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Nana Project #8 — Volumes 15 and 16

Welcome back to the NANA project!  After a brief hiatus, Melinda, Michelle and I return to discuss volumes 15 and 16.  We tackle Yazawa’s view of popular art, Nana and Ren’s disintegrating relationship, and loving Nana in the past, present and future.

Danielle:  Having read these volumes numerous times, I find myself less interested in the on-going soap opera this time around (okay, the limited amount of Takumi kind of makes these volumes a little less spicy for me than they would otherwise be), and almost obsessed about Yazawa’s on-going commentary on the relationship between commercialism and art.  There are just a few moments (most of them in volume 16, also but scattered throughout the entire series), but sometimes I wonder what she really thinks about the whole concept of “selling out” or creating art that is intended to be popular (like, oh say, manga, for example).  Nobu is told that it is his responsibility to create songs that “sell,” while at the same time Nana’s depressed because her former hardcore fans have basically abandoned the band.  Not to mention that Blast’s agency wants to turn Nana into an adaptable product, in spite of the fact her artistic bonafides in Japan are still in question thanks to her association with Ren.

What is your take on what Yazawa might be trying to say about commercial (or “popular,” if you prefer) art?

Michelle:  As someone who generally doesn’t enjoy the music, TV, or other forms of media designed for the entertainment of the masses, it didn’t even occur to me to question the notion that, to broaden their appeal, Blast would have to lose a great deal of their originality. Because of that, it didn’t even occur to me that Yazawa might be making any particular statements about commercial art.

More, I took all of these moments as a cautionary tale — you might think that you want fame and fortune, but once you achieve it, you become trapped. Reira can’t be with the one she loves because of fame, Nobu can’t write the songs he wants to write, and Nana is going to be pimped out for projects that have less to do with her passion, singing, and more to do with capitalizing on her current notoriety. They thought this is what they wanted, and they chose to sign the contract knowing there would have to be changes, but the reality is quite disheartening for all of them.

Danielle:  Hmmm.  Although what you say makes a certain amount of sense, I also feel there’s a ring of truth to what Yuri says to Nobu: “Anyone can create something that satisfies just themselves.  If you’re a pro I think it’s way cooler to be able to write songs for other people.”  I don’t necessarily agree with her but I think this is an interesting statement when you consider how damn popular the NANA manga is in Japan.  I really do think that there’s more going on here than just a cautionary tale – in some ways, I feel like the creator is working out some of her own unease with her own status as a creator of “popular” works and all the attention and expectation that brings with it.  (This seems all the more poignant, to me, right now because she’s been too ill to create manga for a while now…)

For the record, I do get annoyed with other characters for dumping all over Nobu when he’s frustrated by the fact the songs he likes to write are rejected by the music bigwigs.  When they tell him to just write what will sell I find myself on his side…and wonder what we are supposed to make of characters like Yasu always, always erring on the side of what is good for business, rather than what might actually be good for the band’s identity as musicians.  This makes Nobu seem like he is losing his innocence in order to satisfy Yasu’s need to keep Nana famous so that Yasu can keep an emotional distance from her while at the same time ultimately acting as her caretaker.  There’s just something about that dynamic that really bothers me….

Melinda:  Like Michelle, I admit I hadn’t considered whether Yazawa was making a larger statement about the commercial popularity of art, though it makes a lot of sense. She’s blasted the music industry pretty consistently throughout the manga, and though I’m not entirely sure where she stands in terms of popular music (whether she thinks it’s inherently bad, for instance), I’ve been pretty sure that she dislikes the watering-down of punk artists to suit popular tastes.

On the flip side of Yuri’s statement, she also makes a point of the fact that the small live concert Blast performs for their old fans shows them off at their best. Shion talks about how surprised she is by the performance, and that “they’re actually better than before,” but it’s made clear that it’s because at their core, they haven’t changed. They’re still punk. Will she feel the same way once they’ve recorded some of the new songs Nobu’s had to write to please the label? I don’t know.

I *do* think she has sympathy for Nobu, though, and the ways all of them have to change if they want to keep doing their work. Maybe this is about working out her own issues, as you suggest, Danielle, but I never feel like she turns against the *artists* for what they have to do. She skewers the labels and the celebrity press, but she has nothing but love for her bands, whether they’re keeping the business together like Yasu and Takumi, or worrying about losing themselves as artists like Nobu. That’s the way it feels to me, anyway.

Michelle:  I don’t get the feeling that Yasu is intentionally trying to keep Nana *famous*, but I do think he’s trying to model himself on Takumi to some extent.  Savvy businessman and all that.  He does nearly always side with the executives, though, and seems to care the least about the changes in the band’s sound, which makes him fundamentally different from Takumi, I think.

About the fans’ reaction to Blast’s Christmas party concert, I had the same thought, Melinda.  They’re better than before because they have practiced and followed the label’s suggestions on how to become better musicians, but their album has yet to come out. What will Shion think then?

Melinda:  I think some of the differences we see between the way Yasu handles his band and the way Takumi does have to do with the reasons each of them are doing it in the first place. Takumi has always been the one driving Trapnest’s existence. It’s the most important thing in his life, and he treats it as such, to the point of being such a control freak that they couldn’t even keep a guitarist back in their early days. Yasu, on the other hand, I think doesn’t care much at all about Blast, outside of his feelings for the people in the band. For all his apparent stoicism, Yasu is almost entirely motivated by emotion and a sense of duty towards those he loves. You see it most plainly in his relationship with Ren, but Nana is someone like that for him now, too, and he pretty much came back to the band for her.

I’m not saying Yasu doesn’t love the music – certainly he had a visceral reaction to hearing Nana and Nobu play while he was still back home, but (in very geeky terms) it’s not his prime directive. Nana wants Blast to make it, and he’s going to make that happen. I think that’s a huge motivator for him, and he’s learned enough to realize that in order to do that, they’ll have to conform.

Michelle: Exactly. When I said I didn’t think he was intentionally trying to keep her famous, I didn’t mean to imply that he wasn’t doing everything he’s doing on her behalf.  Just that it’s more to make her dreams come true, whatever they may be, than any specific pursuit of fame.

Danielle:  I see Yasu a little differently (and it is possible having already read later volumes is clouding my perception on this) but I feel like Yasu is very much invested in Nana succeeding as a *named* property, precisely because of the original way Blast was exposed to the public and the way that hurt Nana so much.  If Nana is *famous* on what Yasu to believes her own terms, I think he can rest easy.  So he pushes Nobu, the writer, to be something he’s resisting, much more than than, say Nana as “the talent,” who claims she just wants to make a living off her voice.  In reality, her desires are much more complex and demanding than that.

Melinda:  I would submit that Yasu doesn’t fully understand Nana’s very complex desires, and that this has been a problem from the get-go.

Michelle:  This is slightly off-topic, but speaking of Nana’s complex desires, how amazing was the scene between her and Ren before he left for London.  “Would you be happy if I left Trapnest and didn’t go to London?  Would you be happy if Hachiko got an abortion and broke up with Takumi? Would you be happy if Yasu stayed single and by your side for the rest of his life?”  I can’t help thinking they probably *should* have ended things then and there, but it’s so difficult to admit that love is simply not enough to make a relationship work.

Danielle:  hunh…You know, I just suddenly realized Ren actually *does* know Nana better than Yasu.  I mean, that shouldn’t be such a shocking thought, he’s her lover after all, but Ren is always such a mess I couldn’t imagine him having a better grasp of the emotional than Yasu.  But Michelle’s right – with that stunning barrage of questions he totally lays Nana bare right then and there.  Of course, because he’s Ren there’s no follow through…but still.  My world is a little askew right now…

Melinda:  I think this is absolutely true, and maybe makes it clear that *understanding* is not necessarily the key to… well, anything. I’m reminded of one of the stories from <i>Kino no Tabi</i>, “Land of Visible Pain.”  In the story, Kino encounters a country of technologically-advanced people who had, at some point, come to the conclusion that if only they could truly understand each other’s pain, they’d be able to live together in perfect harmony.  With this in mind, their scientists develop a way for them to all be able to hear each other’s thoughts. What happens ultimately, of course, is that they soon discover that understanding each other’s pain actually makes it *harder* for them to live together, and they eventually all end up isolated in their own homes, unable to stand being even within sight of one another.

I think to a great extent, Ren’s understanding of Nana’s deepest desires may actually make it more difficult for them to stay together. If anything, it may just make it easier for them to hurt each other, as I think he hurts Nana with his stunningly accurate assessment of her ugliest thoughts and feelings. I’m not suggesting that love is best maintained through rose-colored glasses, but I’m not sure that this level of brutal understanding is always a good thing. We all need someone in our lives who is biased in our favor, and this is most often the role of a romantic partner.  I think it’s okay, and even *desirable*, for love to be just a little bit blind.

Michelle:   I didn’t get the impression that Ren necessarily faults her for her feelings — the smile he gives her before his departure is pretty forgiving, after all — but I’m not entirely sure what his aim here is. I mean, if he’s perceptive enough to pinpoint her most secret wishlist in this way, you’d think he realizes that she already feels awful for wanting these things, so his motivation is probably not to point out her selfishness.  But then, what is it?

Melinda:  Well, I think forgiveness is not really the point. We all have incredibly selfish feelings and desires. We may bury them deep, but they’re there. Most of these are things we would prefer to never verbalize, because even if they are undeniable pieces of our personalities, they are the things we dislike most in ourselves. And while working on these things is certainly desirable, I think having them verbalized by the person from whom we most need approval is not necessarily helpful to us or to our relationship with that person. Whatever Ren’s motivation, he has *indeed* pointed out her selfishness as well as the feelings of which she feels most ashamed. And for what?

Michelle: I can only think it’s some misguided attempt to bring her around to his way of thinking. The idea that it’s a mutual appreciation for the same objectives and goals that makes a relationship work comes up twice in these volumes — here with Nana and Ren and again in the bonus story about Nobu — so perhaps he somehow believes he can get her to abandon her own impossible desires and get on the Trapnest bandwagon.  And that then, their relationship will stabilize.

Danielle: Melinda’s “And for what?” really hits home with me.  There are two major scenes in ALL of NANA that haunt me and are about one character walloping the other with an ugly and terrible truth (or in case of Ren and Nana multiple “truths”).  The first is the scene where Hachi and Shoji have it out on the streets of Tokyo.  Except instead of “have it out,” Shoji is so fed up with Hachi he just yells at her that he’ll feel liberated once he’s gotten away from her.  I agree with Michelle, that Ren offers a kind of forgiveness after his own outburst, but once you’ve puked up your guts and unleashed the harshest assessment possible of the other person’s faults one wonders if it ever really can be quite the same.

One might argue that in both cases it is BETTER that things change.  After all, Hachi and Shoji find a way to connect with each other, while Nana realizes she has to make an effort to stay in touch with Ren emotionally, even if he can’t be by her side all the time (hence, her buying that cell phone that can make international calls later in these volumes).

But I’m haunted by these moments because I don’t think it works out like this.  In the end, this kind of unburdening is almost never accepted by the other person at face value.  Because in reality, we can’t see the world through anyone’s eyes but our own and I think that these moments – while shocking and fascinating – play very false to me.  They are amazingly compelling but they don’t ring true to my experience of life and so in the end the Ren / Nana moment lacks real purpose.

Melinda:  I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say “I don’t think it works out like this,” but *man* it’s not easy.  Nobody wants to be with a partner who doesn’t esteem or respect them, and in a situation like that, if the best you can possibly do to pick up after yourself basically boils down to, “But I love you anyway,” or “But I forgive you,” that’s pretty hard to come back from.  I think it can probably be done, but it’s really, *really* hard.

Danielle:  Well, once again, we are back to the question of whether Nana and Ren should have just ended it right there.  And also, I guess, the question if either of them *can* really end it, not just taking a break from each other, but if they have the strength to carry out a final and lasting separation.

In the flash-forwards, we get a glimpse of a Nana who still wears Ren’s ring, even though everything else about her seemed very, very different.  A telling moment, since we at least know that Ren and Nana have been separated for a long, long time.

Melinda: What I actually quite like about the way Yazawa drags out Nana and Ren’s relationship right here is that this, at least, rings *very* true to me. Often the hardest thing to do with a relationship is to end it, definitively, especially one that has existed for so long. This endless stalling despite huge, obvious problems… that’s what real people do. And the agony of it feels very real to me.

Michelle: They seem truly stuck. They don’t want to end it, but neither do they seem able to go ahead with the wedding.

I thought Yazawa made an interesting contrast with rings in these volumes. During the photo shoot of Takumi and Hachi, or shortly thereafter, a panel is devoted entirely to Hachi hand, where her engagement ring is now accompanied by a wedding band. In the flashforward—and holy cow, I never expected we’d actually *see* future Nana!—Nana’s ring is also singled out for attention and comparison, a promise unfulfilled.

Danielle: Such a great comparison, Michelle.  But speaking of flashfowards, I have to admit the scene where Hachi returns home to find Takumi there is the one that stays with me.  I’m not sure why…maybe because I’m shocked at the kindness with which they smile at each other when it is obvious they don’t have the settled family life they originally envisioned for the three of them.  He clearly loves his daughter and she loves him, but it doesn’t seem like he’s around that much.  That means Hachi’s not only the “head” of her household in sense she’s the individual maintaining it on a daily basis, she also seems to have adapted to a lot of things one wouldn’t expect.  In comparison, it isn’t clear yet how Takumi might have changed (physically speaking, he’s cut his hair but still dressed outrageously for a regular business dude, so one assumes he is still involved in music).

Michelle:  That scene really sticks with me, too. A little bit of it is surprise, perhaps, that they can still seem so content in each other’s presence several years down the line, but mostly I am struck by how completely *grown up* Hachi seems. She’s always displayed motherly instincts—most notably with Shin—but wow, that role suits her. Seeing the outcome here, and feeling that so much time has passed, it’s hard for me to sustain the wish that she had chosen Nobu instead. Whatever others may have to say about her marriage, this likely *was* the right decision for her and to see her grown into such a capable woman kind of makes me verklempt with pride.

Melinda:  Hmmmm, I agree that they smile at each other kindly here, but am I the only one who thinks Hachi also looks a little sad? Maybe it’s my anti-Takumi bias showing here, but there’s something so subdued about the way they deal with each other in this scene, I feel like there had to be some serious pain involved there, somewhere. Maybe it’s long past, and certainly there is no ill will in the room, but I do feel some sense of… I don’t know, maybe it’s even *loss*. Hachi’s lovely and grown up, but her spirit seems dampened to me somehow.

Danielle:  Even though I do agree with you – there’s definitely a sense of “we’re not so young, anymore, we’ve compromised certain ideals to maintain this marriage / family” – I still find Hachi impressive as an adult.  She’s matured beautifully, but no doubt she’s weathered a good deal of pain in that process.  However, I think that is part of what makes Hachi who she is as an adult…she may have suffered loses but she’s become the kind of mom who can still smile and raise a happy child (the kind of mom Jun once instructed her to be when Hachi first revealed she was pregnant).

Michelle: It’s interesting to me that, although Hachi looks fundamentally the same (though more motherly) she has changed a lot. Nana, on the other hand, has changed her appearance pretty drastically but still seems to be struggling with the same issues. Perhaps the physical transformation was an attempt to become someone who *isn’t* lonely and damaged, but a more fundamental inner change has proved elusive.
Melinda: Maybe the reason Nana hasn’t overcome her issues is because she’s run away from them, while Hachi has obviously stuck it out, forcing herself to face her issues and grow. Or maybe that’s what Yazawa is trying to show us, anyway.

Michelle: I think you’re exactly right.  I just love all of these unspoken comparisons Yazawa is making in how she presents them.

Danielle: And since you mentioned “unspoken comparisons,” I’m going to take a little bit of a topical jump but I actually want to discuss the Nobu backstory because I find it very interesting how Yazawa shows how differently Nobu relates to Nana than the others do.  I always thought that Ren and Hachi were the most significant people in Nana’s life, but reading Nobu’s story it occurred to me that the Nana we know in the *present* simply would not exist without Nobu.  I really believe that he – more than any other character – has influenced her life.  Without Nobu there would have been no Ren and certainly no Hachi.  (While yes, Nobu literally introduced Ren and Nana, in the case of Hachi, I think that if Nana’s heart hadn’t been softened by Nobu’s friendship Nana would have never gotten close to someone as open and trusting as Hachi).  It was Nobu that basically “domesticated” Nana to a large degree…that made her capable of getting along with other human beings.

Melinda:  I am so happy you brought this up, because I was really thinking along the same lines during this last read-through. You’re absolutely right about Nobu’s influence in Nana’s life, and the fact that he is responsible for her introduction to nearly everything (and everyone) that is truly important to her. I also think he’s significant in her life as a man with no romantic or sexual designs on her at all, which can’t be said for either of the other two primary men in her life, Ren and Yasu.

Michelle:  And yet, she doesn’t seem to cling as possessively to him as she does to others who are important to her. She was ready to use *him* to secure Hachi’s continued proximity, but not the other way around. Aside from what it means for her personal agenda, she doesn’t seem to mind his relationship with Yuri, either. Do you think she simply cannot fathom a world in which Nobu is not a central figure, or does he really not matter as much to her as others do?

Danielle:  That’s a good question…I read it as he’s simply a part of her in a way Hachi and Ren aren’t.  She doesn’t have to worry about not being close to Nobu in proximity – the way she does with Ren and Hachi – because wherever he is, he’ll always be Nobu to her.  So, yes, I think it is a version of Nana can’t even dream of a world where Nobu could become something different to her or that something could ever shift between them.  And I have to say, of all the relationships in the entire book, the one that changes the least is Nobu and Nana’s.  I don’t know if that is a bad thing (i.e. shouldn’t relationships change over time as we change?) but he does seem to be a comforting constant to her.

Melinda:  I suppose she takes Nobu for granted, which may seem dismissive, but it’s also an indication of how much she trusts him to just always be there with her, no matter what.

Michelle:  I honestly don’t know how she would react if he suddenly announced his intention to go elsewhere. Would she feel confident that he’d always remain the same Nobu, wherever he was, or would she be devastated?  I’m also curious to see how and why she decided to be the one to leave everyone behind. A pre-emptive strike, perhaps?

Danielle:  Oh the great mystery of NANA!  Yes, watching her in what I assume is self-imposed exile is beyond depressing, particularly when it is obvious Hachi is just faithfully waiting for Nana to one day get it together and come home.

This seems like a good place to wrap up this NANA project — we’ll be back soon to discuss volumes 17 and 18 of NANA.  As we are quickly approaching the end of available NANA volumes, the three of us are currently debating our next roundtable title (I’m partial to Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku myself).  Feel free to let us know what title *you* think we should tackle next!

8 Comments

[...] can find that discussion here! Don’t forget to help us decide on our next topic (since we’ve only five volumes of [...]

Great to see another installment from the NANA project!

Much like Danielle, I also noticed a statement about popular art, one that’s hard to ignore when considering the huge commercial success of NANA in Japan. Not only that, but when you consider the ‘Family Times’ pages at the back of each volume, it’s obvious Ai Yazawa is concerned with making some real money off of NANA. I’m also glad that quote from Yuri was noticed because it seems like the key to understanding Yazawa’s intention NANA itself.

What I think she’s getting at in the series though is that ‘selling out’ is not necessarily a bad thing. Art created for someone else doesn’t have to be a betrayal except in its most extreme cases. On the other side of the spectrum, I’m sure everyone has read or watched something terribly self-indulgent and self-serving. So what I believe Yazawa is trying to do is show that creating something to appeal to a lot of people doesn’t have to be creatively bankrupt, and I think she proves that with NANA quite well. There’s a fine balance between staying true to your artistic vision and creating something for an audience, and it’s that tension being expressed in the series as Blast struggles with becoming a commercial success.

And just a quick note about Nobu and his relationship with Nana, one part that really sticks in my mind is when he went to Tokyo early in the series to play guitar for Nana. She seemed to treat it as a joke, and while she did try to dissuade him, she didn’t seem all that surprised that he followed. Compared to Yasu whom she clinged to with tears in her eyes when he suddenly appeared, I definitely agree with the assessment that Nana takes Nobu for granted as a constant.

[...] a short hiatus, the NANA Project is back! This time around, we look at volumes 15 and 16, focusing especially on (in [...]

I enjoyed reading this as always, though it makes me so sad thinking the series might remain unfinished! ;_; (I still have the last few chapters that haven’t been released in tankobon yet, but I haven’t read them, because that might be it!)

Thanks José and Travis for being our regular readers! It’s always nice to see you turn up here.

I’m a bit late to the party, but I just wanted to say: WOW! I truly enjoyed reading such a comprehensive discourse by people who are actually familiar with the work. It is a pleasure to witness such a show of enthusiasm and intimacy with regards to peeling the onion that is NANA. I’m not even sure how I ended up here but, now I have to pull up the first installment and catch up. Thanx so much for having the desire to do this in the first place. I’ve read up to chapter 8? and it has been such a long time since I’ve read it. Reading your thoughts, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia; I just may start at the beginning of the story as well. Again, I offer my sincerest thanx. I’m so busy, but I’ll make I come back.

And I’m a bit late for discovering your comment, but thank you! I hope you do resume reading NANA, because it gets better as it goes along. Look for our ninth NANA Project (on volumes 17 and 18) in the near future!

…and I’m really late to the party, but I read #16 just now…
Yasu is an odd one. I liked him in the beginning because of his care and level-headedness but he has been showing some questionable traits…though one thing to remember is that unlike others in Blast or Trapnest to whom making music was pretty much always the only option, he did give up a possible law career, and because of that he wants to treat also Blast as a job, so that if they want to be professional musicians they should be professional musicians. Which means compromises and “selling out”.
But he does make an interesting comparison to Takumi who despite his business-savvy still thinks about music first.
Actually, comparisons in the roles people play in the respective bands and inner relationships are pretty interesting if one looks at analogues. Reira/Takumi vs Nana/Yasu, Reira/Ren vs Nana/Nobu, Naoki and Shin as outsiders…

Yuri’s comment was indeed a fine response to the question of selling out, and also the comments on Christmas gig which seemed to suggest that Blast plays small clubs better but have actually become better in that front too, so a certain amount of polish have done them well…but in this question too Yazawa is not offering simple answers.

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