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Pretty In Punk: The Unstoppable Rise of NANA

Written by James Marsh Tell a Friend

Unless you live in Asia, you may be forgiven for not having heard of NANA, although possibly, not for very much longer. NANA has already been spotted appearing regularly in the USA and it must be assumed that Europe cannot be far behind. NANA's influence across Asia has been widespread and undeniable, invading everything from comic books and clothing lines to restaurants and video games. In 2005 it seemed to reach its natural peak, but the plans for 2006 have surfaced and there appears to be no letting up. So what exactly is NANA? In truth, it can no longer be described as one thing, or one person, but rather, NANA has become a movement, a trend, even a lifestyle choice, that all started with a manga.

NANA is a name shared by two young women created by writer Ai Yazawa in 1999. An accomplished writer and artist, Yazawa had already tasted success in the shojo - or "girls' manga" - market with her underground series Neighborhood Story and Paradise Kiss. Focusing heavily on the fashion world, with vividly illustrated stories of young love from a female perspective, Yazawa had developed a loyal cult following of readers. But as popular as these titles were, they were still aimed very much at a particular niche market, and when Yazawa was asked to create something with broader appeal, she struck upon the idea that would become NANA's unique selling point.

"I came up with a story about two girls," says Yazawa, "with the same name but totally different characteristics. I thought people would empathize with one of them." And indeed they did. Nana Komatsu is a picture of innocence, cute and sickly sweet to the point of distraction, who lives for her boyfriend and to please other people. Because of these characteristics and her doting, submissive nature she earns herself the nickname Hachi, which literally means puppy. Nana Osaki, on the other hand, could not be more different. Strong, independent and guarded - she has had to fend for herself from a young age and knows that reliance upon others often leads only to disappointment.

The two girls' images and fashion sense reflect their own personalities too, but in doing so, could not be further removed from each other. Hachi is a classic embodiment of Japanese "kawaii culture", a fashion trend popular throughout Asia with women ranging from their teens through to their early thirties. The style embraces an innocent and almost childlike cuteness, veering away from a sexualized image of femininity. The style includes a lot of pink clothing, bows and ribbons, worn in a demure and modest manner. The girls' behavior also often veers towards the helpless, dependent and the overtly shy. Nana O, on the other hand, is an avid fan of British fashion icon Vivienne Westwood. Her smoky eyes, short skirts, stockings and biker boots make for a far more aggressive image that harks back to the punk movement of the 1970s and effortlessly compliments the style and attitude of Nana's band, The Blackstones. She exudes an image very in tune with her sexuality but at the same time not pandering to any male aspirations of how she should present herself.

At the beginning of the story, Nana and Hachi meet on a train bound for Tokyo, where both are heading in pursuit of their dreams. Hachi is moving to the big city to be closer to her boyfriend, whereas Nana seeks fame and fortune as a rock star with her band. Due to a series of coincidences the two girls end up moving in to the same apartment and over time become best friends. These two girls, who on the surface have nothing to unite them save for their names, find common ground struggling to make a new life in the big city. Together they tackle the harsh realities of friendships, failed relationships, broken hearts and all the other highs and lows faced by many young people around the World. And it was by addressing these issues that seems to set NANA apart from other shojo, and has attracted a wider audience spanning many demographics.

Now on its 15th volume, NANA has sold more than 22 million copies and has attracted more male readers than any other shojo title before it. Are they looking for an insight into the female psyche? Or do they simply find this heightened realism a refreshing change from the hero-worship fantasy adventures that perpetuate many boys' manga? Many male fans have confessed that while Hachi often closely resembles their own girlfriends, their fantasy woman would be more like Nana! And in many ways the two girls embody the reality and fantasy of their readers' lives. Whilst Hachi struggles to find a perfect relationship and a good job - challenges faced by most young people on a daily basis - Nana strives with confidence towards her dreams of fame and fortune - a fantasy shared by many, but rarely accomplished.

But that is just the very tip of the NANA phenomenon. Because of the story's focus on fashion and music, NANA has attracted numerous fans within Japan's entertainment industry, to the extent that a number of top performers collaborated on a tribute album entitled Love For NANA. The 13-track album includes songs from such best-selling artists as Tommy Heavenly6, Kaela Kimura, Do As Infinity and Ai Otsuka.

The summer of 2005 saw the release of the hugely anticipated movie adaptation, starring Aoi Miyazaki as Hachi and pop diva Mika Nakashima as Nana. Playing very much to their established public personas, the two young actresses deliver highly commendable performances, especially Nakashima in her debut role as an actress. An ardent fan of Westwood's clothing herself, she has evolved into the "face" of the NANA phenomenon. This shrewd piece of casting also enabled the bands featured in the manga, The Blackstones and Trapnest to become a reality.

Nakashima jumped at the opportunity to record the theme song herself, and despite the rock anthem Glamorous Sky being a departure in musical style for the young diva, it was a huge success. Nakashima's performance in the film version of NANA was subsequently voted the Best Female Performance of 2005 by Oricon's readers, with the film being voted the second most popular film of the year. Nakashima was also awarded "Rookie Of The Year" at this year's Japanese Academy Awards.

NANA also made a star of the Trapnest lead singer Yuna Ito. The young unknown from Hawaii has a small but memorable role in the film, as Reira, the vocalist for Nana's ex-boyfriend's band. When her debut single, Endless Story was released in August 2005 it shot straight into the Oricon charts at No. 2, a feat almost unheard of in the Japanese music industry.

What the film is able to do, from a marketing perspective, in comparison to the original manga, is almost limitless. On top of the soundtrack CD and the imminent DVD release, the ability to successfully market NANA as a style unto itself has become that much easier. In the last year, NANA has developed it's own identity on the fashion circuit. Using the contrasting styles of the two girls together, NANA is able to promote a whole new hybrid look - Lolita-Punk, if you will. Stores across Japan, and most of Asia are awash with NANA branded clothing, jewelry, shoes and bags, which combine the independent free-spirited attitude of Nana, with the coy femininity of Hachi. Seemingly the natural conclusion to this cross-branding was the moment when perennial kawaii culture icon Hello Kitty appeared, dressed in a tartan mini skirt, with an electric guitar slung across her shoulder, indicating that this new fusion style had been officially accepted.

Now that NANA has secured its position within Asia, the next step is to tap into the biggest consumer market in the World, America. An English version of the NANA manga is now being published in the USA by Shojo Beat magazine. As well as the serialized adventures of the two young women, the magazine includes articles informing readers how to create their own NANA look using clothes from US brand stores like Sketchers and Gap.

With the launch in March 2006 of NANA-themed credit cards by Japanese bank JCB and a planned sequel to the movie already in the works, there is seemingly no end in sight for the trend-setting duo. They even have their own animated TV series due to start screening in Japan come April 2006. Ai Yazawa has created a pair of definitive role models for young women everywhere, and for Nana to be so strong, capable and independent is a rare thing, particularly in Asia. Add to this that NANA is grounded firmly in the real world, and not some adolescent fantasy, and it seems certain the girls' popularity will continue to grow for a long time to come.

Published March 16, 2006

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