Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 22nd 2010
DVD - Box Set 2
When Shoji meets Sachiko, the accidental namesake of Hachi's imaginary rival, he knows he's in trouble. And sure enough, mere episodes later everyone is in a world of hurt. Hachi, upon learning that Nana's ex is Trapnest guitarist Ren, throws herself into reuniting the separated lovers, as much to distract herself as to help her friend. The result isn't as clean as she'd like, but it does afford her a chance to meet her idol Takumi, Trapnest's bassist. Whereupon a whole new world of hurt comes knocking.
NANA isn't terribly enamored of plotting. Not that it's plotless—anything but—just that it doesn't try imposing narrative order on the chaos of its characters' lives. On the surface that can make it feel a little rudderless. But such a judgment misses entirely the point of NANA. NANA isn't about events, it's about people and experiences. Its purpose lies not in constructing a neatly cresting narrative, but in capturing the reality of life and the poignancy of change at the cusp of adulthood. And it does so with the multifaceted perfection of a fine gem.
The question going into this set is whether the series can maintain that perfection: its honesty, potency, and indeed plain old excellence. Firing on all cylinders for fifty episodes isn't easy to do, and all twelve episodes (well, eleven if you discount the recap) pass with the expectation that the show will trip up somewhere, will somehow flop, fall flat or at least stumble or slip. Even if just momentarily. But it never does. One wonderfully formed scene after another the series does nothing but impress. If the previous set was falling in love with a series you know will break your heart, this is the series breaking your heart. Nearly every scene glitters with telling little touches that open foggy windows into the hearts of its protagonists, while pointing the way towards swelling changes that wash with tide-like regularity through their lives. A parking-lot confrontation where Hachi's heart shatters like glass only to reform into something even more unyielding; a concert where music sets free a torrent of repressed emotion; a late-night tryst driven by a toxic upwelling of self-loathing—again and again the series builds to moments that sear themselves into the memory, and every time their power and unsparing realism comes as a surprise.
The facility of Ai Yazawa's writing is nothing short of astonishing. Even as the series prepares itself to tear your heart out and dance a high-heeled polka on it, it is shining a light through the bewilderingly familiar prism of its characters' personalities. Starkly exposed is both the fragility and the self-reproach that bubble beneath Hachi's blithe self-interest. Briefly glimpsed are the doubt and need that Nana hides behind her brash front. Compassion buds in Hachi, twisted by her self-absorption, just as appreciation buds in Nana, twisted by dependence. The two intertwine, the layers of each personality complementing the other's in ways both healing and imperiling. It's a dance of personalities as delicate as it is powerful, and hands-down the greatest achievement in a series crowded with them.
But it isn't the only one, nor are they all Yazawa's. Her vision is broad, thorny and incisive—never does it flinch from ugly realities, and not once does a relationship, personality or development ring false—but without Morio Asaka that would mean little. Asaka teases every nuance of feeling and meaning from Yazawa's story, forming hugely complex emotions with limited resources and then beaming them to us via some form of animated cinematic telepathy. No gesture, expression or visual flourish is without its corresponding meaning, no shift in the score's tempo or insertion of a Black Stones song without its effect on us. He juggles Yazawa's multiple storylines with virtuosic ease, deftly handles her characters, and almost off-handedly arranges some of anime's finest concert set-pieces. Heck, the Black Stone's first Tokyo concert is worth the price of admission alone.
Given the series' glossy perfection, every imperfection in Viz's dub stands out like a zit on a supermodel. It isn't a bad or even substandard dub by any stretch. Indeed it has some potent charms, not the least of which is Rebecca Shoichet's wonderful turn as Nana. It does, however, make mistakes. Little things that you usually wouldn't notice in a dub: inflections missed by a margin, delicate timing thrown off by necessary rewrites, hitches in performances. In a normal series they would mean nothing, but here they are highly visible flaws that occasionally unbalance very intricate narrative constructs. The subtle doom that hangs over the series is dampened when Kelly Sheridan misses the yearning melancholy that haunts Hachi's monologues, and too many of the series' aching episode-end (and -beginning) transitions are knocked askew by glitches in timing. Little things, but cumulative in their effect.
For extras fun: a dialogue-free version of one of the concert set-pieces.
It becomes a kind of reflex to judge anime series based on their entertainment value. But NANA reminds us that anime can be much more than mere diversion, more than anesthesia for whatever pain plagues your life. There's a quality to it, an elusive, rare and yet familiar quality. A quality that you can sense in the redemptive mysticism of Haibane Renmei, feel it in the cruel psychological poetry of Hideaki Anno, see it in moral ambivalence of Koi Kaze. Honesty, realism, insight—these are but weak synonyms for it: Truth. NANA may not quite be sister to those wonders—it is just a hair too concerned with dramatic convention to violently shatter the mold the way they do—but it has that quality, and with it becomes something more than entertainment: Art.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Heightens the intensity of an already flawless adult drama; the Nana+Nana bond.
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