It is no exaggeration to say that "Nana", the animated Fuji TV/Madhouse Studio TV series, is perhaps one the best written anime dramas to come out in recent years.
With is poignant, touching, sometimes funny but often bitter-sweet story, it has truly elevated Japanese anime from simply being "otaku" fanboy entertainment to mature, adult drama.
Based on writer/artist Yazawa Ai's best selling "Shojo" (girl's) manga series which ran in the Japanese publication "Cookie" (Ribon), the 47 episode series is a story narrated in flashback by its two very different heroine leads.
Osaki Nana (Paku Romi), a "sexy tomboy beanpole" singer who fronts the Japanese punk rock band "The Blackstones" (AKA Blast), wants nothing more than making it big as an entertainer.
She and the band's talented guitarist Honjo Ren (Hidenobu Kikuchi) were longtime lovers since their garage band days in Hokkaido, up until Ren's fateful decision to leave Hokkaido for bigger opportunities in Tokyo, a move which literally broke Nana's heart.
Two years later, wanting to follow her dreams of becoming a rock star, Nana decides to go to Tokyo as well to make a name for herself. By a chance coincidence she meets up with another young country girl who is also heading to Tokyo. The hopelessly cute Komatsu Nana (Kaori), with her long boots, girly wardrobe and giddy personality is the complete opposite of the brooding, dark and intense Nana O., yet by uncanny coincidence they share the same first name and age. Nana K. is heading to Tokyo to be with her boyfriend Endo Shoji (Takahashi Hiroki) who is going to art college there.
Nana K. and Nana O. part ways when they get to Tokyo but soon find themselves reunited again while out searching for an apartment. The two agree to share a modest, flat which by kismet/serendipity is on the seventh floor (nana kai) and is numbered "707" (Nana Hyaku Nana). The two become instant friends and develop a special bond - Nana O even gives Nana K the pet name "Hachi" (a play on both the number eight and the famous loyal Akita dog Hachiko).
Thus begins their exciting, chaotic, happy and sometimes heartbreaking adventures in Tokyo.
Yazawa's original manga story is faithfully adapted by series director Asaka Morio (Card Captors Sakura, Gunslinger Girl) and beautifully retold in animation by Madhouse studios (Gunslinger Girl).
Yazawa's hopelessly romantic story has all of the elements of teen soap opera or tear-jerking K-drama. Such mature themes like underage sex, prostitution, loyalty, betrayal, mental illness, adultery, tabloid scandal, pregnancy, love and friendship are are addressed in refreshingly candid and frank detail that doesn't talk down to its teen audience demographic. With its emphasis on music, fashion and hip youth culture, it is little wonder why it appeals and speaks to a generation bred on MTV, CW and trendy J-Dorama.
At the heart of "Nana" is an interesting cast of characters, all of whom have equally compelling back stories.
One of the most controversial sub-plots of the series involved the taboo romance between 15 year-old Shinichi (Ishida Akira) phenom bassist for Blast and 23 year old Japanese-American lead singer Serizawa Reira (Hirano Aya) of Blast's rival band "Trapnest" (Tora-Nesu). Their romance, while somewhat scandalous, is told with almost poignant and deep affection.
Underage/Lolita romance (a dominant theme of Japanese Shojo manga) seems to be a recurrent theme in Yazawa's works including her recent "Paradise Kiss" - Hachi's past history included an adulterous relationship with an older man while still a teen. She loses her boyfriend to the petite Lolita-like Kawamura Sachiko (Kojima Megumi)and is also befriended by the genteel,junior high school cosplay enthusiast and Blast mega-fan, Uehara Misato (Kanai Mika).
Friendship is also a strong thematic element in "Nana". Nana and Hachi certainly share a strong friendship and bond and as the story progresses that friendship further strengthens despite a falling out between the two over Hachi's affair and pregnancy by Tora-Nesu guitarist Takumi (Morikawa Toshiyuki). Nana O's relationship with her band is also given much insight particularly with stoic leader and fledgling attorney Yasu (Kawahara Yoshihisa) who harbors a crush on Nana O. and Terashima Nobuo (Tomokazu Seki) heir to a famous family business.
Nana O's own romantic storyline with rebel Honjo Ren (Kiuchi Hidenobu) is touching and one can't help but want to have them hook up and be happy.
The music is another highpoint in the series complements of two very different singing talents - Anna Tsuchiya, the Eurasian model/singer whose hard hitting, rock n' roll style is reminiscent of Joan Jett and Oliva Lufkin, the Okinawan Japanese-American singer whose powerful vocals style evokes comparisons to singers like Mariah Carey and Kelly Clarkson. Their music complements the tone of the anime and adds emotional impact to storyline.
While Madhouse's animation is in tune with the manga, some may find the frequent shifts from serious anime style to highly stylized, cartoonish and "goofy" pop art a bit irritating, although it did help to break some of the more somber and serious moments.
The series ending was a bit abrupt and contrived and seems to deviate from both the endings of the live-action adaptation with Nakashima Mika and Yazawa's original manga. I can't say that I liked the anime ending as it seemed very unsatisfying although there are talks that a second series is in the works to resolve this.
Like other anime "soap operas" like "Maison Ikkoku" or "Touch", "Nana" succeeds because it refuses to be pigeonholed as just being anime and strives to use the medium of animation to tell a mature storyline that is certainly not for children but is bold and touching enough for adults.
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