Nana: The Musical
For years, I have fantasized about writing screenplays for a trilogy of musical films. These films wouldn’t be musicals in the traditional sense (or even the contemporary sense as in the despicably pretentious Glee) featuring various characters spontaneously breaking into unchoreographed song and dance with support from an invisible and anonymous full orchestra. Rather, these movies would be about making music, and each would feature full performances of some really cool rock tunes. Don’t get me wrong (full disclosure time), I love musical films – from Showboat to Oklahoma to an American in Paris. I grew up on this stuff, and still take a nostalgic pause upon hearing any rendition of “Tonight” from West Side Story. My favorite musical film (in fact my favorite film of all time), however, is a relatively unknown movie from the 1980s, which everyone who sees it absolutely hates but me. The film, entitled Streets of Fire, was a mid-eighties flop directed by Walter Hill (of the immortal 70s New York City gangland masterpiece Warriors) and staring the barely adult Diane Lane, Michael Paré, Willem Dafoe, and Rick Moranis of Doug and Bob Mckenize fame and later Honey I Shrunk the Kids. I actually saw this movie when I was about fourteen at the old Crossroads Cinemas in Salt Lake City. Although proclaimed a stinker by critics and audiences alike, this film was different from any other musical I had ever seen. Streets of Fire, among other themes, was about the music (it dubbed itself “A Rock n’ Roll Fairy Tale”) by employing complete performances of some amazing songs in a concert setting, rather than just bits of tunes included to establish a particular mood in a scene. The two videos I post here nicely portray the musical tone of the film.
Walter Hill’s groundbreaking approach to the musical film is exactly that convention I would utilize in my fantasy films (and has already been successfully employed in films like the emotionally realistic Once).
The first film of the trilogy would be a quasi-fictional recreation of the making of Rick Astley’s music video for the mega-hit bubblegum pop tune “Never Gonna Give You Up” from 1987 (does anybody remember “Rick Roll?”). Check out this version of the video accompanied by various “fun facts” about its making (these infectious pieces of trivia would form the base themes/occurrences of the film’s plot).
The second film would deal with a young and incredibly handsome anthropologist with an amazing singing voice and talent for musical arrangements (sound familiar? I didn’t think so…) who takes a sabbatical from his ethnographic research in Siberia to participate in a televised musical competition ál la American Idol, but cooler somehow. The third film in my trilogy would be an English-language film version of the Japanese manga series (you know, comic books featuring little girls with big eyes wearing impossibly proportioned short skirts?) called Nana. Writing to this subject represents the primary purpose of this primarily purposeless article.
Nana the manga series and the Japanese live action movie based on the manga is for me some of the best bits of pop culture to ever emerge from the land of the rising sun (which is a bold statement, considering some of the amazing anime and horror flicks produced in Japan). Nana the manga is the work of the brilliant illustrator and storyteller, Ai Yazawa. Since my eyes first glazed over the illustrations in Nana, I was in love with the images depicting Japanese youth culture and fashion, but once I dug into the books, the emotionally charged story of these young, unevenly paired Japanese chicks unrelentingly captured my interest.
The story of Nana in essence is this. Two young women (both are twenty years old and coincidentally named Nana) living in different provincial towns in Japan decide to change the course of their lives and move to Tokyo. Yazawa portrays one of the Nanas (Nana Komatsu) as naïve, easily led, girly, susceptible to love at first sight, unsure of her ambitions, and highly dependent on others. She moves to Tokyo to rekindle a romantic relationship with a young man, Shoji, from her home town who left a year prior to enroll in a prestigious art school. The other Nana (Nana Osaki) is a bad ass, goth girl, singer in a rock band called Blast (short for “The Black Stones”). This Nana’s boyfriend, Ren (who was Blast’s bassist), left town to become the lead guitarist of a popular Tokyo rock group called Trapnest. Although she still harbors romantic feelings for Ren, goth Nana wants to move to Tokyo to continue her career as a musician in a livelier music scene. While travelling to Tokyo to begin their new lives, the two Nanas happen to be sitting in the same row of a bullet train. Because of a harsh snow storm, the train is delayed several hours forcing the Nanas to become acquainted (much to naïve Nana’s delight and goth Nana’s chagrin, the former Nana spends the entire time talking about her boyfriend in Tokyo). A few days after their journey together the two Nana’s inadvertently meet again, this time to view a prospective apartment in a low-rent side of town. Both Nana’s want the apartment, but can’t afford the rent alone, so naïve Nana proposes that they share it and become roommates, and goth Nana begrudgingly agrees.
I’ve posted a music video from the Japanese film version of this story. I love the film and its music (all of which were big influences on this post), and I think the two actresses, Mika Nakashima and Aoi Miyazaki, successfully capture Yazawa’s manga Nanas. Mika Nakashima, who portrays goth Nana in the film, is a big time pop star in Japan, so she performed all of the songs that goth Nana sings in the movie.
Anyway, to make an extraordinarily long story short, the Nanas become very close (the naïve Nana becomes sucked into goth Nana’s rock n’ roll lifestyle and social circle and subsequently becomes Blast’s biggest fan).The turning point in the girls’ relationship comes when naïve Nana catches Shoji cheating on her with a young women (Sachiko) from his art class. When naïve Nana makes this discovery, goth Nana is with her (they are hanging out in front of the restaurant where Shoji works). When the Nanas realize that Shoji is two-timing her, naïve Nana crumbles into an emotional heap of Japanese cuteness. Goth Nana, however, goes crazy, screaming at Shoji and his clandestine lover, but eventually turns back to comfort her emotionally distraught friend. This occurrence marks an important juncture in the plot, because the moment signals a transformation in the girls’ relationship. Before this point, the emotionally stronger, even boyish, goth Nana merely tolerates naïve Nana, often treating her like a pet kitten (she even nicknames her “hachi,” which in Japanese is a reference for pets). Her reaction to Nana’s discovery of betrayal begins a much stronger attachment, even an emotional dependency that evolves over time between these two unlikely companions. The rest of the story revolves around goth Nana and Blast’s ascension into the Tokyo music scene and her eventual reconciliation with Ren.
The strength of cultural difference in cinema and American popular culture
On its surface, the scene I describe emits a sappy, emotionally excessive indulgence that only an admirer of chick flicks could appreciate. In my defense (although I like chick flicks), I think there exists a powerful subtext within the Nana story germane to some of the social tensions inherent in the cultural and economic diversity found in our society (meaning North America). Certainly the relative cultural homogeneity of Japan places a limit on what the differences between the two Nanas might socially exemplify. The manga, film, and subsequent anime television series depict the women as fundamentally different based on their economic levels, interests, intellectual capacities, fashion sense and personal style, and perhaps other characteristics which I lack the cultural familiarity to ascertain. In spite of these, the dominant figure of the two (goth Nana) manages to develop a deep fondness for the other (and vice versa) that goes beyond sympathy or perhaps even sexuality (the stories at times subtly suggest some homosexual undertones). The fact that the two Nanas maintain extremely different behaviors, outlooks, and appearances makes their attachment all the more appealing. I think the emotional connection between these seemingly mismatched young women might make a much stronger statement if portrayed in a more socially and culturally diverse society.
The success of the racially charged Sidney Poitier movies from the 1950s and 60s, such as the In the Heat of the Night and The Defiant Ones illustrates the strength of that appeal in a context closer to home, even in the midst of a social environment that was far less tolerant of cultural difference than the present. Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night inverts the power relationship transforming the black character into the authority figure over the white law enforcement officers in a small southern town. The film is so compelling precisely because it sells the racial power inversion to a primarily white audience with a strongly sympathetic but authoritative main character who is black. At the same time, the film exonerates the prejudice of the white sheriff (played by Rod Steiger) whose initial inclination is to mistreat his black counterpart (Poitier as Tibbs) but gradually comes to accept his authority regardless of the social meaning of his appearance and demeanor. For both black and white audiences, Tibbs is an attractive character. As a well-educated, highly proficient law enforcement officer he transcended the popular racial stereotypes among the white public of the period as a figure with whom many whites felt they could relate. Nonetheless, he was an African American male having to deal with racist attitudes generally (a reality that all people of African descent must regularly deal with in this country) and specifically in the setting of a small 1960s southern town.
Certainly this device has been utilized in popular film numerous times since the groundbreaking Sidney Poitier films (for example, the aforementioned Walter Hill successfully played with these themes in his 48 Hours action comedies in the 80s starring Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, or Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington being a more contemporary example). I think the reason that this approach (pairing fictional characters symbolic of social, cultural, and economic difference) to discussing cultural diversity is attractive stems from the opportunity it offers to reconsider the social discourses (usually racist in nature) that bolster the differences. It also provides some relief to audiences (both black and white) from the tensions that the economic inequalities and cultural differences between people of African and European descent have levied on our society.
In any case, I think there is room in this intriguing narrative about embracing cultural differences for a discussion about how to find common ground and considerate attitudes between groups and individuals who historically have maintained significant, even unbridgeable cultural (code for ethnic), racial, and economic differences. In essence, therefore, I love the Nana stories because they play upon the theme of how pronounced cultural differences might be mutually supportive in a context of tremendous social diversity, rather than sources of tension and sites wherein inequalities might be constructed and perpetuated. This highly significant social thematic should also be effectively accentuated with music. Although Nana as a manga is fundamentally a literary text, the lyrical nature of the texts and images emits an imagined soundtrack – rock music literally pours from its pages, and the live action film successfully fills the silent gaps of the literature (which is something the anime series fails to do).