One thing I hadn’t counted on when I started this blog was how nostalgic re-reading some comics would be.
I looked at Inuyasha a couple of weeks ago then while wandering through Forbidden Planet on Sunday my eye fell on an English translation of Nana by Ai Yazawa.
Now this manga is pretty old, I know because it came out in 2000 the year before I moved to Japan and it was just getting going then as a classic manga serial.
Nana – a cult manga in the making
The series was first published by in Japan by Cookie and ran for 22 volumes. It spawned an anime and two live action films, a PS2 and Nintendo DS game and a whole host of tribute albums and songs. It also won a raft of industry awards.
It first came out in English translation by Viz Media in 2007, which just shows you how long it can take for even the most popular Japanese manga to reach English speakers.
I have to be honest my Japanese was never really good enough to understand every nuance of this story so although I enjoyed it at the time I was curious to pick up an English copy and re-visit it.
Turns out it was pretty much as I remembered it but now it is surrounded by a rosy glow of nostalgia, not just for those crazy, frustrating, amazing years in Japan but for my 20s in general.
A Story of two girls
The story follows two girls with the same first name: Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki.
Nana Osaki is a punk singer with a tragic past, brought up by her mean grandmother and left to fend for herself from age 16, she finds her calling in being lead singer for a local band BLAST.
She falls in love with the guitarist, Ren, who despite his own tragic past, brags about being an abandoned baby and boasts about having been in the news since birth.
Ren and Nana O live together in the warehouse district where he was found as a baby. He is her family, until that is he gets the chance to join a just signed band in Tokyo. Nana O decides not to follow him wanting to push her own career first. But two years later she sets out for Tokyo looking to hit the big time. That’s when she meets…
Now Nana Komatsu is initially the weaker character. She falls in love at the drop of a hat, follows her friends’ ambitions rather than her own and is generally a bit of a mooch. But if you’ve probably known someone who was a bit like this, or if you are honest you were a bit like this when you were 20 at times.
After failing to get into university or a community art college in Tokyo she works a job in a video shop in her home town until she’s saved enough money to follow her friends. Then she meets her namesake and of course gets a total girl crush on Nana O.
The beauty of these two characters is that they are a little like John Lennon and Paul McCartney – you are either going to be drawn towards the nice one or the rebel but in reality there are aspects of both in everybody.
What else can reading Nana offer?
I would say though that Nana also provides some nice insights into Japanese life and how essentially young Japanese people are on an inexorable trajectory towards becoming their parents.
The teenage punk bank BLAST has just come off stage – adrenaline pumping from their gig.
What do they do?
Get drunk or high and blow off steam by being anti-social and flipping off society?
No way, they politely go to an Izakaya for dinner, carefully observing Japanese custom by removing their heavy duty punk boots and lining them up before sitting at floor level tables on tatami mats.
Not very punk behaviour from a western point of view
But it is realistic
Young people in Japan in general just don’t do anarchy. Having spent two years teaching 14 to 16 year olds in a Japanese High School I can tell you they are the least obviously hormonal, rebellious or obnoxious kids you can imagine.
Of course though there are rough schools and kids that get into motorbike gangs.
It’s not Disneyland
Japan suffers its fair share of social problems that affect young people and lead them to try to find belonging and a sense of identity apart from the mainstream.
But for the most part making other people feel uncomfortable through your behaviour is just ingrained in their DNA as being completely unacceptable.
So who should try reading Nana?
This is a great manga for anyone interested in what life is like for young people in Japan (in the context of a fictionalised storyline of course but it is very much grounded in reality).
Or if you are in your 20s and you’re still struggling with finding yourself and your soul mate and you want a comic that reflects those issues.
Or if you’re in your teens and you want to see what’s waiting for you 😉
Or if those days are past – it’s still fun to look back
I enjoyed finding unlikely parallels between a Japanese 20 year old trying to make her way in Tokyo as a punk band singer and a Scottish girl once in her 20s trying to teach English in Japan and wondering where that road would lead.
I’ve had this series on the shelf for a while and have decided to take a look at it properly now thanks to your article. It’s interesting that you taught English in Japan – I’m currently teaching English in Taiwan. Since I’ve come here my love for anime and manga has blossomed; even though Taiwan produces little of its own, the following for manga in particular is strong.
I’d say the same thing about the high school students I teach here – they don’t do anarchy. That being said there’s plenty of anarchy going on in some of their minds, mainly due to the overload of work they have and the unrealistic emphasis on achievement. I liked your comparison of the two Nanas to McCartney and Lennon, you’re right that there are aspects of both in every one I guess. Looking forward to checking this one out – thanks for a great article!
Thanks for your comment James. There was a Taiwanese exchange student in the high school in Japan when I was there. Even the Japanese kids were shocked at the long hours they had to study after school. The school I taught at was very academic and about 95% went on to uni so they all worked really hard and it definitely took it’s toll on some of them. Glad you are discovering more manga over there, anything you can recommend?
Yes, they really work hard over here! I’ve read quite a few titles since coming here, all of them are by Japanese authors though so you might know them already. Some of the best I’d have to say are Death Note, Bakuman, Usagi Drop, Solanin and Aku no Hana. Are you reading any other manga series at the moment?
I have read Death Note, the first few books were the best, really clever, I think it went downhill a bit though. I haven’t read any new manga for a while though. I’ll check out the ones you mentioned, I like the sound of Usagi Drop and Bakuman especially. I also really liked Meitantei Conan (Detective Conan) when I lived in Japan and of course Doraemon 🙂
Nana Komatsu started to piss me off, so I drifted away from the manga. But then when that one tragic thing happens, I was done. Loved it otherwise, but when I get hooked on a manga, I get REALLY hooked. I was depressed for weeks after reading Bokura Ga Ita. Maybe I’ll go back to it…someday.
I agree, some of the story lines can be really emotional. Hopefully you’ll discover something amazing and get back into it one day 🙂
Oh NANA! I’m honestly so saddened that we have not seen a continuation of the manga. Ai Yazawa did very recently hint that NANA will be back very soon. This was hinted in August with “Junkos Room” and the likes, and the website says NANA SOON, So I have high hopes! It is really a genre of its own like how Cowboy Bebop can be considered a genre of its own. NANA is just one of those manga/anime’ that you don’t forget.
Is Nana ever going to continue? The ending was sad and does not serve justice to the anime.