Bechdel Test Canon: NANA

Recently I got into an off-blog discussion with a reader about aesthetics and taste. Among other things, we talked about value judgments. For example, is Ingmar Bergman's Persona inherently better than Michael Bay's Transformer series? Furthermore, do discussions of style have to be political? This gets at the heart of many issues in contemporary popular culture. It also bespeaks the "film/movie" binary, wherein art house curios like Persona are esteemed as films and popcorn fare like Transformers are dismissed as movies.

To my mind, it's a completely arbitrary distinction with a lot of class baggage. Thus, any critique of a film's aesthetics is inherently political, especially when you bring in issues of representation, reception, and industrial practices interpreted from a feminist perspective. When I pitched this series, I proposed features that weren't well-received critical darlings. I intended to include romantic comedies like Nanette Burstein's Going the Distance, Amy Heckerling's I Could Never Be Your Woman, and Alice Wu's Saving Face, as the genre tends to be derided by critics but maintains a devoted following particularly among women. I've strayed from them as the series evolved because I wanted international diversity and often we only get a glimpse of global cinema's top tier in the states. Though I have misgivings about representing a Japanese film as light-weight escapism given the racist implications of hipster cosmopolitanism toward the country's output of the country's cult media, I wanted to include some movies like Kentarō Ōtani's 2005 film adaptation of Ai Yazawa's NANA, a popular shōjo manga series.

Nana DVD cover

This brings me to another issue: I'm not a film scholar. I received a master's degree in media studies, but my research interest is on convergent music culture. This is reflected in my previous Bitch blog series, which focused on intersections of television and music. So my vocabulary for discussing films is somewhat limited and shaped by course work and conversations I had with film geek colleagues. Before this series, I mainly wrote about films as they related to extratextual musical concerns. So films like NANA and personal fave Linda Linda Linda, both distributed in the states through Viz Media, are easier for me to write about and personally more interesting. When a girl's got a rock band or turntables, I care.

NANA is about two young women who share the same name and are trying to establish themselves in Tokyo. Nana Osaki (J-pop star Mika Nakashima) leads punk band the Black Stones. She broke up with her long-term boyfriend, Ren (Ryûhei Matsuda) after he was recruited by successful rock outfit Trapnest. Nana "Hachi" Komatsu (Aoi Miyazaki) is a sweet girl clouded by her familial privilege and misguided romantic ideals. They meet on a train and happen to move into the same apartment, which helps them develop a friendship. Not much else transpires. Nana O. tries to get over a broken heart and stay true to her musical convictions with the rest of her band. Hachi secures financial independence and splits with Shoji (Yûta Hiraoka), an art school cheater who belittles her intelligence.

There are a few things that are especially interesting to me about NANA. One concerns the power dynamics of Nana O.'s band. Nana is foremost the lead singer, dabbling only occasionally in guitar, an instrument Ren taught her to play. She is also the only woman in her band. And while the film does little to trouble the cultural assumption of the female lead singer as sex object, it also suggests that she has considerable power. She and Ren co-led the band and she continues to call many of the shots. I'm also intrigued by the queer dynamics of Nana O. and Hachi's relationship. The two are openly affectionate. They kiss and hold hands with little comment. It's also clear from Hachi's florid narration that she's more in love with Nana O. than any boy she encounters. When she organizes Nana O.'s reunion with Ren at a Trapnest concert, she does this out of complex romantic feelings. It should also be noted that their relationship has to accommodate Hachi. Ren may get the girl but Hachi never lost her or the apartment.

Hachi and Nana O.

The film's success spawned a sequel and an anime series for television, which prompts a discussion about the process of adaptation. In a great essay on issues of gender performance in shōjo manga, Amanda Landa notes that cross-dressing and queer desire defines the subgenre and are points of pleasure and identification with its audience, which is chiefly comprised of young girls.* Ren's replacement Shinichi Okazaki (Akira Ishida) was a sex worker, which was obscured in the screenplay. Having little knowledge of the Japanese film industry, I wonder if Toho, the country's primary film production company and distributor, requested these changes. Such alterations seem at odds with the popularity of shōjo's queer-friendly content and perhaps are an attempt to police the reception practices of girl fans. Yet despite those efforts, NANA remains pretty queer and suggests the desires and practices amongst some of shōjo's most ardent followers.

*The original text of this post incorrectly stated that Nana O. was a drag queen in the original series. Fact-checking commenters to the rescue!

Bitch Media publishes the award-winning quarterly magazine, Bitch:Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

19 comments have been made. Post a comment.

huh? oosaki nana was never a

huh? oosaki nana was never a drag queen. where the heck did that come from?

also, it's been a while since i've watched the live action film, but iirc, the movie does not cover the storyline up to the point where shin's involvement in sex work was revealed.

i'm not so sure that toho was trying to police fans or rub out the queer-friendly content of nana, either. the movie still had oosaki nana kiss komatsu nana, with even less "explaining" than the manga or anime did. it just happened; the film felt no need to qualify it as a "reward" or some such, as the other incarnations did (though i must admit to finding these moments rather cute either way). i am interested in hearing it if you have more to say about this, though.

as an aside, can i ask why the word "prostitute" (especially with the qualifier of "male") was used in this piece? this is frequently considered an offensive word by many, as the term "sex worker" is usually much preferred.

Hi there - nerd/feminist

Hi there - nerd/feminist intrigued by mention of Nana, a comic that I have enjoyed from time to time. One correction: Nana Oosaki wasn't a drag queen in the comics at all. I think you might be thinking of another work by the same author in which there is a character who is transgendered. That series is called Paradise Kiss. Just sayin'. Someone had to be that nerd!

Glad you're that nerd, Mara.

Glad you're that nerd, Mara. Looks like I've got some books to read. Thanks for the recommendations.

Alyx Vesey

Thanks!

Thanks for catching that bit about Nana O., commenters! We've corrected the piece thanks to your Manga knowledge.

@treeofjessie: As far as the word prostitute goes, in this case, it seems like a more useful term than sex worker because a sex worker can be anyone who works in the sex industry (exotic dancer, porn actor, escort, etc.) whereas the term prostitute is more descriptive. Could you point me in the direction of some reading as to why it could be considered offensive? Thanks!

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

I'm sorry I misspoke, NANA

I'm sorry I misspoke, NANA fans. I haven't read the books yet and skimmed Wikipedia this morning to fill in some holes and it said that she was a drag queen. I thought that was a really interesting difference, but apparently it's not true. And apparently this information isn't there anymore either, which I had nothing to do with but seems really weird. So let this be a lesson: don't treat Wikipedia like a reputable source.

Alyx Vesey

"prostitute" vs "sex worker"

basically the biggest difference between "prostitute" and "sex worker," as per my understanding, is that "sex worker" provides ther person doing the sex work more agency. it frames sex work as WORK; employment that generates income, instead of as a class of people (implied: women, which we saw highlighted in the post above). i am working on getting you some links, but my memory is shoddy and my google fu is not great this afternoon. i will get back to you on that, though.

there is also some discussion in feminist spheres about the marginalizing power (and specifically racialization) of words like "prostitute" (and other, more offensive terms for sex workers). there are all kinds of varying views on this , which i strongly encourage you to look into, but in what i personally have read, the main complaint is that frequently "sex worker" gets applied to white, cis, TAB women, while poc, trans* folk, white men, people with disability, etc, tend to get labeled "prostitute," "ho," et al. there is a whole lot to unpack there, i think.

if this is something you're interested in, i highly recommend proactively looking into it yourself, as well. perhaps your google fu is stronger than mine, even.

Just have to comment that I

Just have to comment that I hope your mention of Linda Linda Linda gets more people to check it out. I love the movie, and the original song by the Blue Hearts.

Hey Alyx, so glad to see

Hey Alyx, so glad to see you've come across Nana, its one of my favorites and actually what I presented on at Consoleing Passions this past spring. Thanks for the shout out! Also, just to be clear my flow post is about a subgenre of shojo anime that involves cross dressing and traces it back to the theatrical performances of the Takarazuka (great anime to look at like this are Ouran High School Host Club, Rose of Versailles, Utena, etc.) which doesn't generally apply to Nana (except some fun anime/manga scenes with the aforementioned Shiniichi). The Nanas relationship is the key of the series and a big reason why it's one of my favorites. Another reason I love it is because it's spawned multiple soundtracks, for the films and anime, and guest prominent female rock/pop vocalists like Anna Tsuchiya perform multiple songs as Nana and as her rival band songstress Layla. So great!

utena and rose of versailles!

utena and rose of versailles! be still my heart!

Arrrgh, now I wish I went to

Arrrgh, now I wish I went to your presentation. Also, I'm glad you're chiming in because I didn't want to put you on the spot, but I know this is one of your big areas of expertise. So thanks for clarifying that you were writing about a particular subgenre of shōjo -- I knew it wasn't a perfect fit for this piece but I really like it and hoped including it would get more people to read it.

Alyx Vesey

and many many hearts to you

and many many hearts to you for the link!!! xoxo also i've been checking in on your btc posts and it makes me happy that there are more movies to write about than it *feels* like there are....does that make sense? Also, a ton that i haven't seen yet and that represent a major spread of representation!

Seriously, if I hadn't

Seriously, if I hadn't already written on it elsewhere I would have included it here. I saw it for the first time two summers ago and it's one of my new faves. Everyone, I can't recommend Linda Linda Linda highly enough. Rent it, watch it, learn to play the Blue Hearts song, share it with your friends.

Alyx Vesey

i'll be watching it tonight,

i'll be watching it tonight, thanks to your recommendation!

also THANK YOU so much for your updates, that was seriously super awesome of you, and i really appreciate it.

I was excited when I saw

I was excited when I saw "NANA" pop up on my screen. Needless to say, I was dissappointed about the overall content of the blog, namely, "nothing else happens"

I can only surmise that this is a review of the film, and as you've stated that you haven't read the manga.

The manga is a much fuller story that I think really hits very important feminist points of interest and a cultural element that exists in Japan. The story is about the two Nanas, one who wants to pursue her singing career but struggles with being the woman her boyfriend needs (and wanting to be that for the two of them) and the other one who pursues love with no set goal and whose emotional happiness is defined by being in a relationship , being used by the men in her life and ultimately choosing a more abusive relationship. Both Nana's admire each other because they have what the other wants, the ability to haplessly follow your heart and the strength to be an independent woman. The Nanas get jealous of the other people in their lives because their bond is so strong, they are best friends and they are the only stable force in each others lives.

I highly recommend the manga to everyone here.

I'm sorry you didn't cotton

I'm sorry you didn't cotton to the content of the post. It's true, I haven't read the series (yet) and I recognized that this could be an issue for many of its fans. As I'm covering three films a week, I simply didn't have the prep time to read them and better incorporate them into my entry. I recognize that this does not suffice for some and, if I were a big fan, would leave me wanting as well. That said, I did like the movie a great deal and do intend to read the series, solely based on my enjoyment of the film.

This brings me to a second point: "nothing else happens" isn't an intended as an insult. It was simply meant to suggest that there wasn't an exceptional amount of plot so much as a series of scenes and flashbacks loosely tied together. What I meant by that comment is that they basically hang out for most of the film, the way that friends kill time with one another and, in this kind of familiar space, reveal a lot of intimate truths to one another. This was actually something I liked a great deal about the film. I felt I considered this in detail with this post and look forward to seeing how its considered in the manga series.

Alyx Vesey

I have been a huge fan of the

I have been a huge fan of the NANA manga series and subsequently the anime too (though the manga will always win hands down for me, the anime captured it's spirit pretty well.)

The thing about the adaptation to the big screen is NANA is such a complex work about relationships, friendships, family and the like that it was never destined to be crammed into a 2 hour movie or so, and it shows.

Having seen both of the movies, (though I do love the casting of Nana and Hachi in the first film,) it just didn't work for me. What is so good about NANA is the build up it gives, supplying you with backstories to most of the characters and slowly showing you the relationships they have formed with Nana and Hachi, that's where a strength of the series lies. Plus, the drawings are just beautiful - but that's an aesthetic thing.

I'm surprised that NANA hasn't been mentioned on Bitch or any other feminist magazines/websites for that matter, since it does plug a lot of feminist views, now thinking about it.

While Hachi finds herself dependent on men and thinks that her emotional well being is all down to having a guy in her life, she always seems to pick the man that isn't good for her, emotionally, - in this case, if you know of the NANA world, that's Takumi - and this is a perfect, prime example of what a lot of women degrade themselves to today. Hachi fears being alone and this is where her and Nana have a similarity in personalities, Nana too doesn't want to be alone, but she doesn't require a man to fill that hole in her life. In fact, I'm pretty sure that she finds more comfort in Hachi than she does Ren or Yasu.

Even though it shouldn't matter, I think one of the strengths in NANA is that it was written by a woman, Ai Yazawa. As we all know, a lot of manga and anime is pretty sexualised, written by and drawn by men (*starts to sing It's a Man's World*) but NANA doesn't tread on that ground, it deals with it in a realistic way.

Thanks for bringing NANA up though. Until now, I hadn't seen it from a feminist view, and I've read my NANA volumes too many times to count.

I suggest anyone to pick up the manga, one of the best comics written imo. Really kicks into gear around Volume 4.

here's a nice feminist

here's a nice feminist analysis of the nana manga, for your perusal...

http://bentophysics.wordpress.com/2006/07/18/feminism-in-shoujo-manga-na...

and a latoya peterson piece:

http://jezebel.com/5437193/memo-to-the-media-in-2010-add-more-dynamic-fe...

Thanks, Amanda!

Thanks, Amanda!

Alyx Vesey

Thanks for your comments,

Thanks for your comments, Cherokee. I'm glad I'm getting the schooling I imagined I'd receive by including this film in the series and I really appreciate what you have to say here. I anticipated issues of adaptation were a problem going in and recognize your point about how difficult it is to adapt a multi-volume comic series into a two-hour movie (see also: Scott Pilgrim). I'm especially interested in Ai Yazawa's authorship and am energized by your comments about how a female manga writer is working to move anime away from the sexualised imagery its more closely associated with.


Also, I completely agree with your point about Nana O. receiving more comfort in Hachi than Ren or Yasu. This was certainly the case in the film and I look forward to watching this reveal itself in the series.

Alyx Vesey