliable, and utterly whimsical.
What really substantiates her as a compelling character is how she is unapologetically grounded in her humanistic tendencies and flaws. This gives her a kind of awareness that the other characters, except for Yasu (Nana’s longtime friend and drummer for her band), just don’t have. Everyone acts like they are in control, regardless of how fragmented their reflection is. Where everyone else is running from the phantoms they fear, Hachi absorbs them. Nana is about as broken as they come but constantly hides her inner turmoil; stubbornly trudging through hardship and heartbreak. Pride means everything to her. Nana survives by hiding her true feelings, while Hachi lives by constantly embracing them. Hachi is fundamentally an honest character. She subconsciously recognizes her lack of control and her predispositions. Though, she often seems to be driven by her pseudo-idealization of romance which often recycles itself in ways worse than the last. She owns up to her wretchedness and attempts to reconcile; to change. Though, this doesn’t make her immune. Her awareness is often drowned out by her naivete resulting in incrementally worse situations (almost to the point of becoming stuck in a self-prophetic rut). Still, amidst it all, she remains transparent. There are no contrivances necessary with her. Transparency can be far more compelling than clarifying opaqueness, for what lies under the milky sheath is never truly clear.
Conclusively, the characters are superb because they are etched with all the shades of humanity. The physical and psychological are all accounted for. Character and emotion; feeling and action; change and stagnation; a sincere lust for meaning and acceptance are all encompassed by these characters. The best part is that there is no room to judge. The hearts of these characters beat in such sync with our own; that the only thing that’s left is empathy and understanding even if it shrouded in frustration.
All this is packaged visually by Madhouse. They did an exceptional job adapting this series. There is a certain grittiness to the visuals and atmosphere that keeps the show from wandering too deep into the typical shoujo aesthetic. The series depends heavily on delivering rawness and realism. Otherwise, there is a nice balance of bubbly, bright scenes (in all their shoujo glory) contrasted with the necessary grunge required to keep the actual spirit of the story intact. The characters’ idiosyncrasies are also poignantly preserved. The aesthetical and auditory direction kept the maturity of NANA blossoming throughout the show, despite its shoujo dispositions.
One further thing to note is that the manga is still publishing. The anime ends on a controversial note. For many, it leaves much to be desired. In the context of the story and especially how its told, the ending works. The story moves retrospectively. It doesn’t bring the necessary closure needed to substantiate all the complexities it introduces, but it provides enough insight into what’s important. It leaves room for more because there is more, but keeps the sanctity of the story still flourishing onwards. Another criticism it has received is its slow pacing. The pacing is slow as this isn’t a show focusing on high-octane plots. It is about people. It seasons itself over time, maturing with its characters, and their lives. It never feels redundant nor inflated. There are silly subplots but they aren’t superfluous; for they always work in tandem with a character. As aforesaid, the show never treats anything as an end. Sometimes things happen with no end and sometimes things spontaneously end. The point is that there is something concrete beneath it which ultimately sheds light on those involved.
That is what drama is.
Time lost in an emotive frenzy. Moments molded from remnants of what passed. Transformed into what is to come. Even in the calm, something moves. The scenery here is indeed a bit too chilly sometimes, laden with the melancholy of yesterday and the loneliness of tomorrow. Even so, the present waits in an ethereal stasis; attempting to understand itself. Remembering, being, and accepting; it’s all here, often presented as unyielding blizzard internalized by those who live it. As the single snowflake finally dissolves upon touch into a pool of white, to become something more than just one, those walking in NANA also find themselves inseparable from those around them. Nothing is perfect here. Nothing needs to be.
For what happens here is relentlessly flawed yet at the same time, essential and real. What happens here is, life.