Recently I got into an off-blog discussion with a reader about aesthetics and taste. Among other things, we talked about value judgments. For example, is Ingmar Bergman's Persona inherently better than Michael Bay's Transformer series? Furthermore, do discussions of style have to be political? This gets at the heart of many issues in contemporary popular culture. It also bespeaks the "film/movie" binary, wherein art house curios like Persona are esteemed as films and popcorn fare like Transformers are dismissed as movies.
To my mind, it's a completely arbitrary distinction with a lot of class baggage. Thus, any critique of a film's aesthetics is inherently political, especially when you bring in issues of representation, reception, and industrial practices interpreted from a feminist perspective. When I pitched this series, I proposed features that weren't well-received critical darlings. I intended to include romantic comedies like Nanette Burstein's Going the Distance, Amy Heckerling's I Could Never Be Your Woman, and Alice Wu's Saving Face, as the genre tends to be derided by critics but maintains a devoted following particularly among women. I've strayed from them as the series evolved because I wanted international diversity and often we only get a glimpse of global cinema's top tier in the states. Though I have misgivings about representing a Japanese film as light-weight escapism given the racist implications of hipster cosmopolitanism toward the country's output of the country's cult media, I wanted to include some movies like Kentarō Ōtani's 2005 film adaptation of Ai Yazawa's NANA, a popular shōjo manga series.
This brings me to another issue: I'm not a film scholar. I received a master's degree in media studies, but my research interest is on convergent music culture. This is reflected in my previous Bitch blog series, which focused on intersections of television and music. So my vocabulary for discussing films is somewhat limited and shaped by course work and conversations I had with film geek colleagues. Before this series, I mainly wrote about films as they related to extratextual musical concerns. So films like NANA and personal fave Linda Linda Linda, both distributed in the states through Viz Media, are easier for me to write about and personally more interesting. When a girl's got a rock band or turntables, I care.
NANA is about two young women who share the same name and are trying to establish themselves in Tokyo. Nana Osaki (J-pop star Mika Nakashima) leads punk band the Black Stones. She broke up with her long-term boyfriend, Ren (Ryûhei Matsuda) after he was recruited by successful rock outfit Trapnest. Nana "Hachi" Komatsu (Aoi Miyazaki) is a sweet girl clouded by her familial privilege and misguided romantic ideals. They meet on a train and happen to move into the same apartment, which helps them develop a friendship. Not much else transpires. Nana O. tries to get over a broken heart and stay true to her musical convictions with the rest of her band. Hachi secures financial independence and splits with Shoji (Yûta Hiraoka), an art school cheater who belittles her intelligence.
There are a few things that are especially interesting to me about NANA. One concerns the power dynamics of Nana O.'s band. Nana is foremost the lead singer, dabbling only occasionally in guitar, an instrument Ren taught her to play. She is also the only woman in her band. And while the film does little to trouble the cultural assumption of the female lead singer as sex object, it also suggests that she has considerable power. She and Ren co-led the band and she continues to call many of the shots. I'm also intrigued by the queer dynamics of Nana O. and Hachi's relationship. The two are openly affectionate. They kiss and hold hands with little comment. It's also clear from Hachi's florid narration that she's more in love with Nana O. than any boy she encounters. When she organizes Nana O.'s reunion with Ren at a Trapnest concert, she does this out of complex romantic feelings. It should also be noted that their relationship has to accommodate Hachi. Ren may get the girl but Hachi never lost her or the apartment.
The film's success spawned a sequel and an anime series for television, which prompts a discussion about the process of adaptation. In a great essay on issues of gender performance in shōjo manga, Amanda Landa notes that cross-dressing and queer desire defines the subgenre and are points of pleasure and identification with its audience, which is chiefly comprised of young girls.* Ren's replacement Shinichi Okazaki (Akira Ishida) was a sex worker, which was obscured in the screenplay. Having little knowledge of the Japanese film industry, I wonder if Toho, the country's primary film production company and distributor, requested these changes. Such alterations seem at odds with the popularity of shōjo's queer-friendly content and perhaps are an attempt to police the reception practices of girl fans. Yet despite those efforts, NANA remains pretty queer and suggests the desires and practices amongst some of shōjo's most ardent followers.
*The original text of this post incorrectly stated that Nana O. was a drag queen in the original series. Fact-checking commenters to the rescue!