Wednesday, May 21, 2008

"Nana volume 3:" A Japanese Comic Review!

Nana vol. 3
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe
Translation: Goto Koji

Is apartment 707 cursed? And who was killed there and just how did this bloody murder go down? Nana O, relaxing in her bubble bath with a cigarette would certainly like to know, and a freaked out Hachi would love to tell her- if only she could stay on topic and stop digressing into speculation about Ms. Yamada's gruesomely old and wrinkly love life...

Oh, never mind- it’s just Hachi’s (the comic character formerly known as Nana Komatsu) imagination running away with her again. You know, like when she talks about the Demon Lord who’s intent on destroying her and her boyfriend Shoji’s secret lover, Sachiko. Even Shoji plays along with the last one; it’s one of Hachi’s adorable personality quirks that she invents imaginary people from time to time.

Yeah, that Hachi is a quirky person all right. She’s flighty, insecure, energetic, outgoing and loyal, especially where her new friend Nana Osaki is concerned. When Nana’s olbandmate Nobu hits town and the two put on an impromptu concert in the apartment, Hachi’s smitten with the idea they should form a new group and challenge rock stars Trapnest for musical supremacy. She’s also obsessively reflective and secretly picks apart her self-perceived flaws mercilessly. After sending Shoji one too many text messages, she lambastes herself as a selfish jerk…

Then it turns out there really is a girl named Sachiko. And if anything, she’s even cuter than Hachi. She just started working at the Denny’s-like restaurant where Shoji’s employed. Hachi’d better watch out!

Volume three of Yazawa Ai’s ongoing comic series about two disparate young women on the loose in the urban wilds of Tokyo starts turning the drama volume knob up on the Marshall stack that is Nana-life. Lost jobs, mysterious bald lawyers with multiple ear-piercings, potential extracurricular love interests, new jobs that flat-out suck due to imperious office seniors. And just when everything was going so well for the girls.

Well, it wouldn’t be drama or even a story without conflict. Nana’s conflicts are rarely the physical kind. No one’s ever trapped in a burning building… wait! No one’s trapped in a burning building are they? Are the Nanas safe? Because that would be too much… Whew! That’s what becoming a Nana addict does to you.

You start staying up late nights worrying about Nana and Hachi, about Shoji and Sachiko. The only people you don’t worry about are Junko and Kyosuke; they’re too self-possessed and rock steady to cause concern. In fact, they’re so together Kyosuke can talk freely about the past love who broke his heart and all Junko will do is laugh at his pain and tell him, “Nice teen years, dude.”

Junko and Kyosuke are cool, but if Yazawa had to write a series about their lives, it'd be pretty snoozeworthy and wouldn't inspire film adaptations, like the two Nana flicks, starring Nakashima Mika:

Huh. That still looks like something out of the Sin City movie. Some enterprising Frank Miller fan could add some spot red on Nakashima's lips there. Feel free, Miller fans! But I'll stick with Nana.

A true master of delicious character (and reader) torture, no sooner does Yazawa establish a status quo than she starts tearing it (and our souls) apart. Not just with the appearance of Sachiko, but the also the joining of the cast of Shin, the underage kid with a string of lovers that would be the envy of a Lothario twice his age and further developments in Nana’s and Hachi’s growing platonic love affair. Some of the plot points you can spot before the characters do- calculatedly fascinating nonetheless, perhaps even more so because of the “slow motion train wreck” aspect- others are more surprising.

And her art continues to grow on me. I’m not so sure the gray-toned photo backgrounds work every time, but we’re not here for a Tokyo travelogue. With the plots growing primarily out of the character’s choices and decisions, internal and external conflicts (the emotional kind), the elegant, angular figure-drawing carries the story visually rather than the settings. Not that Yazawa doesn’t give a sense of place; after all, apartment 707 is almost a character in itself, and the stylish fashion-plate Nanas need equally fashion-forward environments in which to love and hate. That's where Jackson Hole (home of the Jackson Burger- Hachi swears by them) and Sabrina, the funktacular vintage store where Nana finds her first Tokyo job, come in.

As I’ve written in my previous reviews, one of my favorite aspect of Yazawa’s artwork is the specificity of outfits. I’m a huge fan of Japanese street style, and I’m always buying FRUiTS, CUTiE (it's for independent girls!) and sometimes even Zipper magazines to check out the latest fashion trends here. I mean, you can’t always take a trip to Shibuya, Harajuku or Omotesando, so you have to absorb this stuff somehow!

Here's Nakashima Mika in full-on Nana regalia:

Nana Osaki sports rocker chick-wear, possibly from Black Peace Now, the gothic and Lolita fashion line you find in punk/goth boutiques all over; it's infinitely cooler than anything at Hot Topic and ten times more expensive. Or maybe some smaller shop, like the punk store I found just off Takeshita-dori a few years back. The name escapes me (it was something like "Up Yours!" or "Fuck Off, You Bastards!" or "Sit on it, Fonzie!" or something equally outre... I'll go back someday and take some photos and the name won't be anything like that and I'll be embarrassed), but they had Wehrmacht caps for punks intent on giving straight society the finger. Nana's usually dressed in lots of black, visible bra straps, plaid asymmetrical miniskirts, heavy engineer boots and her signature piece, the zippered motorcycle jacket.

Hachi is sort of hime-gyaru, “princess girl,” a femmy look usually sported by women in their late teens or early 20s. It’s like big sister to the gyaru style bursting out of the 109 building in Shibuya. Check out her belted blue dress on the comic’s cover- vaguely 50s style, sort of timeless but with the cutesy touches of knee socks and open-toed pumps with high heels. And then there are the Blast boys, wearing creepers while they back Nana musically during their practices. No matter which character, Yazawa’s art must be a boon to cosplayers.

In the bonus story, “Junko’s Place,” Yazawa continues to blend the supporting cast as bald cat Yasu and the androgynous Nobu visit Hachi’s friend at her snack bar, only to find it’s closed. Ambitious gal, that Junko. Probably working another job or guest starring in another comic for some extra bucks or something.

And here's a bonus for you- movie Nana Nakashima Mika singing her 2007 hit, "Life," the theme song to a TV drama adaptation of another comic series called... Life. Probably launching a billion late night drunken karaoke renditions, although many of the people I know pop in to sing a few songs in the middle of the day:

Yazawa Ai is my own Demon Lord... Demon Lady... she has me hooked on this series, hooked madly. I haven't fallen this hard for a comic since the day I picked up Love & Rockets on a whim. In fact, there's a superficial similarity between the soap opera-ish doings in Nana and those in Love & Rockets. You know, two young women living their lives, some punk rock and... er... there it pretty much ends.

PS- Nana cosplay is pretty popular. Here is a link to a couple of Taiwanese girls doing just about the best Nana/Hachi duo I've seen. See? Yazawa's specificity of costuming makes it easy!


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