Certain stereotypes keep popping up again and again in Japanese manga and anime – one in particular, the stereotype of the Terminally Cheerful character. This character, in its native environment, is so optimistic it has almost reached a form of enlightenment, where things are ‘meant to be’ and where nothing bad reaches it despite what’s going on around it. Of course, it’s no mystery, the allure of this creature. Think ‘The Fool’ from the tarot’s Major Arcana – a young traveller focused on the sky overhead while inadvertently stepping off a cliff. Think Tall Poppy Syndrome – stand too tall and you’re bound to be cut down. The plight of the Terminally Cheerful character is as subject to these unwritten rules of moderation as anything else; extremes of wilful happiness are always destined for tears.
Nana is obviously just such a character, living her life according to what she wants to believe, as opposed to what actually is, following her art-student boyfriend to Tokyo without any ambitions or dreams of her own other than to ‘be with him’. Now, if that was actually what the story was about, it no doubt wouldn’t have made a terribly engaging film, but the introduction of a second Nana, almost a total opposite to the first in both looks and attitude, not only makes a nice kind of logic, it smacks of cosmic balance and of how little choices can have lasting effects. Nana two is in a way what Nana one might have been had she had her own dream and the determination to pursue it. Nana one might have been Nana two, had she chosen to chase after her boyfriend rather than her ambitions.
Of course it’s a little more complex than that, as later scenes and revelations involving the girls’ origins attest to, but basically it’s a ‘path not taken’ love story, and it’s a strength owed to the original material – a manga series by shoujo queen Ai Yazawa currently publishing in English by Viz Media – that the friendship between the two Nana’s, the way they grow in each other’s influence, is what lies at the heart of this film.
All’s not always rosy in the world of live-action adaptations though. For a start, although there is less of a sense here than in other live action films based on long-running manga series, one gets the idea that the emotional content of the story is just the tip of the iceberg. Giving a guy a gift of a chain and padlock as a necklace and keeping the key might have some obvious significance, but less obvious is what it means to still be hanging on to that key several years later when the romance is, for all intents and purposes over. Such glimpses of insight into Nana two are hardly explored satisfactorily, and the film must make do with snapshots of emotion and motivation in the time it has.
Another failing often experienced by live action films is the translation of style. Ai Yazawa particularly is known for her gothicky, almost Baroque visual approach and some scenes are quite obviously cut straight from the manga. Lanky, stylish, bourgeoisie punks lounge with fashionable disregard in the frame; tiny Japanese pop-princesses stand isolated in straight-on shots during key emotional moments. But sometimes the film gets the lesser end of the deal. Such stylisations of action and arrangement have impact on the printed page, and can be charming on celluloid, but they fail at conveying enough of the original aesthetics to always make sense, and they’re sometimes even unintentionally amusing. Tomoki Maruyama’s Yasu is never seen without sunglasses on, even when inside at night, and Ryuhei Matsuda’s pout probably ought to be classified as a secret martial arts technique: Pouting Pose Ultimate Special Move! I can just see him yelling it now, before he fells hordes of clamouring female fans and saves the day…
For all the pouting and posing though, Nana (the film) is enjoyable in its own right; a sweet, slightly a-typical shoujo story replete with heartbreak and angst, tempered with the sort of emotional and social maturation that seems to be a hallmark of modern shoujo. In this story, the heroine has to decide not between one boy and another but between herself and someone else, and in the end the answer seems to be, at least for these two Nana’s, one of moderation in all things.