Monday, January 19, 2009

Japanese Movies: Nana

One of the caveats of being married to a Japanese woman is that I'm coerced into watching Japanese chick flicks every once in a while. But the weird thing is I usually end up liking them better than my wife does. I don't know what that means.

This weekend, we finally watched "Nana", the 2005 film adaptation of the massively popular shoujo manga. My wife is a HUGE fan of the manga, and she was really excited about the film adaptation when it first hit theaters. Living in the US, she never got to see it, so she was excited again when it was finally released on DVD here about six months ago. We finally Netflixed it, though it took about a month of convincing before I actually sat down and watched it with her. But after my Dark Knight and Hancock and Iron Man, I kinda felt obligated. I think she's regretting all that effort now.

This is a story about two girls that are both named Nana who meet by chance on a train to Tokyo. They are opposites - one is a jaded, aspiring rock chick and the other is a cute, somewhat dim-witted but otherwise typical suburbanite. By chance again, they end up roommates, then friends. Each ends up helping the other through some difficult times. Yep, your standard chick buddy flick. It's actually pretty much the same plot as "Kamikaze Girls", which I've mentioned here before, just with a different backstory.

The trailer (press the "HQ" button!):

Probably unlike the manga, the main plot of the film actually revolves around Nana Osaki, the rock chick, who's easily the more interesting and three-dimensional of the two anyway. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that she was involved with Ren, the bassist from her old rock band, who left to join another, more mainstream band named Trapnest that just happens to be Nana Komatsu's favorite. (In the process, he switches to lead guitar.) Just as Nana O is putting her life and her own band back together, Nana K wins two front row tickets to see Trapnest in concert, inviting Nana O to go with her. Well, you can guess the rest. Meanwhile, both girls basically fall in love with each other, though not in a romantic way, but in that weird almost romantic kind of way that girls sometimes do and that guys can't ever really get their heads around. We're talking overtones.

Nana K's own story ends up being basically an out of place subplot in the film - her jerk of a boyfriend is cheating on her, blah blah blah. Sad. (There was way more to it in the manga, but it's been cut down in the film.) Nana K's story serves mostly to advance the relationship between the two girls, whereas that relationship then advances Nana O's story with Ren.

The whole thing is heavy on the schmaltz and there's lots of crying. But you know what? Japanese filmmakers are really, really good at this kind of thing. The art of melodrama is lost in this country - we've turned it into such a formula that all the real emotion just gets sucked right out of it. Japanese melodramas - at least the best ones - pour it on just as thick as American melodramas but somehow manage to suck you in anyway. They're so well-calculated that even though you're completely aware of being manipulated, you still get caught up in it. There are scenes in this film that I know I should want to laugh at for excessive corniness, but instead find myself actually getting a little choked up.

Authenticity is the key, especially with Nana O. Mika Nakashima was an inspired bit of casting in that role - she was already one of Japan's top singers, so there's nothing about her that doesn't feel real. She is real. And she looks and acts the part, down to the Vivienne Westwood clothing and accessories, though she's not quite as matronly as the manga and anime version of the same character. (I think I like the film version better; a little more realistic for a 20 year old.) Ai Yazawa, who wrote the original story, must have had some experience in a band. All the details are right, including just how normal most of the time you spend with your band is (one of Nana's bandmates seems to be a big melon cream soda fan). American films never manage that - there's too much stereotyping and glamorizing. And that makes the emotions feel fake too.

It helps that the most emotional scene of the film is set at a rock concert. The film has two of these leading up to the finale (one of Nana O's band, one of her ex-beau Ren's Trapnest), and both of them feel totally real even though they clearly aren't - the music is pre-recorded. I suspect they were, in fact, filmed in such a way as to maximize sell-through of soundtrack CD's. They still look and sound convincing, though, and the atmosphere is exactly right. Everybody's playing the right notes and strumming on rhythm and whatnot; it doesn't feel faked. And this is a setting that, in real life, really can bring out all sorts of raw emotions.

My wife disliked the film. It actually made her depressed for the rest of the evening.

For her, it just cut too much out of the manga. That might be true; it only has three out of five stars on Amazon Japan (vs. four and a half on Amazon USA). She also called Nana K "annoying" and said the plot was "unrealistic". I'll give her that Aoi Miyazaki, playing Nana K, was a bit much - and it's a little ironic that she's the one that got more popular off this movie. (As my wife said, "Japanese guys like innocent girls.") I was obviously a lot more taken with Nana O (and not just because she looks and acts exactly like a former roommate of mine!) I guess this movie actually appeals more to American tastes than Japanese.

But I think it appealed to me not just for the reasons listed above but also because it actually made me nostalgic - a big part of the film is actually about the ups and downs of being a performing musician. The thrill of being on stage, yeah, but also the depressing, down periods when you're not. Performing live is like an addictive drug; once you've experienced it, all you want to do is experience it again, over and over. That's how bands can go on grueling, year-long tours again and again throughout their careers. And when you're not on stage, it's just a dark, lonely existence. Yeah, you can tell I miss it. I am Nana O!

It is just a sweet film too.

Of course, a lot of the feminist stuff is a bit lost on me, and that was the main point of the manga (and anime). It's intended to be a story of two girls learning to live lives that are independent of men, relying on each other instead. I think the film is honestly missing some of that anyway, or at least it doesn't beat you over the head with it like the manga and anime do. Maybe that's one reason why its rating in Japan is lower than here; the message is a bit lost. It's a message that probably feels really important in Japan right now, where women and girls are searching for empowerment in a country that's years behind us in feminist terms.

The film was a lot like the manga in at least one way:

It's very close, visually.

There's a sequel (imaginatively called "Nana 2") that again stars Mika Nakashima as Nana O but replaces Aoi Miyazaki as Nana K (she declined to appear - got too popular, had better things to do). The sequel is good too, but it's very sad throughout and pretty bleak at the end. Unlike the first film, it feels in need of another sequel to tie up loose ends, and there probably won't be one coming. It's also got some obviously-cheaper production values - at least 50% of it takes place at the girls' apartment. On the plus side, I think the casting of the second film is actually a net gain. Many of the actors have changed, but most for the better - including Ren and Nana Komatsu, now played by Yui Ichikawa. She's a lot less annoying than Aoi Miyazaki, and no less cute.

And of course, there's an anime, with a theme song by Anna Tsuchiya. I'm watching through this now and it is much more faithful to the manga - in ways both good and bad. So far, the film is better - I'm not a huge fan of unnecessary exposition. The film really boils it down, separates the wheat from the chaff. Unfortunately, there is no US distribution for the anime yet, but search around and you can find it.


  1. Oh gosh golly I adore NANA! I enjoyed the manga but I fell completely head over heels in love with the film. Mika Nakashima is pitch perfect. Even Miyazaki won me over in the end with her smile. I flew up to NYC in Dec 06 to see the international premiere of NANA 2. Although not nearly as lovely (unfortunately they changed too many cast members of the original, including Aoi Miyazaki), NANA 2 was fun. Plus, I got to see Mika up close and personal. Yes, she's just as beautiful in real life as she is on film. I recommend the second film only to those who enjoyed the first film. Be warned: NANA 2 is far more of a downer and features lots of characters in tears at many points in the film. Nana K. spends most of the film crying about stuff. It's a lot more like a soap opera and not nearly as satisfying as I had hoped. Still, Nana O. makes the movie and is worth the 2+ hrs. If your wife hated NANA, then she'd probably really detest NANA 2.
    The first one is so very sweet. I was so in love 2 yrs ago and now I need to go back and watch both movies again.
    For my birthday in '07, my husband got me a real Vivienne Westwood armour ring just like the one Nana O. wears. Next to my engagement and wedding rings, it is my most treasured piece of jewelry.
    I used to read the manga but I eventually got a bit disinterested and never got caught up.
    In the late part of '05 and early part of '06, my NANA obsession consumed me in such a wonderful way. I miss it, and now I think I know which DVDs to pull off the shelf this weekend!

  2. Glad to see I'm not the only one who liked the film version - though I might feel differently if I'd read the manga first.

    Funny thing is I didn't really think much of the film right after watching it, and I hadn't planned on making a post out of it. But it's really stuck with me over the past few days. And I can't get "Glamorous Sky" out of my head - I can understand why that song hit #1. I actually learned to play that on guitar last night :)

    (It's really easy.)

    I'm actually watching the anime now. Only up to episode 1 so far, so no real judgment on that yet... so far, it's basically just like the film but with a little more exposition and hyper-exaggerated characters. Like when Nana K complains that she did all the dishes for Shouji, there's a voice-over afterwards that says really excitedly, "I shouldn't have said that! I've spoiled the mood!" rather than just letting us figure that out for ourselves. I hate that kind of thing, and the film didn't do that. But I imagine it probably settles down as it goes along; most anime is like that. The art style is beautiful, though.

  3. Wow! How'd you get the anime? Did you download that? I have not seen any of the anime at all. Let me know when you've seen some more and if its worth tracking down.
    I tried out Glamorous Sky on the guitar, too. I did okay, and I'm completely awful. I sort of learned the lyrics, though I'm sure my pronunciation isn't right!
    I am not entirely sure that Anna Tsuchiya was on a live tv show. What I believe happened was that she recorded the Nana O. songs for the anime. Then she performed them live a bunch of times and masqueraded as Nana O. while touring those songs. However, I could be wrong as I haven't followed too closely in the past year or so.

  4. yeah, seems like I was way confused in that last paragraph. I don't even think there is a live-action TV show. Well, good, because I really don't think I'd have liked her as Nana O. I keep thinking of her as the character she played in Kamikaze Girls and it just seems like it'd come off as a total caricature.

    Anyway, I'll fix that paragraph.

  5. A little running update: as I suspected, the anime (which is based a lot more closely on the manga, supposedly) goes into a lot more detail about Nana K than the movie does. The first three episodes have been *all* about her, and her backstory already makes Shouji look like a lot less of a jerk.

    I totally understand why they cut all that out in the movie, though - I'm not sure yet what point Ai Yazawa is trying to make with Nana K, but she is still pretty much completely uninteresting (and kind of stupid) to me.

  6. Anonymous1:09 PM

    just ran across your blog looking for which doesn't exist. noticed you like japanese movies and thought i'd mention one i just saw at sundance film festival called 'the cove.'

  7. i have to check this movie out now!! thanks for the review.

    btw, Anna Tsuchiya is beautiful. too skinny at times, but beautiful nonetheless.

  8. If you think Anna Tsuchiya is too skinny, wait until you see Mika Nakashima. And she's considered pretty much the ideal weight! Different diet and different standards over there...

    If you see the movie, let me know what you think of it.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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