NANA: What is love...
I'll admit it - I'm a huge fan of Shoujo manga. Manga like Karekano and W-Juliet really hit the spot when it comes to my desire to see some good drama and romance. And recently, I've come upon the brilliance of Yaizawa Ai's NANA. It's actually funny, because I first read NANA a few years ago while checking out a scanlation group, but never really thought too much of it until I actually picked up Viz's two domestically released volumes about two or three weeks ago. Since then I've devoured the whole series up to volume 14, the latest point translated by Taoyoki Scanlations (link to their yahoo group is here). At first I shared the sentiments of quite a few people out there - that this was just another Shojo series with all the typical trappings offered by the genre: bishounen guys, beautiful girls, altogether too much drama, and very little point. However, you don't sell well over twenty-two million copies in your home country through dramatic presence alone...it takes something more, a strength of theme (in many ways comparable to Naruto, although that series obviously appeals to the male mind).
So...what theme? The problem is that there are so many in NANA. It's practically overflowing with real problems and questions, albeit crammed into the lives of about a dozen people. But at the core we find the question: "what is love?" Okay, so that's a really corny way of putting it, but just because NANA dresses the question up so beautifully doesn't make it any less apparent. That's the key to understanding NANA.
I admit that trying to delve into the "deeper meaning" of Shojo manga might seem like one of those overly intellectual, "I want people to think I'm smart," practices in arrogance. However, I think that even if the creator didn't intend for their work to send this sort of concentrated message, the mere fact that it does impart this sort of message helps me to understand the Japanese mindset better (which is one of the things I aim to do by watching anime, reading manga, listening to their music, reading their literature, etc.). And the mindset that I see here comes directly from the lack of focus and vision Japanese society is experiencing now, typified by Speed Tribes, the classic book by Taro Greenfeld. I don't claim to know how the Japanese have arrived at their current state of confusion - scholars can do that - but they have, and NANA addresses the confusion experienced by the ari-burei zoku, and other likewise stereotyped youth Taro Greenfeld writes about.
Having lost the foundational beliefs on which their purpose rests, the Japanese have tried to turn to the undeniably powerful force of love to overcome their problems. You see the same message of: "love and belief conquer all," in so many places throughout all of Japanese youth culture, and even intellectual culture. The only problem is, in their rush to return to normalcy, the youth of Japan have mistaken selfishness for individuality, and are in so deep in it that they've become confused about the concept of love.
You see it pop up frequently in NANA. "Hachi" (or pink Nana) continually struggles throughout the length of the series to reconcile her selfish desires with her practically insatiable appetite for love. However, and she even questions this herself, is what she is feeling for the men she falls for really love? Or is it infatuation, or something else? As Hachi slowly comes to realize over the fourteen volumes of NANA, love isn't something that just magically appears - it's something that you have to work at, and that you can't take for granted.
NANA presents the confusion between love and selfishness through all the characters, as each tries in turn to overcome their own selfish desires and make good decisions. Takumi tries to give up his mistresses so he can be a good husband to Hachi, even as Hachi promises herself that she will give up Nobu for the sake of Takumi and the future of her child. Shin knows that his prostitution with Reira has the potential to destroy her, and struggles with his desire to do what's best for her, and his own desire to stay with her. In all these instances, excxept for Hachi's, we see the failure of each character to live up to their desires born of love, and watch them give in to their own personal desires. Takumi continues to visit his mistresses, and Shin continues to see Reira. However, surprisingly, Hachi becomes a flagship of the difficulty and pain of truly loving someone as she sacrifices herself time and again for Takumi - emotionally as well as physically. What Hachi begins to recognize throughout all this is that love isn't all roses and candy - like all other human endeavors worth doing, it takes commitment and (surprise!) work. The characters in NANA rarely take the time to understand each other beyond proving their physical attachment to one another, but in Hachi Yaizawa Ai creates a character willing to go beyond the immediate and the physical, and push into the areas that really matter: the heart and the mind.