It’s all too easy for a drama to lose its audience, and usually this is because it is no longer able to feel real. As most dramas go on, and old conflicts are resolved, the new ones always run the risk of alienating the fanbase. Maybe they feel too contrived, or too illogical, or too cheesy. Maybe small misunderstandings are born out of simple miscommunications, which accumulate and spiral into a whole host of controversies that could have been avoided with just a simple talk, and that is absolutely infuriating. That very rarely feels satisfying because it almost always comes off as manufactured. Fake. More a product of the creator’s whims than an organic development of the cast and their story.
As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
And then, we have Nana. Nana is not fake. Nana is grounded and real, with sympathetic characters and lifelike relationships. However, as we shall see, “real” does not necessarily imply “happy”, and perhaps may even mean the exact opposite.
Ok, I’m not leaving you in suspense this time, I’m just going to out and say it: I love Nana. I f**king love it. It’s one of my new all-time favorites of the romance-drama genre, but before I settle in and rattle off everything it does well, I’ll first cover the things it does not as well, just to get it out of the way.
Number one, the animation. The direction is strong, the drawings are usually on-model, and the style is in my opinion excellent, but the animation itself is only just functional. It reminds me of Death Note, which was also a Madhouse production from the same period of time, but Death Note had at least a couple snippets of strong motion, usually when Light was dramatically writing out names. Nana doesn’t even have that; it’s a very static show, and there’s really no excuse. Sure, being too flashy might be difficult as far as normal everyday life is concerned, but this is also a music show. With concerts. Concerts are a free pass to show off all sorts of animation chops, but not with Nana. Outside of the openings, only once was I impressed by the musical animation of the series, and it was a clip lasting not even 30 seconds.
Number two, just by virtue of the series being in this genre space, there’s going to be some melodrama. Not a ton of it, because as I will explain the writing is very strong, but if love polygons and tearful emotional breakdowns aren’t your cup of tea, then you might have a hard time enjoying Nana as much as I did.
But enough of that negativity, let’s talk about the fun stuff, what Nana does right.
To set the stage, I always try to go into any show I watch as blind as possible. I won’t check out analyses of series I haven’t seen, I won’t ask for detailed opinions from friends; when I go into a piece of entertainment I want my opinion to be formed in a bubble, and as much as possible completely my own. As such, I had very vague expectations for Nana. I knew it was a drama, I knew these two girls were the main characters, I thought maybe there was a lesbian thing between them (which turned out to be very untrue, surprisingly, there though are a few lesbian undertones) and I was fairly sure music was involved. That’s all I had to go on so, for no particular reason, I expected something that was in serious mode more or less all the time, a la Monster. What I wasn’t at all expecting was a series that could be, at times, so playful. It’s not a comedy by any means, but there are a plentiful number of lighthearted moments. After all, that’s life. Life is hardly ever one mood, it has its ups and downs, and Nana embraces this fact.
The show opens on a not unusual setup. You have a young college-aged girl, going off to Tokyo to meet her beloved. On the train, she coincidentally meets an alluring and mysterious “other”, someone who seems to come from a very different walk of life. Through a series of circumstances, she becomes roommates with this other girl, and as time goes on, they learn and grow from each other. The funny thing is, not only were these two girls heading to the same place, but they are also the same age, and both are named Nana.
Nana #1, Nana Komatsu, is by her own admission completely average. She’s neither especially rich nor poor, neither a city nor a country girl, neither the oldest nor the youngest sibling. At a glance, truly unremarkable. But there is more to Nana than meets the eye. Her past, present and perhaps even future are characterized by the pursuit of love, or put more bluntly, the pursuit of men, because Nana falls in “love” very easily. She practically throws herself at anyone who catches her eye, trying to fill this… something, inside her. Naturally, this opens her up to being used and exploited by others, partially because she herself can be needy and selfish without ever meaning to be. Her intent is never malicious, she never sets out to hurt anyone or ask too much of them, but she just has trouble realizing that she’s putting her own interests over those of others. It’s, after all, just a natural thing to do; even I sometimes feel that in hindsight I’ve acted that way. Nana heads to Tokyo in order to unite with her current boyfriend, Shoji, who happens to be living in the area while he goes to college. This Nana is nicknamed by the other Nana “Hachi”, which means “eight”, because “Nana” means “seven”, so the rest of this review, for the sake of clarity, I’ll be referring to Nana Komatsu, this Nana, as Hachi. (I hope you followed that sentence.)
Nana #2, Nana Osaki, is (by just a look) immediately cut from a different cloth. As opposed to Hachi’s normal, indistinct feminine attire, Nana rocks a gothy, punk vibe, all the time, which is somewhat reminiscent of the life she grew up with. At a young age, Nana was abandoned by her mother, and raised by a spiteful grandmother. She never finished high school (was expelled on grounds of prostitution, in fact), and ultimately joined a band, the Black Stones or BLAST for short. Nana, like Hachi, also came to Tokyo chasing a man, though she would never admit this to herself. Her stated reason for going is to hit Tokyo’s musical scene with BLAST, because after all, if you want to make it big, you can’t be out in the middle of nowhere forever. Opposite Hachi’s neediness, Nana tends to be possessive, though she at least has the clarity of self-reflection to partially realize this.
As an aside, the voice actresses of the two, both Hachi and Nana, are stellar. Nana is probably my favorite Romi Park performance ever (that I’ve seen. That’s always an important disclaimer.)
So where does that get us? Okay, we have these two characters. That’s fine in and of itself, but what happens with them? What does the story do? Before we answer that, we need to cover what makes the characters feel real, besides just being fleshed out, because you can have fleshed out characters in a bombastic spectacle of a show. How they act is just as important in grounding the narrative.
The majority of the characters in Nana are around 20 years old, which coincidentally is exactly how old I am, so take it from me when I say that everyone acts their age. When they’re not dealing with the actual latest plot developments, they’re living their lives dealing with very relatable issues that I myself am in the process of worrying about too. Thinking about college, jobs, money, living arrangements, and toying with serious relationships; it’s the transition from childhood to proper adulthood and it is not easy. There’s a great scene in Episode 15 that really struck home, when Hachi, everywhere she goes, feels like she can’t get away from seeing couples, and I mean I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t also experienced something to that effect.
Just as importantly, Nana nails the chemistry and conversation between individuals. Too many times in anime you’ll have robotic lines that no person would ever actually say or a rough flow to the words that feels painfully unnatural, but the flow of conversation in Nana is the exact opposite. Everyone has such a charming rapport with each other. It brought a smile to my face just watching the two Nanas interact; their banter had a palpable grace and rhythm that led you through the dialogue, rather than just sitting there listening to it.
Although I won’t spend the time going into character specifics, as appropriate for a “real” cast, there’s not a single Nana character I’d call an outright villain. There may be some some jerky individuals that take “malicious” actions, but those actions are always a result of someone doing what they believe in at the moment, and it might not even intentionally be malicious (just like earlier how I said Hachi can be selfish when she thinks she’s being kind). This stuff is just… life. You might meet some dicks, but no one’s ever really intentionally a dick. That’s just how they are, and it always stems from something, some root cause, be it psychological or environmental. For that reason, any given member of the cast could be my favorite character on a different day, because while the two Nanas are great, just about everyone else in the show is just as fleshed out and has just as much reasonable motivation for being who they are and doing what they do.
So ultimately, using the characters as a foundation, what the show confronts is the ideals of dreams versus the harshness of reality. These are all by and large good people, or at least not evil people, but because they don’t live in a perfect world, nothing can ever go exactly as they hope. For example, as much as they might wish otherwise, nothing is truly permanent, even people’s feelings. The crux of so many of the show’s conflicts is the hard truth that in reality, nothing can ever stay eternally unchanged. You might love someone now, or think that you do, but when you’re put through the emotional wringer, and everything you’d convinced yourself of turns upside down and I’m being vague because I don’t want to spoil this amazing show, will you still love that person? Did you love them at all or was it just lust? And even if you do definitely still love them, is love enough?
Love can’t overpower all. Life is still life. You still need the money to get by, you still have your own goals and your own dreams to work toward, you can’t just drop everything for the sake of an ephemeral “love”. You might have to compromise, give up on things that you once valued in order not to sink the whole ship. And when the series doubles down on this point is when it gets really hard to watch, in a good way but also in a very painful way, because it really commits to this “in reality, nothing is perfect” theme.
I’d find myself looking back, and wondering alongside the characters “how the hell did we get here?”. Everything was so bright and cheery and things were looking up, but now here we are, it’s all come tumbling down and I guess there’s no going back. We’ll just have to live with it. Hachi delivers a line, very near the end of the series, about how, as events unfold in way you could never expect, happy memories become bitter ones, or at the very least painful ones, and the show itself perfectly encapsulates that experience. Scenes I initially laughed along with early on filled me only with scorn or sorrow by the end, and I love that it does this, that it gets me that invested, but I also hate it for making me feel the pain.
Unsurprisingly, Nana is a master at deft and natural shifts in tone. It needs to be since it’s mimicking reality, going from light-hearted verbal sparring to crippling self-doubt and back again, and if it was too abrupt, the tonal whiplash would be tremendous, but it isn’t. The way it goes about this depends on the circumstance. Often the tone will change just depending on which character is talking to which other character, because I’m sure you know how it is, you don’t act the same way around every single person you interact with it. A good friend’s presence might legitimately lift your spirits, but then their absence might let the negative emotions sweep back in. Or if you’re just so far gone, you might be putting on a facade of happiness when other people are around, a sort of faux lightheartedness that masks a very troubled disposition, and the show incorporates both of those situations, as well as many more.
You probably don’t feel dreary after that, but I do, thinking about the roller coaster this series sent me on, so let’s shift gears to the music. The music’s awesome. I mean, duh, it’s a show that involves a band, you would hope the music is good, and it is. The vocal pieces are, that is, most of which are used as opening or ending themes at some point. They have a strong rock focus, which is perfect for me, because I’m a fan of rock. I was listening to these songs for weeks after finishing the series, not only for their quality as songs but to relive the emotion, being so entwined with my memories of certain scenes and moments. I think I could say, without exaggeration, that this is my most emotionally charged anime soundtrack since Clannad. Just the thought of some songs makes me want to tear up. The biggest example of such probably being “Starless Night”, which served as an on and off ending theme, and well, just has this somber, melancholic feel that is so perfect.
Sadly, the music outside the band performances is very forgettable, so much so that I have literally nothing to say on it because I don’t even remember it. A little disappointing, but not the end of the world.
To wrap up, Nana is an adaptation of a shoujo manga that, if asked, I’d have bet money was josei, with its hard deliberations, uncompromising messages and very unidealized romance. I was very sad when I reached the end of Nana, not only due to the material of the episode itself but also because it meant that there was no more left. Despite its frequently depressing nature, something about Nana was a joy to watch, and it will stick with me for possibly ever. Despite how I may seem, I am at heart a romantic, always rooting for love to prevail, so the hardships and turmoil in a series like this can be hard for my heart to take, but I greatly respect their presence nonetheless. Oh also, I can number Nana among the at-this-moment very few works of fiction to move me to tears, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.
So, after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… yes, it will be an S. I know, there were problems. The animation could’ve been much better, the soundtrack outside of the band performances was surprisingly dull, but the story it had to tell grabbed me with such force that those issues barely occupy my mind. The perfect way to describe Nana is that I love it, but I also hate it. While on one hand I wish there was more, on the other I don’t know if I’m emotionally ready for it.
If you wish to watch Nana for yourself, and I would highly recommend you do, it is currently available for legal streaming… nowhere, sad to say. Even its home video releases are difficult and expensive to come by, so… well, if you’re an anime fan I doubt it’s your first time exercising less-than-legal means.