Feminism in Shoujo Manga: NANA by Ai Yazawa July 18, 2006Posted by Naughty Ninja in Feminism, Manga, Nana, Shoujo.
Previously >> Feminism in Shoujo Manga: Introduction
This article is the first installment of a series exploring feminism in manga marketed under the shoujo genre outside of Japan.
As of late, more pop culture enthusiasts have come to question the representation of women in manga, particularly those within shoujo. There are those who choose to interpret the soft-spoken heroine as an exemplifier of what they perceive as an inherent regressiveness in Asian gender roles.
The more forgiving choose to regard this as part of a simple cultural difference that can be overlooked in favor of shounen manga. Then there are those who enjoy shoujo well enough to not write it off as completely counterfeminist, but may not have found a way to articulate why this is so.
With this series, I endeavor to find a way to do so.
The immensely popular shoujo manga sensation known as NANA recently hit shores outside of Japan, and starts out strong for its first three volumes. It takes a more mature route than most shoujo titles, and seems to be a perfect place to start our feminist analysis of shoujo manga. However, being immensely popular has always been an invitation for mean-spirited cultural punditry.
I can already imagine a slew of women writing off NANA as another title wherein use of romantic tropes and melodrama makes it just as trite as all the other shoujo entries that have come before it. These naysayers would insist on “stronger female leads” or “girls who don’t need love to be happy”. And let’s face it, there’s no faulting a desire for ass-kicking heroines disinterested in romance.
But to look for feminist value in manga is not the same as looking for ball-breaking monuments to womanhood, as that would be a shallow reading of what feminist values are in the first place. It is not necessary for female characters to masquerade as men and claim masculine qualities to be deemed “strong”.
Proper representation should focus on what is truthful and free of delusion just as much as it should focus on the ideal and the empowered. The girl you find on the street is just as important in her mundane ordinariness as any other representation, complete with her flaws and shortcomings. And one thing manga has proven capable of is showing these women, resolutely mundane or extremely symbolic, as possessing genuine desire for change and self-actualization.
NANA begins with two young women on a train to Tokyo, both closing the final chapters of their late adolescence and journeying towards tumultuous adulthood. No two girls could be anymore different, or lead such disparate lives. It’s love that drives them to the city, but more than that, it’s a calling to find their true selves. Both these girls have the same name: Nana.
Nana Osaki is the emotionally distant vocalist for the band Black Stones, a mysterious girl with a cool exterior that bellies the personal turmoil of an abandoned heart. She comes to Tokyo to fulfill a dream: “to be able to live off music”. She stepped on the train with nothing but a pack of cigarettes, her guitar, and an unrelenting desire to sing in Tokyo.
Nana Komatsu is a country girl who has long suffered from the love at first sight sickness, and finds herself growing up before she’s completely ready for it. She longs to become her own woman in Tokyo, but carries a long history of dependency with her.
Initially, creator Ai Yazawa did not intend for the two to meet and NANA was originally the story of two separate lives — Osaki and Komatsu’s — as parallel narratives of the un-smooth course of true love. As such, the first volume weaves a stimulating tale of two separate hearts, and it is in the second volume that the manga grows into an entirely different creature.
When these two Nanas cross paths for the first time, their personalities grow distinct in the face of opposition: the two women possess an inexplicably entertaining chemistry that grows from their dichotomous contrast. Though they come from two different worlds, they form an immediate bond that grows tentatively but steadily throughout the story.
“Hey Nana. You were a stray cat strutting, so free and full of pride. But I could see your open wound. And without really thinking, I just chalked it up to another cool thing about you. I never realized how much you hurt.”
Nana Osaki walks and talks with a nigh impenetrable air of cool surrounding her every move and word. She is ostensibly self-reliant — unaccustomed to relying on anyone but herself. Her passion for music was first introduced to her by others, but she has made that a fervent dream of her own. That which is admirable in Osaki is immediately apparent, with her strong personality and cigarette-flavored aura, her daring make-up and shocking attire.
Her understanding of loneliness, love, and the treacherous dependency that spans between the two emotions is apparently more sophisticated than that of Komatsu’s. This rocker girl’s tight-lipped nature and reservation towards revealing herself color her a more mysterious creature. But while Osaki’s inner feelings are only apparent to the reader with every few panels, Komatsu seems immediately transparent and is the main voice which we follow.
Komatsu is the “more vulnerable one”, eager to “make it on her own” and working towards her own simple dream: a large house with a picket fence, a husband and a rewarding career. But her dreams are a patchwork mess full of holes made mostly out of the fact that she appropriates these aspirations almost for the sake of owning them.
Her weakness for any semblance of love makes her initially sympathetic, but soon grows a tad tiresome as she hams up her role as girlfriend and continues to be blind to what a real relationship entails. For every moment that Komatsu tries to stand on her own two feet is a corresponding one in which she falls back into dependency.
Osaki provides the most convenient target for this dependency, and Komatsu often tells herself, “If only Nana were a man, I know she’d be the perfect boyfriend for me.” This more vulnerable Nana finds it easy to confuse any form of initial infatuation into full blown romance perhaps unwilling to take on the sense of responsibility or approach to compromise that love actually asks for.
“Yeah, but I’m 20 years old and need to know how to make it on my own! I gotta be a strong successful female role model for all the Nana readers!”
This is not to say that Komatsu (or Ai Yazawa herself for that matter) is completely blind to those shortcomings. If anything, they are meant to endear her to the readers as much as she exasperates and frustrates them. To write these traits off as undermining evidence shoujo’s credibility as a genre of empowerment is a completely wrongheaded way of looking at it.
This is because Yazawa intends Komatsu’s personal journey to be one in which she earns herself a stronger personality. The fact that she ends up taking one step back for every two steps she does forward is a deliberate part of this growth.
Osaki on the other hand is a character whose strength could also be her downfall. Despite the mythical cool she exudes, and the almost unrealistic standard of awesome she represents, her development is limited to the eventual chipping away off her exterior. As the plot continues, it’s easy to imagine that placing the reader as voyeur and breaking past her barriers is what will reveal what makes her tick.
Komatsu is a blank page to be written, her simple desires and passions leaving a wealth of potential. With this amount of room to grow in, we can cheer Komatsu along and watch her find her own dreams and shake off her dependent nature. Komatsu embodies that deep desire for change, and the difficulty of internalizing that desire. Komatsu’s road to betterment does not lie in a magical short cut formula nor does it automatically come with being cognizant of her own flaws.
As a commercial enterprise and minor cultural phenomenon, the NANA franchise is rather impressive. There’s a live-action film adaptation, album tributes to the in-fiction rock groups, a longer-than-average animated series. There are even NANA-themed accessories for the iPod Nano. All this merchandise comes underwritten by the tagline, “Every girl needs Nana,” which by my reckoning is strangely apt in its self-seriousness.
This is because NANA presents us two women so starkly polarized, standing at extreme ends yet somehow meeting in the middle and somewhere in that middle it’s easy to imagine the innumerable shades of women to be found there, a place for every girl and a personal coming of age story for every one of them. Maybe every girl does need Nana.
NANA is less a manga story of the romantic lives of its two leads, and more a story that details the unceremonious passage from child to adult. With that passage comes the rude awakening that they are living in a world far and away from the rural idleness and rock and roll adolescence, and the challenges that come with realizing a dream and the wants of the heart. It’s a story of the converging paths both Nanas take towards their future in Tokyo, and the friends and loves that take them there.