I wasn’t expecting to discover my favorite love story in anime when I started watching Nana, but I got that and more. Nana is the anime adaption of Ai Yazawa’s tour de force manga about two young women, both named Nana, struggling to follow their dreams in Tokyo. Nana Komatsu is a caring, naive girl who just wants to carve out a stable life for herself and find love along the way. Nana Osaki is a punk singer who dreams of going from being a big fish in a small pond to making it in the music industry. The story is simply about these two girls: their careers, their flaws, their relationships, and everything in between. It’s also a story about finding love in unexpected places, and the beauty of knowing that there’s someone out there who will be there for you no matter what.

A focus on relationships

The heart of the story is the relationship between Nana Osaki and Nana Komatsu (aka Hachi). This friendship both anchors the plot and serves as a focal point around which other micro-stories, and other relationships orbit. The apartment shared by the two girls is a home, a meeting place that brings characters together, and a setting for some of the story’s most pivotal moments. As we watch both Nanas move from being strangers, to roommates, and finally trusted friends, there is a real sense of organic growth in their connection. We share their joys, their success, and their heartbreaks. This carries over to other relationships in the story, from watching the band members of Nana O.’s band, Blast, get closer to the excitement and pain of both girls’ romantic endeavors. Nana is a show that really embodies the idea of choosing your own family. The excellent development of relationships not only shows this bond between characters, but makes us viewers feel like we’re part of the gang.

A dose of reality

Nana does not shy away from heavy topics. The group of young people that the story follows all come from different backgrounds, some of them quite sordid and filled with trauma. The characters as adults are also outsiders in society to some extent. In anime, stories of social outcasts of the otaku variety are popular, but we don’t get too many out and out “fringe” people portrayed realistically. Because of this, Nana addresses some issue that don’t come up in anime very often. The characters deal with everything from normal financial, work, and interpersonal problems to some very dark things like drug abuse, getting involved in sex work, and the effects of childhood abandonment. This is all accomplished while never feeling over the top or exploitative of the characters’ struggles.

Nana (and Nana)

Both protagonists are incredibly likable in their own ways. These girls are also portrayed in a way that does not beat around the bush when it comes to their flaws. Nana Komatsu is a bright, energizing force with a quirky take on life and a seemingly endless capacity to nurture her friends. She’s also way too quick to jump into things: ideas, boyfriends, major life decisions, etc. She faces real and hard consequences for her naive nature, but Yazawa’s character is lovable enough to make watching her go through these repercussions frustrating and even heartbreaking.

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Nana Osaki is just cool. She has a cool look, cool style, and cool attitude. She is also surprisingly fragile and struggles to feel accepted and loved by others. We get very deep into her head and her difficulties balancing supportive relationships with co-dependency, especially regarding her “big love” Ren, the former Blast guitarist who left for the wildly successful rock band Trapnest.

There’s also the fact that both Nanas are 20 years old and going through the very familiar process of trying to find their own way in the world and figure out who they are. For all the flaws and unflinching realness of both girls, they are ultimately relatable, and extremely sympathetic.

The whole crew

The heart of the show may be the Nanas, but the entire cast of characters is top-notch. Almost no one is relegated to the side, and everyone has their own personality, motivations, and things that make them tic. There’s group father figure and drummer Yasu, who may look like an intimidating skin-head, but is really a responsible friend and musician with a heart of gold. Rounding out Blast are Shin and Nobu, who both face struggles of their own (Shin’s story is particularly tragic). The members of Trapnest are also quite fleshed-out, from Reira, the beautiful singer who seems to have it all but deals with vast loneliness, to Takumi, resident hot asshole who could have easily been a one-sided jerk but is just likable enough...sometimes...ugh. Takumi.

Music

One would hope that an anime involving a punk singer protagonist and two bands that figure majorly into the story would have good music. This was one of my favorite things about Nana. We are constantly told that Trapnest is a wildly successful group with a string of top hits and that Blast is the somewhat rough sounding underdog. Fortunately, we are also shown. The show actually got some full songs composed for both bands, with Olivia Lufkin singing for Trapnest’s Reira, and Anna Tsuchiya singing for Nana Osaki. Both vocalists fit their respective character’s image and sound perfectly, making the performance scenes in the story convincing and exciting. The meaning of music is important to most of the character’s lives and relationships, so it’s wonderful that this element was brought to life.

Animation

When the animation in Nana is good, it’s beautiful and captures Ai Yazawa’s signature style. When it’s bad, it can look pretty sloppy. For a somewhat long show, the animation is really not egregious, but there are enough moments of odd proportions and blurry faces to be a noticeable flaw.

How did we get here?

I can’t write too much here because of spoilers, but I will say that while the story is generally well-paced, there is a jump forward at the end that creates more questions than it answers. Time skips are not always bad. Paradise Kiss, another Yazawa adaption, did the same thing in its finale and it wasn’t an issue. Unfortunately, in Nana’s case, you will have to venture outside the anime to figure out what happened with the story. Reading the original material is never a bad idea, but I do prefer that adaptions be able to stand on their own as complete works.

“If you had been a guy, Nana,” muses Nana Komatsu in one episode’s voice over, “you would have been the love of my life.” I’d argue that by the end of Nana, both girls have found the loves of their lives in each other. This is a show that carries you on quite the emotional roller-coaster and does not take the easy way out, but it always comes back to the beautiful friendship at its core. Sometimes, the love of your life doesn’t have to be romantic. In Nana, I found what may be the greatest love story in anime.