Nana (2005)
Nicholas Driscoll
June 12, 2008
Note: review may contain spoilers

I've something of a history with the movie Nana. Back when I taught English in Shimonoseki, the local rental store became a regular stop on my prowl for Japanese media entertainment. It was particularly fascinating to comb through the fairly well-stocked Japanese movies section and see what sort of curiosities I might dig up. As an enthusiast of both Japanese cinema and comics, it was with some elation that I found the Nana title in the new releases section, even though I had never actually read the comic in question. Despite knowing full well that comic book adaptations have a some propensity for mediocrity, I find myself drawn to them, no matter their quality—much like my masochistic fascination with video game movies. Thus it was to my considerable chagrin when I searched in vain for those magical kanji on the back of the case that would indicate the presence of English subtitles. I had become well-acquainted at this point with the cerebral strain of raw Japanese movie watching and the deep impact that simple understanding of basic plot elements can have on the enjoyment of any given title. I'd also already suffered through the manga-based bomb Tetsujin 28 without English assistance, so I left Nana alone for other entertainment frontiers—like The Man Behind the Scissors (2005).

But it seemed I couldn't escape from Nana. I often saw it at the store, or got it confused with Kamikaze Girls (because of the similar odd couple theme), and then one day my friend Rachel said she had up and rented the thing herself. Though Rachel had never been particularly interested in comic books nor sitting through Japanese movies without any English subtitles, she had developed an interest in the film because of the music, which she had encountered via a friend playing the soundtrack in her car as they went on a road trip. Not about to waste an opportunity to watch a manga-based movie with a friend, I begged favor to join in the viewing and, obtaining her gracious permission, promptly went into research mode, reading up on the plot and characters from the comic in preparation before plopping down in front of the TV along with my friend, some snacks, and a dogged determination to understand. During that viewing more than any other, mostly on account of Rachel's interest in the film, I strained to understand the fast-chatter dialogue, focusing so hard that one might think the movie was a cryptic code of weighty import rather than a mere chick flick. However, my Japanese skills weren't developed enough to decipher the gossip plot, and all of my effort gave me in the end was a night's sleep interrupted by dreams of the characters and their infuriating opacity. Worst of all, there was no hope for redemption—even the special edition version of the DVD in Japan had no subs. It wasn't until just a few days ago that finally, through the miracle of a domestic DVD release and a weekend of watching live-action manga-based movies, I was finally able to screen the film with more than a modicum of comprehension. (For those who might be wondering, I also watched the fluffy fun film Love*Com and the disappointingly poor Honey and Clover. I know they're girly flicks. Shut up. I retain my masculinity.)

Based on the Ai Yazawa shojo manga of the same name, Nana the movie tells of the lives of two young ladies named Nana, their fateful meeting and blossoming friendship, and their somewhat complicated love lives. College-age Nana Komatsu (Aoi Miyazaki), who I will refer to by her nickname "Hachi" from now on to avoid confusion, is a ditsy, cheerful, hopeless romantic moving to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend, Shoji (Yuta Hiraoka, Swing Girls). When Hachi gets on the train, by chance she sits down next to the oblique, quiet Nana Osaki (pop singer Mika Nakashima), lead singer from a relatively small rock band known as the Black Stones. Through happenstance, the two very different girls end up as roommates and best friends as they try to navigate the rough and uncertain waters of their various relationships—in particular, naturally, their troubled love lives and, to a lesser degree, their jobs, and Nana's dream of becoming a famous singer bigger than her band's rival, the likewise female-led Trapnest, a band towards which Hachi harbors deep fan-affection. Not to mention that the lead guitarist was Nana's former lover!

The plot is, obviously enough, nothing original, and the staple of unlikely friendship between two wildly different personalities has been done enough times to become a cliché. Nevertheless, the characters are winning and deep enough for viewers to latch onto them. The two Nanas are not just cardboard cutouts limited to one character trait. Rather, they have feelings and dreams, often conflicting ones, and despite their differences, it's easy to see why the two of them would quickly come to care for one another. The story itself is also well-paced and, while there is plenty of ground to cover before the conclusion, rarely feels like it's trying to do too much. The screenwriters have carved out a nice chunk of plot from the comics, and it fits well into the format of a movie—a task which often proves to be too much for a lot of comic-based movies. The biggest weakness of the plot is an over reliance on coincidence to push the story forward, and also a lot of the minor characters haven't much to do, but these weaknesses don't hold back the movie too much.

A few words should be noted about the source material. While Ai Yazawa's phenomenally popular Nana comic series may be technically a shojo or girls' comic in that it ran in the shojo magazine Ribon, the story is more mature and realistic than a lot of girls' comics and is aimed at an older teenage audience, to the point that the title resembles a josei, or women's, comic—a genre sometimes notorious for its sexuality. Indeed, the back of first volume of Nana proudly states that "The world of Nana is a world exploding with sex, music, fashion, gossip, and all-night parties," giving the title an air of hedonistic bacchanalia. I've only read the first volume, but it certainly doesn't shy away from sexual depictions as both of the main girls engage in steamy copulation, sometimes with limited nudity and close-ups on their pleasure-drenched facial expressions. Interestingly, the movie tones such mature aspects down a few notches, with all mating taking place off-screen, and such elements as Hachi's dalliances with a married man while still in high school never mentioned. In fact, Hachi comes across in the film as an almost virginal innocent, rather than the "experienced" young woman she is in the books. I can't comment extensively on fidelity to the source material because I've read so little of it, and the story of the movie actually takes place after the events of the first volume, but the characters and even some of the costumes seem mostly faithful to their comic book origins, which should please most fans, even if inevitably many minor details, such as Hachi's belief in the Dark Lord of Terror, are excluded.

When it comes to truly capturing the spirit of the comic, acting is key, and in Nana this aspect is somewhat mixed, but overall makes a positive impression. Aoi Miyazaki as Hachi is arguably the biggest standout; she captures Miss Komatsu's idealistic enthusiasm for life very well, from her smiles to her tears, which is essential since she acts more or less as the narrator of the story. Only on rarest occasion does her performance show signs of artificiality. Mika Nakashima, on the other hand, was obviously hired because of pop star clout and resemblance to the scarily skeletal Nana Osaki; she isn't an actor, and sometimes it's obvious from the woodenness of her delivery. Surprisingly enough, though, even with her underdeveloped acting skills, the negative impact on the film is, in my opinion, negligible. Nana Osaki's character is established as a strong woman with a difficult past who copes partially by putting up a wall between herself and the world, often expressing very little emotion, displaying a deadened mask, which Nakashima does just fine, and it's easy for viewers to chalk up much of her questionable acting ability to Nana Osaki's somewhat awkward social skills. Supporting actors come across more professionally, including Yuta Hiraoka's turn as Hachi's fickle beau Shoji and the somewhat odd-looking Ryuhei Matsuda as Nana's paramour Ren, who exhibits a tenderness that makes it easy to understand why Miss Osaki might be attracted to him. Azumi's Hiroki Narimiya also makes an enjoyable appearance as one of Nana's band mates and seems to be channeling a bit of Shingo Kattori's spirit in his big-grinning performance. I also appreciated the presence of Death Note veteran Kenichi Matsuya, who lends his quiet, earnest acting to the part of Shinichi Okazaki, Ren's replacement in Nana's band.

Music is one of the strongest selling points of a movie like this with such a focus on the rock star life, and Nana again succeeds rather well. I'm not going to argue that Mika Nakashima is a good singer, but she acquits herself well with the movie's signature song, "Glamorous Sky," which I found stuck in my head after the credits were finished. There's a reason Mika Nakashima released an entire album performing "as" Nana. It suits her. Yuna Ito, the other pop star in the film who plays Reira, lead singer of Trapnest, technically sings better than Mika, and her song in the movie is softer, melodious, very pleasant J-pop. Most impressively, Yuna can sing very well in English and in Japanese, a rarity in Japan. The only problem with their songs is that the concert portions of the movie arguably go on a bit too long. The other instrumental themes throughout the film, utilizing strong violin movements, support the emotional content of the story well and are distinctive enough on their own merits. Now I rather wish I had a copy of the soundtrack myself.

I'm probably a bit biased towards this film due to my odd history with the title, even if I am not as fond of the manga itself. Nevertheless, Nana captures many of the strengths of the original material in a format that also works as a film, with good casting that matches the character designs from the comic and excellent music. The movie was so successful in Japan that it spawned an apparently less successful sequel. Somehow nevertheless I still hope to see it after Nana 2 (2006) is released in America this coming July, and that speaks to the quality of this title, despite a few plotline hiccups and occasional rough acting. For a chick flick manga movie, Nana excels.