Book Club #5: Nana — Day Two, Melodrama Queens

Today, we’ll be concluding our book club discussion of Nana, Volume 1, which we began yesterday. Today’s conversation delved into notions of drama and melodrama (what’s the difference anyway?) and their relationship to the particular conventions of shoujo manga.


Anika: It’s funny, because to me Punk Nana’s story seemed much more melodramatic. I mean Naive Nana just is a drama queen but her story was full of humor and Punk Nana’s was just so sad upon sad. But there is certainly a juxtaposition. Naive Nana the artist lives out loud and Punk Nana the rock star holds everything in. It seems backwards. And there is also a visual component. Take my favorite moment of the book — Shoji accuses Nana of playing with his feelings and storms off, leaving her alone and lost in the middle of Tokyo:

If she has to get yelled at and abandoned in the big city at least she is wearing fabulous shoes. One of the things I really love about shoujo manga versus other graphic novel forms is how many different outfits and hair styles the characters get to have. And in Nana clothing and hair style is a recurrent theme. When her too-older boyfriend takes off, Naive Nana cuts her hair in an attempt to seem and feel older. And a pretty, frilly, girly dress plays a role in the love story between Punk Nana and Ren. Knowing those choices are meaningful, the audience can apply it to the visuals without being told. Nana’s fabulous shoes are platforms — to make her taller and feel more equal — and covered in flowers — to show she’s a free spirit and doesn’t care who knows it. And the imagery reminded me of Little Red Riding Hood who got lost in the woods when the flowers distracted her — and who finds Nana? Her very own Big Bad Wolf, the too-older ex-boyfriend. I might be putting way too much thought into shoes but because the story and art are by the same person, and because it makes so much sense to me, I think there is something to it.

Caroline: Oh, God, that scene where Shoji leaves Naive Nana in the street! It’s funny, when I first read it, I was furious at him, because, what a jerk move and then she’s stranded. Then I was immediately furious at her, because how irresponsible is it to be out in a big city and have no idea where you came from or where you were staying? (To give a hint about the source of anger at fictional characters? That is totally something I can see myself doing). Then as I went on, I just thought it was funny because both characters are being dopey in ways that fit their characters.

And, you know, I never really thought anything bad would happen to Nana there. In a way, the story is structured so that the worst thing (the older man seducing and dumping her) happens in the very beginning, and everything else is about clawing her way back. She does run into her Big Bad Wolf again, right when she’s been left there, but that actually turns out to be a somewhat positive experience. She’s able to see him better in his own social context, to see herself better, and even stand up to him a bit.

As far as the relative levels of melodrama in the stories — I guess I felt the Punk Nana melodrama was more proportional. Naive Nana is deliberately manufacturing these romantic dramas with herself as the star. Punk Nana certainly has a performative side, but it seemed to grow out of a recognition that life is fucking complicated. I already mentioned that I loved her relationship with Ren — that bathtub scene intertwined with their how-we-met story is easily my favorite part of the book — and I was kind of devastated at the end to realize they weren’t going to stay together. As in, devastated way out of proportion to how much impact this story ought to be having on my emotional life. So I guess that’s why I didn’t have a problem with her collapsing in tears on a train platform. It would have fit perfectly into the rock music video that their self-concepts are obviously based on.

Still, I appreciate that Yazawa shows Nana’s handling of the breakup is a rational decision. She’s sad and hurt that Ren doesn’t tell her she’s essential to his success, but she’s also level-headed enough to realize that she isn’t essential to his success. I can’t help thinking if this were (for instance) an American romantic comedy, we’d be clubbed over the head with how she’s not in touch with her emotions and if she’d only compromise and tell him how much she wants him everything would be fine. This didn’t feel that way. It felt like she had a clear-eyed view of the kind of future they would have, it’s not the future she wants, and she decides to let him go. That’s how it works sometimes, but just because it’s a rational decision doesn’t keep it from sucking and feeling terrible when you actually have to go through it.

I’m beginning to realize that I might have taken this thing too seriously. . .

Does anybody else have a favorite scene and/or an embarrassing example of how much you overrelated to this book? Alternatively, we could talk more about the clothes. And is anybody going to mention how much one of Punk Nana’s bandmates looks like Grant Morrison?

Sigrid: Yasu is totally a Grant Morrison lookalike.

You guys make a great book club for me. I didn’t notice the clothes at all, and I didn’t think very much about Nana and Ren, either. So what WAS I paying attention to? The faces. I spend almost all of my manga-reading time looking at the faces of the characters, trying desperately to keep who’s-who straight and then I move on to the next panel and try to figure out if I am looking at the same character again or a different character, and whose voice-over this is.

Ahem.

I did not relate or over-relate to either Nana. More surprisingly, neither did I want to save or rescue either of them. (Which is my default response to wayward female characters. In fiction.) I actually … I respect them, both. I respect them because they have goals and they work towards them. They take risks, make mistakes, get up and keep moving.

Survive and advance.

Jennifer: I… did not connect to a single character in this story, and I’m trying to puzzle out why that is. I think part of it, certainly, is the aforementioned translation issue. When I read comics, voice and narrative flow are of utmost importance to me. If a character doesn’t sound authentic, or if different speech bubbles or panels in succession don’t seem to logically follow each other, I’m taken completely out of the story. This happens every so often with Western comics, but it’s happened every single time I’ve tried to read manga, and it was especially bad with this manga. The characters don’t feel like real people to me, their dialogue doesn’t feel naturalistic, and I can’t get invested in them — I can’t even see them as characters at all. The manga medium seems to tend toward a different way of conveying character, a greater focus on culturally-specific artistic shorthand and dialogue that doesn’t necessarily even seem to be coming out of the character’s mouths, but in random wandering words on the side. I’m not a very visual person as it is, and with a totally different kind of visual language + dialogue whose intention doesn’t seem to be realism, it all becomes gibberish to me.

I also think my problem is that I am drawn to very internal, withdrawn characters. I like interior monologue and subtle emotions and straightforward but not melodramatic conversation. The manga I’ve seen — and this is especially true of the Naive Nana half of the story, but it was present in both halves here — tends to go in the opposite direction, emphasizing and literalizing emotions to the point of absurdity. Giant mouths, cascading tears, exaggerated actions, melodramatic declarations — all of it is a complete turn-off for me, and I find myself caring less about the characters than I would if they dialed things down a few dozen notches.

I know I sound utterly grumpy and curmudgeonly, but I want to emphasize that I’m aware this is entirely an issue of personal preference and compatibility — I don’t think these things are OBJECTIVELY bad (other than the poor translation), but they very much do not work for me.

Anika: And Jen has just explained why I love manga. I am possibly your polar opposite in this. Emphasizing and literalizing emotions to the point of absurdity! Yes! !!! <---see? Subtle emotions frustrate me and annoy me the way exaggerated emotions frustrate and annoy you. And I didn’t have any of the issues with the dialogue or the translation that you and Caroline mentioned. No one talks the way the characters do in Dawson’s Creek, either. I didn’t notice the outdated words, I just laughed hysterically every time anyone mentioned the Demon Lord. Yes, there are the giant teardrop moments but either I am used to them or I just get them and sometimes wish they would appear in real life because I would understand people better.

I also am not bothered by the way the dialogue flows and as I said before I really like the changes in appearance. But as Jen said, I think it is an issue of compatibility. My mind works this way. I don’t watch sitcoms because I find them pedantic and repetitive and I particularly can’t stand The Simpsons because they are UGLY. I do not care how clever or touching an episode might be, I won’t watch. I cannot connect with or even appreciate The Simpsons. It’s great for anyone else but for ME, no.

Anyway, I am now imagining all three of you trying to read Kodomo No Omacha (my favourite manga) and I am laughing like I do about the Demon Lord. I think it would count as torture for Jen. :/ !!!!! (;_;)

Sigrid: Man, I love the melodrama! I didn’t even think this story was particularly melodramatic! It is dramatic, certainly, but … but young adulthood is dramatic. It’s a dramatic time. And figuring out how to be friends with people, and what that means when you are all trying to establish yourselves in some sort of unknown future, that’s all dramatic. I like that type, and I liked this story.

And I an twitching that volume 2 has not yet arrived in the mail.

Maybe I’ll just skip ahead and read volumes 3-7 ….

Caroline: So it looks like a few of us are going forward with this book, and. . .at least one of us is not. But we all got to try something new, and now I’m chewing over trying to figure out if there’s a manga that Jennifer would like.

Meanwhile, I hope some of you read along with us and/or got something out of this discussion! We’d love to hear from other Nana readers, whether you hated this book or embarrassingly overidentified with it, or anything in between!

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  • Monica

    I enjoyed Nana. True, Nieve Nana could be annoying, but she was so ernest, and she accepted Jun’s critisism of her behavoir gracefully, so in the end I was on her side. Punk Nana was a beautiful character piece about ending a relationship while it is in full bloom. That said, as soon as Punk Nana was introduced, the biggest question in my mind while reading was how these two polar Nanas would become friends. I was disappointed when they didn’t meet in this volume, but I’ve put a hold on the next volume at my library so I should be able to satisfy my curiosity soon.

    And the two stories contrasted nicely in a slightly counter-intuitive way – the girl who has just begun a relationship and has a very rocky history with love decides to persue a long-distance relationship, while the girl who has a deeply loving and functional relationship decides to end it rather than try it long-distance.

    Jen, I think I will make it a personal mission to find you a subtler, quieter manga that you might enjoy. How do you feel about reading a manga about trash collectors in space?

  • Caroline

    I love that commentary, Monica, thank you! And, yeah, I have a hard time believing there is NOTHING in this medium or genre that Jen would like but I’m not well read enough in manga, myself, to be able to suggest something!

  • Anika

    Oh, Monica, I love what you say about the counter-intuitive contrast!

  • Thanks for contributing, Monica! Your comments are always so incisive, as I know I told you the other day.

    I sense I am going to become people’s project now…

  • Caroline

    I feel like we’ve all bugged each other into trying enough things we ended up enjoying to know that our ‘projects’ are usually done with love ;).

    I wonder about something like ARIA, which is about space gondoliers and is, I think, sweet without being precious. Not that I’m sure it’s even in print. . .I borrowed Johanna’s copy. But it might be worth letting Monica raid the library with you.

  • individualfrog

    “The manga medium seems to tend toward a different way of conveying character, a greater focus on culturally-specific artistic shorthand and dialogue that doesn’t necessarily even seem to be coming out of the character’s mouths, but in random wandering words on the side. . . . [a] kind of visual language + dialogue whose intention doesn’t seem to be realism, it all becomes gibberish to me.”

    That sounds like superhero comics to me!

  • Caroline

    While I think there are certainly elements of superhero comics that are non-naturalistic and could be confusing, Jen does point out some specific conventions — particularly in lettering & facial expressions — that are found in manga and not in most American superhero comics. So let’s not make this a “whose comics are more confusing?” thing, okay?

  • individualfrog

    Manga aren’t my comics! I don’t really have any comics. (What am I doing here then? Anika is my sister.) That’s probably why superhero comics are confusing to me.

  • Caroline

    Ha ha, I see your point! Sorry, I misunderstood what you were getting at. . .

  • individualfrog

    No, that’s OK, I realize that manga VS American comics can be a very divisive topic. If I’d thought of it I would have been more clear (or more likely not said anything at all.)

  • Caroline – I loved the bathtub scene too! It showed how intimate Nana and Ren were, the depth of their relationship. Paired with their background story, the whole scene shows a contrast between the two Nanas: Naive Nana is immature and trying to grow up into an independent woman, and Punk Nana has not thought of herself as a child for a long time.

    I have went ahead and read the first five in this series. When the two Nanas meet and interact, this contrast is more evident. By the end of the second volume, the series becomes highly addictive.

  • Caroline

    Glad you liked it, Mara! I’ve finished volume 3 now. It’s pretty addictive!