A shorter version of this article was published in (I think) June 2006 in the Chicago Reader.
My Romance Is Your Romance
Romance novels are popular genre fiction written for women with literary credibility just north of People Magazine. Comics are a mostly ignored medium which, despite increasing aesthetic bonafides, are still often thought of as being aimed at under-12s. Put them together and you get…romance comics! Air-headed picture stories designed for young girls, which nobody actually reads, but everyone can sneer at.
Or so it was until a decade or so ago. But recently, romance comics have been helped enormously by the fact that they are no longer called “romance comics” at all — instead, they’re called “shoujo manga,” and they’re mostly imported from Japan. Under cover of the new nomenclature and exotic place of origin, femme heartbreak has been gaining in both popular and critical acceptance. Titles like “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 shoujo. And a couple of months ago Columbia College housed a touring exhibit of shoujo manga, which was favorably reviewed in the Reader by art critic Bert Stabler.
Both the *Comics Journal* and the *Reader* focused mostly on the ways in which shoujo differs from occidental comics, Stabler, for example, pointed out that shoujo comics “aggressive search for perfection and macabre sexual energy subtly undermine superficial Western notions of the feminine.” I don’t disagree with that — with its gender-swapping, same-sex love, and ravishing imagery, shoujo can be both disorienting and other-worldly. 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 shoujo title in Japan, Ai Yazawa’s *Nana.* Nana is Japanese for seven; it’s also the name of the two main characters. Nana Osaki (nicknamed “Hachi”) is a ditzy, needy, materialist, transparent young woman who heads to Tokyo to shack up with her boyfriend Shoji. Nana Komatsu is an ambitious, aloof, street-hardened, secretive young woman who goes to the big city
to become a bad-ass rock star. Through a series of improbable coincidences, the two end up as first roommates and then friends.
Japan isn’t America, and there are many touches to remind you of that in the series. In the first place, as in most manga these days, the art has not been reversed for English translation, so the pictures scan from right to left, which can be a little disorienting at first. And, content-wise, there are lots of cultural references that don’t quite scan. For instance, Nana K. constantly namechecks the Sex Pistols, a reminder that, though punk is dead in the West, no one has bothered to tell the Japanese.
But these are little more than touches of exotic color; overall *Nana* makes perfect sense for a U.S. audience. Ai Yazawa’s designs are elegant, accessible, and always serve the narrative, rather than vice versa, as is sometimes the case in shoujo. Not that narrative is exactly the point, either. Instead, the storyline, while necessary, is not nearly as important as who the characters are 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. In short, if you like melodrama, from Georgette Heyer to the O.C., *Nana* should be just the thing.
That isn’t to denigrate Yazawa’s work; on the contrary she is an absolute first-rate romance writer, which is no small praise. *Paradise Kiss*, her first translated series, was 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 larded out with exquisite immoderation.
By those standards, *Nana*’s first two volumes were a little plodding, but the latest collection gets up to speed with a brutal love-triangle. Nana O.’s boyfriend, Shoji, is attracted by a new girl at his workplace named Sachiko. The set-up is pedestrian enough, but the execution is flawless. Even though Nana is the central character, Yazawa is careful to make both Shoji and Sachiko sympathetic as well: in fact, if anything, whiny, bi-polar Nana is the least likeable of the three. Sachiko, on the other hand, is thoughtful, sweet, and desperately trying to hold onto her self-respect in her role as the other woman. Shoji, too, is hard to hate; Yazawa is a vivid depicter of facial expressions, and throughout the comic Shoji’s face conveys, 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.
Great as the central drama is, it’s only a small part of what makes the volume so compelling. Yazawa’s story unfolds in a leisurely manner, but it’s filled with details, subplots, asides, and minor characters. The world she creates seem real, and new developments and emotional subcurrents have time to arise naturally out of what has come before. For example, we know from Volume 1 that Nana O. is so emotionally volatile that she falls for just about every third guy she sees. Her (mostly) platonic crush on the charismatic Nana K.in Volume 3 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.
There are lots of other great scenes as well, but they’re difficult to describe succinctly, in part because, like the kiss, they’re all as much about the slow build-up as they are about the climax. Attention to detail is a hallmark of shoujo in general, and of Yazawa’s work in particular. From her careful plotting to her lusciously painted covers, from her gorgeous renderings of clothing to her seamless transitions between emotive close-ups and cartoony slapstick, everything in Nana screams craftsmanship. And it’s this craftsmanship, rather than any nuances of content, that really separates shoujo from most romance on the market today — or, indeed, from most Western comics.
It is possible to find similar combinations of high caliber skill tied to affairs of the heart in the West if you go back a bit, of course — Jane Austen’s novels come to mind, or even the screwball comedy films of the 30s and 40s. Nana isn’t necessarily 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. It’s certainly worth sticking around to find out. And if you just can’t wait till Volume 4, you can try tracking the story chapter by chapter; it’s currently being serialized in Viz’s anthology title ShojoBeat.