Reviewby Tim Henderson, Oct 2nd 2012
NANA - Complete Collection
Two girls, two different lives, one city, one apartment... one name. After meeting by chance on a bullet train bound for Tokyo, and then again at a living quarters viewing that leads to the uncommon (at least for Japan) decision of a flat share, these two women – both named Nana – become deeply involved in each other's lives, forming a friendship that borders on dependence as each comes to accept the differences of the other, and offers unyielding support in ambitions of work and love. It's... not quite as soppy as it sounds.
Tokyo is a cold place, or at least it's often perceived as such. Compared to the sprawling mountains of Japan's countryside, or even the more eccentric and diverse cities that make up the main urban stretch of the Kansai area, Tokyo's allure of size and excitement is offset by the brisk pace of life and a lack of human warmth. Or so it goes with just about any city that has the honour of being the largest in its country, especially when spoken about by critics.
Perhaps it's of no accident then that NANA chooses to begin its story while dressed in a gown of winter's finest – and most troublesome – white stuff. It makes sense for things to begin coldly: this is a tale of two young women of markedly different personalties who become tied together, initially by a shared name and a mother-load of circumstances, much of which comes to involve shared hardships. The result, telegraphed by short pre-intro pieces of (often remorseful; always heartfelt) post narrative voice-over like telepathic letters from one to the other, is a friendship that would seem confusing were it not so genuine.
Tokyo is hostile to these two girls from the get-go. It has to be, else this narrative could never attain believability – adversity brings the oddest of people together. Cold in the most literal sense, the mega-city hinders the pair's entrance by bogging a bullet train beneath fifteen feet of pure-white snow. The aforementioned shared name, NANA – aka seven; aka an omen of bad luck – tips things off; allows for one girl to find reason to talk to the other during this extended train ride, and is pretty much indirectly responsible for everything that follows.
The first episode takes it slow and easy, establishing the two girls as a pair moving from remote parts of Japan to the largest city in the world as the crux of everything, and allows for their personalities to contrast sharply with each other before the supporting cast is allowed to make its entrance and breath multiple layers of plot and observational depth into the show. If there's one thing that NANA is keen on making clear from the get go, it's that above all else, its tale is one of friendship, and that these two girls will be the catalyst for it.
Although one side never heavily outweighs the other, the core focus is roughly split down the middle, divided between the front and back halves of the series. For the earlier episodes, Nana Komatsu takes the slightly more central stage. She is, in a sense, the entire genre of girlie anime dramas wrapped up into the one character. She's moving to Tokyo under the influence of dreams of reuniting with her boyfriend and achieving a cherry-blossom framed painting of true love, is emotionally needy, prone to rose-coloured lovey-dovey fantasies, can text faster than a normal person can read a stop sign, and takes almost no time in making detailed notifications of the other NANA (Osaki's) outfit.
An outfit worn by a character who, by almost proud admission, lives in an analogue world, and who wanders through most of the forty-seven episode series without owning a mobile phone. Strong-willed, cagey and possessive to a fault, the gulf of difference in personality would almost inevitably lead to a sitcom were this scenario sold to an American television production company.
But NANA is Japanese through and through. Although not wholly shy of comedy, NANA is certainly not a sitcom, and what proceeds is a tale of two lives, kick-started by a house-share and influenced by the people that surround them. The contrast is played more towards life-goals – Komatsu wants love and happiness; Osaki wants respect and recognition as a rock vocalist – and a grounds for understanding each other, rather than giggles. That said, it doesn't take long for the dark, punk-rock NANA to decide that her house-mate is like a needy pet and rename her Hachi (a common enough dog's name that also happens to mean 'eight'), a move that at once sums up her personality, the nature of their relationship, and makes it much easier for the narrative to deal with the shared name.
Played out against a Tokyo that is painted in clean colours that seldom swagger into garish rosiness, the drama in NANA is smartly written and genuine on a level that puts much of its genre peers to shame. This is very likely thanks to every other character in the show playing yin to Hachi's yang, to the point where the production could almost be read as a critique of its own genre.
If Hachi is the embodiment of overbearing soap drama, then the supporting cast acts as the voice of reason. And reason is certainly present. The truest genius of NANA's writing is the extreme care taken whenever it comes time to pick sides, its careful consideration in presenting a situation from more than one perspective. The earliest testament to this is Shoji, Hachi's original boyfriend, who is painted in her own eyes as the model of male perfection, at least until something goes wrong. On the verge of shallow melodrama garnished with an excess of ice-cream and a shopping spree, NANA's integrity is rescued by Hachi's decision to seek comfort in the advice of friends; friends who make her face up to how current events are, at least in part, also her own fault.
It's a hugely refreshing attitude that is hindered only by the fact that the show appears almost too level-headed. Both NANA's will have their moments of emotional weakness, but the surrounding story and cast will reliably paint the picture with a level of careful consideration – even intelligence – that sadly seems to frequently be lacking from reality. It creates a kind of silicon valley of human behaviour, in spite of the relief that the antitoxin found in this gospel provides.
Even the animation shows restraint. Characters are tall and slender in typical Shoujo style, but flourishes are less extreme. Characters dress in ways that are appropriate for their personalties – that NANA's friends are members of her punk-rock band is a handy excuse for chains and zippers – and moments of character deformation are comparatively tame. Even sweat drops feel subtly implemented. The few instances where drama may ratchet to flamboyant heights allow for occasional moments of visual extremes where cigarette smoke can turn a screen white or a bathtub can become filled with rose petals.
Such moments have to be allowed. Although friendship is at its core, NANA is also a love story, and one that actually deals with some very serious complications head-on. Complications that will drive these girls closer together, and then further apart, as it powers towards an intentionally (and inevitably) open-ended, bittersweet-ever-after scenario. Although the middle sections tread water for a moment as dramas evolve and new directions are found, the ultimate pay off is one of rare and earned emotional resonance.
With its head screwed on tight enough to understand that love and relationship are complicated, messed-up and often fickle beasts, NANA is able to stand above many of its peers. With a heart that is focused on the importance and robustness of true friendship, where people may be willing to sacrifice temporary happiness for the greater food of the other, communicated through restrained direction, it's pretty much standing on stilts, head and shoulders noticeable amid the cold, man-made lighting that backs Tokyo.
There's a lot of show packed into these eight discs, and extras are understandably lacking as a result – although Madman has still slipped a director interview in amid the trailers, clean openings, and some concept art.
Overall : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
+ Amazing character writing, fantastically balanced fictional look at love and friendship
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