Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 20th 2008
One snowy night 20-year-old self-admitted airhead Nana Komatsu catches a train to Tokyo to join her boyfriend Shoji, who is attending art school. On the train she finds an open seat by a fellow 20-year-old woman, a rock singer who eventually also introduces herself as NANA. Coincidence later leads both of them to seek the same apartment at the same time, resulting in them becoming roommates. Though vastly contrasting in personality and background, over time they gradually form a tight bond as they help each other through the tribulations of their professional and romantic lives.
Japanese-made live-action versions of anime and manga rarely warrant the time necessary to watch them. Often campy (whether intentionally or not) and usually suffering from cheap special effects, weak acting, even weaker writing, and production values that make American B-movies look good by comparison, they typically smell about as good as rotting cabbage.
That is not, however, the case with NANA. Oh, sure, it still has the look of a low-end B-movie and an occasional clunky scene, but on the whole this 114 minute adaptation of the acclaimed manga by Ai Yazawa, which also roughly equates to the first 19 episodes of the animated version, is a shining gem in a field of lackluster adaptations. Granted, it has superior source material to work from, but it also does something else that so many other anime/manga-based productions have failed to do: develop central characters that can not only fascinate a viewer but also encourage emotional investment in them. If you never thought such a film could leave you teary-eyed, give this one a try. You may be surprised at the strength of your reaction near the end.
Indeed, the strength and focus of the movie lies in its two Nanas and the relationship they form. Nana Komatsu, who soon gets nicknamed “Hachi,” is the kind of simple-minded, cheery-by-nature person who can light up a room with her irresistible, wide-mouthed smile. As one of her friends puts it, though, she “is a handful” to deal with and has to be reminded to be considerate of others. She comes from as stable and ordinary a background as you'll ever find, tends to dress classy but not richly, and is the more emotionally fragile of the two despite having a more substantial physical build. NANA Osaki (the subtitles always fully capitalize her first name) has more of a sullen rocker's demeanor and style. She doesn't talk unless she has something to say, smokes, only slowly opens up about her past, rarely shows emotion unless it's anger or irritation, and almost never smiles. Even though she always gives the impression of having lingering Issues, she is the stronger and more stable of the two despite looking almost painfully thin and fragile physically. She also comes from a far less stable background than “Hachi,” completing the contrast.
This is not an Odd Couple approach played up for laughs, however. Over the course of the movie the two young women form a strong connection as they help each other deal with a major personal issue. For “Hachi,” the boyfriend she had come to Tokyo to be with is clearly (to everyone else but her) uneasy with her attention and finds himself straying towards a cute coworker/fellow art student with whom he has much more in common. A blow-up, of course, inevitably ensues. For NANA, a much deeper-seeded issue lies in her connection to the guitar player for the popular band Trapnest (the other Nana's favorite band), who was once both the bassist for her band Black Stone and her live-in lover but went through a painful split with her over her unwillingness to accompany him to Tokyo and be a hanger-on. (“Her pride got in the way of love,” as Nana puts it when she finally hears her story.) A band poster offers undeniable evidence that he still has a link to her, however, which troubles her since she had been trying to finally distance herself from him. In both cases the roommate do what they can to comfort, support, and defend each other, and it is in these moments that the movie is at its best.
A structure like this could have so easily been sappy or artificial, but a reflective narration which alternates between the two Nanas helps tremendously in setting the right mood and sentiment. Smooth pacing and a lack of needless scenes make the movie feel like something much shorter than a nearly two hour long production, and the steady but subtle assemblage of pathos over the course of the movie can lead to an unexpected emotional punch in the movie's late stages.
The musical score also offers an especially fine collection of songs. “Glamorous Sky,” sung in-character by NANA and repeated as the closing theme, was the top-selling female single of 2005 in Japan, while “Endless Story,” which was performed in-character by Yuna Ito as the frontwoman for the fictional Trapnest, sold even better in 2006. (“Glamorous Sky” has a pedigree which may be of interest to anime fans, as it was penned by Ai Yazawa and composed by Hyde, the vocalist for anime-fan-fave L'Arc~en~Ciel.) Effective, generally low-key numbers fill in the gaps between the features pieces and work well to complement the writing.
Flaws show when one sets the story, characters, and music aside and looks more closely at the details. Several scenes in the movie look more staged than natural, especially one choppily-edited key scene in the middle of the movie concerning Nana's boyfriend Shoji's infidelity, and crowd reaction in a couple of performance scenes feels forced. The acting is not bad enough to drag the movie down, but it will not win any awards or credit for use of subtle nuances, either. Mika Nakashima, a popular singer with a couple of anime theme credits, was clearly chosen to play NANA much more for her look and singing ability than her acting chops. Aoi Miyazaki, a true actress with more substantial acting credits, offsets Nakashima's effort with a more convincing performance as Nana Komatsu, but supporting performances vary from merely competent to slightly overacted to rather stiff. The movie production also lacks the polish one normally sees in even mediocre American productions (though whether or not that's actually a negative will vary from person to person) and at times looks almost too clean for its own good.
On the balance, though, the positives well outweigh the negatives. Viz Media's production also provided a nice-looking print and natural-sounding subtitles that rarely fail to also subtitle on-screen text, as well as offering an interesting compromise on retaining the original Japanese end credits: since they roll entirely on the right side of the screen, English translations of key credits are provided on the left. It offers no English dub option, but at least it gives American audiences a chance to appreciate the movie.
Though based on a manga series, no familiarity with the original manga is required to fully appreciate this live-action version. It does have a yet-to-be-licensed follow-up movie called NANA 2 that recasts some roles and continues the adaptation, but the original stands plenty well enough on its own and offers plenty enough entertainment value to be worth checking out.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Excellent musical numbers, convincing central relationship.
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