Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 6th 2010
DVD Box Set 3 + 4
As what first seemed an opportunistic one-night stand with Takumi blossoms into a decidedly warped relationship, it drives a wedge between Hachi and Nana. Nana hates the long-haired bastard and she can't bear the sight of them together. The alienation is forestalled when Hachi's flighty little heart flits to another, less icky flower, but the respite doesn't last long. Life drops a bomb on poor Hachi, one with enough megatonnage to level Nana's life too. As the two drift farther apart, BLAST is offered its first record contract and Nana throws herself into her work. But the bond they formed remains, no matter the events that conspire to cleave it. Whether it will support them as their search for fulfillment takes them in opposite directions or lay them both low is something only time will tell.
If you hate Hachi with the heat of a thousand suns, the second half of NANA will only stoke the inferno. In twenty-plus episodes it maps out, in ugly and exacting detail, the evolution of a course of action that would by most standards be unforgivably mercenary. Hachi is the main player and it culminates in a decision that could, if you were kindly disposed, be called self-serving. It's a chain of events that seems almost tailor-made to turn Hachi-haters away from the series.
Which is a pity, since turning away means missing one of anime's great narrative feats: the forceful insertion of audiences into the head and heart of a girl who must make one of the most universally reviled decisions in the cinematic repertoire. It is, not to give too much away, a move that has been variously villainized, scorned, and pitied. But the brilliance of NANA, and Ai Yazawa, is that they put us so far into the life and mind of Hachi, delineate her thoughts and feelings so precisely and humanely, that her decision seems not tragic or small-hearted but mature, genuinely painful...even heroic. It's a work of masterful emotional and cinematic manipulation, almost Hitchcockian in its perversion of audience identification, but more human—and more heartbreaking—than much of what the Master produced.
And it's not even the greatest of the series' qualifications for greatness. At least, not clearly. The clearest victor is still the Nana/Nana relationship, a bond as difficult to summate as it is unique. It would be tempting to say that Ai Yazawa invented a heretofore unknown relationship for the two, were it not for the note of pure truth the relationship sounds when struck with a stressor. It wasn't invented so much as discovered, or more accurately, extrapolated from real life. Brilliantly, painfully so. The stressor, for the curious, is that fateful decision of Hachi's, which rends their friendship asunder, sending echoes of the tearing rippling all the way to the series' final, ambiguous moments.
With the tearing, around the end of set three, focus shifts a little more to the Nana side of Yazawa's tapestry. And with the shifting comes the music. Not in the soundtrack—though director Morio Asaka's sparing, incisive use of ominously ascending strings and modern rock is a goosebump-raising treat—but in the lives of the story's characters. Like everything on the series' broad but intensely personal canvas, the musical lives of Nana and her cohorts (and enemies) are complex, powerful, and above all, real. The nasty, cutthroat vortex of muddily intermingling business, mass media and art would make an excellent series in its own right, even before it intersects with the masochistic, morally compromised romances of Hachi and the trauma of her dangerous untwining from Nana.
You don't need to be susceptible to the rock mythos to enjoy the behind-the-music turn the series takes, but it helps. Particularly in appreciating the glamorous, dangerous sheen the musical myth-making adds to the series' last leg. It also pays to be up on your rock history. Knowing who the Sex Pistols and Sid Vicious are is a necessity, and knowing what Yasu's ownership of Incesticide says about his musical influences or what Reira's fondness for "Layla" says about hers is nice, if not imperative.
And holding all this together—unflinching emotional realism, high-gloss rock 'n roll living, localized Tokyo milieu—is Morio Asaka. Asaka isn't an auteur in the individualistic, fiercely artistic sense that directors like Hideaki Anno or Satoshi Kon are. But neither is he some Studio Hack. You don't turn out series like Cardcaptor Sakura by being a nepotistic parasite. What Asaka is, is an expert and flexible craftsman. One need only listen to him evoke a previous episode's climax with a few strums of an acoustic guitar, or watch how his transitions link scenes even as they comment—sometimes wryly, sometimes sadly, sometimes forcefully—on the events they conjoin, to appreciate the power and nuance he brings to the tale he tells.
Most viewers will probably want to watch NANA subbed. That isn't to say that Viz's dub is sub-par, or that it hasn't been improving. It isn't the former and certainly has been the latter. As their roles have grown, most of the supporting cast has risen to the task, delivering consistently good and consistently faithful performances while the leads all stay strong. The dub even dodges a potentially hairy bullet with its solid, toned-down (and irritatingly uncredited) take on BLAST's flamboyantly gay manager. But again, the English actors are faced with a monster Japanese cast that includes a goodly proportion of the cream of the seiyuu crop, and no matter how you cut it they haven't the same emotional range. Think of it as the Polish mounted cavalry facing down the Blitzkrieg: valiant, commendable, and doomed. Which lends the already likeable cast an additional underdog charm. So, not a total loss.
Other than a pretty cool animated music video for one of the opening/BLAST songs on the fourth set, there are no extras of note on these releases.
There is a certain danger in championing NANA's artistic merit. Doing so can give the false impression that the show is best appreciated by cinematic eggheads. While the eggheads will find much to appreciate, particularly on multiple viewings, it isn't so high-minded that it forgets its primary purpose as entertainment. It takes refuge from the punishing strength of its emotions in rueful humor, and the thrilling, kinetic concert set-pieces bespeak a series thoroughly versed in the appeal of pure spectacle. Even the truths it speaks, about the spaces that separate people and the terrors and delights of bridging them, are components in a vicarious web of emotion rather than sterile observations to be appreciated for their intellectual acuity. The honest internal discussions, the silences pregnant with meaning, the germs of truth, the meticulously interwoven plots, the raggedly real characters, the powerful yet terrifyingly delicate central relationship, the deliberate spurning of distaff fantasies—everything that separates NANA from its peers is there, not for intellectuals to mind-wank to, but to fill us all so full of sadness, joy, regret and, yes, love that it leaks from our tear ducts. Surrender yourself to it; you won't regret it.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Ambitious, wickedly smart, brutally honest, and artistically accomplished—the finest romantic drama to come down the pike in a long, long time.
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