Nana, the double-eponymous shojo manga by Ai Yazawa (licensed in North America by VIZ Media) is about two twenty year old women named Nana who meet on a train to Tokyo. They are profoundly different but strike up a friendly conversation. After arriving in Tokyo they coincidentally encounter each other again while viewing the same rental apartment (apt. 707 -”nana” is one of the words used for the number seven in Japanese). They are both short of cash and agree to share the apartment. As the two Nanas start their new lives they develop a complex and devoted friendship that helps them to negotiate their emotional, creative and financial challenges.
Nana Komatsu is given the nickname Hachi – another word used to refer to the number seven in Japanese. She is naïve, charming and impulsive. Hachi is the more conventionally girly-girl of the two Nanas and more subject to conventional ideas about lifestyle, relationships and consumerism. These potentially conservative qualities are outweighed by her energetic and generous disposition. She is the character who most embodies the Japanese Every Girl.
Nana Osaki is a singer and musician. She has a sharp sense of humour and a direct manner which is emphasized by her punk and goth-influenced style. She has learned some difficult lessons in the past and, while remaining a realist, Nana is deeply kind and empathetic. She is single-mindedly driven to succeed in establishing a career in music and upon her arrival in Tokyo she begins to seek out musicians for her band. Nana is a pragmatic iconoclast – both her demeanor and ambition set her apart from prescribed roles for Japanese women.
Ai Yazawa takes the “odd couple” template and develops a narrative that explores all the colourful vagaries of the pursuit of creativity and happiness. The duality of Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki provides readers with a character they can identify with (Nana K) and an aspirational character (Nana O). In developing the relationship between the two Nanas, Yazawa has a wide range of situations and relationships to exploit and the diversity in the narrative has kept Nana vital and entertaining through many volumes. Nana’s readership has grown up along with the characters in series.
Yazawa’s fluid line work and page design fits many of the general aesthetics of josei and has obviously been both an influence and influenced by the more mature genre. At the start of the series the characters were in their early twenties and are now moving into more adult situations and relationships. While it began as a shojo title Nana could now be comfortably described as josei.
There are some potential problems in introducing shojo manga like Nana into North America. In order to make the title more acceptable for young adult consumption occasional nudity and evidence of Nana Osaki’s chronic chain smoking have been somewhat curtailed in North American editions. Regardless, Nana is a title that is very popular in North American and is often included in public library collections.
There is potential that North American market could begin to reflect the Japanese one with many young women transitioning to josei as they mature themselves. Josei could easily find an audience in the young female readers who currently reading so much shojo manga. If a fun but realistic manga like Nana can become a popular addition to public library collections it suggests that more josei titles could also be included.
*Nana has been adapted into a series of live action films which are both are available on DVD in North America (I’ve seen the first one – it’s really good).
Images: panel and character art from Nana by Ai Yazawa