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Two Great Tastes!

Ai Yazawa's Nana renders the familiar melodrama of Western romance novels with the mind-blowing meticulousness peculiar to Japanese comics.

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Nana, Volume 3

Ai Yazawa

(Viz Media)

Romance novels are popular women's genre fiction with literary credibility just north of People magazine. Comics, despite increasing aesthetic bona fides, are still often thought of as being aimed at the under-12 set. Put them together and you get romance comics: airheaded picture books designed for young girls, which no one actually reads but everyone can sneer at.

Or so it was until a decade ago, when romance comics got a boost in the form of a new name. Now, instead of romance comics they're called shojo manga, and they're mostly imported from Japan. Under cover of the new nomenclature and exotic place of origin, femme heartbreak has been gaining both popular and critical acceptance. Titles like the sci-fi melodrama Chobits have actually hit the BookScan best-seller list for paperbacks, not just graphic novels. Last year the relentlessly snooty Comics Journal devoted an entire issue of mostly favorable criticism to shojo. And this spring Columbia College hosted a touring exhibit, "Shojo Manga! Girl Power!," that was praised in the Reader by art critic Bert Stabler.

Both the Comics Journal and the Reader focused mostly on the ways shojo differs from occidental comics. Stabler, for example, pointed out that shojo comics' "aggressive search for perfection and macabre sexual energy subtly undermine superficial Western notions of the feminine." I don't disagree with that--with their gender swapping, same-sex love, and ravishing imagery, shojo can be both disorienting and otherworldly. But it's also true that a lot of the appeal of these titles is due not to their alienness but to their familiarity.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the best-selling shojo title in Japan, Ai Yazawa's Nana. "Nana" is Japanese for seven; it's also the name of both of the comic's main characters. Nana Osaki (nicknamed "Hachi") is a ditzy, needy, materialist, transparent young woman who heads to Tokyo to shack up with her boyfriend. Nana Komatsu is an ambitious, aloof, street-hardened, secretive young woman who goes to the big city to become a badass rock star. Through a series of improbable coincidences the two end up roommates and then friends.

As in most manga these days, the art hasn't been reversed for English translation, so the pictures read from right to left, which can be a little alienating. And there are lots of cultural references that don't quite scan. For instance, Nana K. constantly name checks the Sex Pistols, a reminder that though punk is dead in the West, no one has bothered to tell the Japanese. But overall Nana makes perfect sense for an American audience. Yazawa's designs are elegant, accessible, and always serve the narrative, rather than vice versa, as is sometimes the case in shojo. But the story line, while necessary, isn't nearly as important as the characters and how they interact. As in porn or martial arts flicks, plot is just a way to deliver the goods: in this case, unrequited love, heartbreak, and tearful reconciliation. If you like melodrama, whether Georgette Heyer or The OC, Nana should be just your thing.

Yazawa is a first-rate writer. Paradise Kiss, her first translated series, is a heart-tugging weeper about the fashion industry with a (mostly) lovable collection of idiosyncratic misfits, a fairy-tale ending that never quite arrives, and heaping dollops of bitter and sweet doled out with exquisite immoderation. By comparison the first two Nana volumes were a little plodding, but the latest quickly gets up to speed with a brutal love triangle. Nana O.'s boyfriend, Shoji, is attracted to a new coworker named Sachiko. The setup is pedestrian but the execution is flawless.

Even though Nana is the central character in this story, Yazawa is careful to make both Shoji and Sachiko sympathetic as well: if anything, whiny, erratic Nana is the least likable of the three. Sachiko, on the other hand, is thoughtful and sweet, desperately trying to hold onto her self-respect in her role as the other woman. Shoji too is hard to hate. Yazawa depicts facial expressions vividly, and Shoji's convey by turns horror, despair, confusion, and numb resignation. His main sin is that he doesn't want to hurt anyone; as a result, he methodically breaks everyone's heart, including his own.

Yazawa's story unfolds leisurely, full of details, subplots, asides, and minor characters. New developments and emotional subcurrents have time to grow naturally out of what has come before. For example, we know from volume one that Nana O. is so volatile that she falls for just about every third guy she sees. Her (mostly) platonic volume-three crush on the charismatic Nana K. is, therefore, entirely believable. Nana K.'s response--a mix of exasperation, affection, and good-natured exploitation--is also in character. The scene where the two kiss is one of the funniest moments in the book.

That kiss resonates due to the careful accretion of detail, a hallmark of shojo and of Yazawa's work in particular. From her careful plotting to her luscious covers, from her gorgeous renderings of clothing to her seamless transitions between emotive close-ups and cartoonish slapstick, everything in Nana screams craft--and that's what really separates shojo from both most romance comics on the market today and from Western comics in general.

It is possible to find similar examples of skill tied to affairs of the heart if you go back a bit: Jane Austen comes to mind, as do the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s. Nana isn't that good, at least not yet. But there are 15 volumes and counting in Japan, and the series has been getting better as it goes along. If you can't wait for volume four, you can try tracking the story chapter by chapter; it's currently being serialized in the Viz anthology title Shojo Beat.

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