A Tale of Two Nanas: The fuzzy line between homoromantic subtext and queerbaiting in Nana

By: Roy Lemmons May 6, 20200 Comments

SPOILERS for the Nana manga.

There is no relationship in any anime or manga series that has moved me more than the relationship between Nana Osaki and Nana Komatsu in Nana. The two possess a strong bond and solidarity as women despite being opposites in many ways.

What’s more, there’s  quite a bit of homoerotic subtext between the two. Though its depiction of queerness is a bit dated, it’s a powerful portrayal of a bond between women and the life of two young women trying to find their way in the world. It’s also a series that has found itself in a very unique place in discussion for its abrupt hiatus that has lasted for over a decade, with no ending in sight.

Outlines of the members of Black Stones and Hachi smiling at sitting at the table in 707. Text: The dining room table and chairs... are all still here. Just like the good ol' days."

The story begins with two twenty-year-old women named Nana moving to Tokyo, who bond when they happen to sit next to each other on the train. Nana Osaki is a punk rocker looking to make it big, and Nana “Hachi” Komatsu, nicknamed for her puppyish devotion and excitability, is a sweet everygirl who just wants a happy life with her boyfriend. The two hit it off despite their differences and end up sharing an apartment.

Nana possesses a strong, fleshed-out cast of characters, from Hachi’s former classmates to Nana’s band members, but the series never stops developing its two leads. Nana prides herself on being a lone wolf despite her close relationships and dependence on her bandmates, her boyfriend Ren, and Hachi, and struggles to reconcile her self-image with her bonds. She’s also rather possessive, setting up Hachi with her bandmate Nobu so she’ll be in “her backyard,” and when Hachi announces her engagement to Takumi, Nana feels betrayed and takes a long time to accept her decision.

Nana lying in bed in a yukata, pulling on Nobu's yukata. Text:
Nana: You just have to follow my plan. 
Nobu: What plan?! 
Nana: "Operation get Hachiko back." When she returns to my yard, you can mate with her."
Nobu: Treating her like a dog again...

Hachi, on the other hand, struggles to feel happy and fulfilled on her own. Because her only goals in life are to start a family and support Nana’s band, she defines herself heavily by her relationships with her current partner and Nana, leaving her bored and depressed when neither is available. In her darkest moments, this leads to questionable decisions such as her hooking up with Takumi despite knowing she’ll feel bad afterwards.

Both women have different relationships with their femininity: Hachi embraces traditional ideals of such, while Nana rejects them. Hachi’s greatest aspiration in life is to become a wife and mother, and she has common stereotypically feminine traits  such as an interest in fashion and a ditzy personality.

Nana, however, while not necessarily unfeminine, strongly believes in rebelling against societal expectations by embracing punk subculture. Her personality can easily become dominating and aggressive, and she makes it clear to her peers that she will not let herself be defined by her relationship with Ren.

Hachi on the phone and blushing. Text: I felt empty inside. I hadn't learned a thing from my past... I only wanted to fall in love."

Despite their opposing lifestyles, the two form a believably close bond as women supporting one another through their trials, as both are challenged in what they believe in and doubt themselves. They may not want each others’ dreams for themselves, but they want each other to accomplish them.

However, sometimes the relationship between the two women is read as more than platonic. Elizabeth Simins defines Nana in her theory of queerness quadrants as implicitly, literally queer: she goes on to define that kind of queerness as “generally conveyed using a combination of subtext and coding… The purpose of subtext and coding is, of course, to fly under the radar and ‘pass’ as heteronormative enough not to be censored or marginalized.”

Manga artist and Nana creator Yazawa Ai has written about LGBTQ+ characters more explicitly in her prior work Paradise Kiss, including a bisexual main character and a trans secondary character, indicating an openness to queer themes even if they’re not directly represented in Nana.

Nana kisses Hachi

Most of the queer subtext in Nana comes through scenes of physical intimacy between the two leads, such as Nana letting Hachi sleep with her in her bed or the two bathing together, although not in an overtly sexual manner. More explicitly, both of them occasionally question the feelings they have for each other.

Nana describes herself as “a teenage boy falling in love for the first time” as she watches Hachi dance, and when she talks about her feelings for Hachi, her boyfriend Ren asks if she wants to have sex with her. Meanwhile, Hachi often finds other women cute, especially Nana, and even questions her own orientation at one point. The way these moments are spread out throughout the series makes it seem as though they were meant to build up to something.

Nana smiling. Text: I feel like a teenage boy falling in love for the first time.

On one hand, Nana and Hachi’s relationship reflects many queer people’s first experiences before they’ve recognized that aspect of themselves yet. Hachi is so focused on forming a traditional nuclear family that she can only envision herself with a husband. She even tells Nana she’d marry her if she was a man, and feels jealousy when Nana’s #1 fan Misato appears. Nana, meanwhile, is willing to flirt with other girls but uses humor as a means of deflecting serious consideration, such as kissing Hachi and then passing it off as a joke, or kissing one of her female fans in a playful way after a concert.

The narrative’s emphasis on the two leads’ romantic relationships with men does dampen queer readings. While many queer people have been in or are in different-gender relationships, this has led to many accusations of queerbaiting by promising queerness subtextually but not explicitly addressing the seeming build toward a wlw relationship or treating that buildup with the seriousness that would be ascribed to tension between a man and woman.

While Nana is arguably more deliberate with its subtext than other works, the skepticism of whether the series would actually deliver is completely justified. In addition, Nana’s use of subtext feels dated when many popular series released afterwards would offer more clear-cut depictions of queer experiences. If Nana were published today, said subtext would not be nearly as notable and could be more clearly defined as baiting.

Three panels of Nana and Hachi in bed together. Text:
Hachi: Ah ha ha. Yeah right. I knew it!
Nana: I'm just sleeptalking.
Hachi: I'm freaking out - I can't sleep. 
Nana: Are you still scared of that ghost? What a baby. 
Hachi: No man, it's not that... 
Nana: Oh really? Well, I hate to break it to you, but I don't do it with girls.

Unfortunately, the manga went on hiatus in 2009 due to Ai Yazawa’s health issues, and despite several promises over the years that she plans to resume the series, the story still hasn’t concluded over a decade later. This makes Nana a unique subject for a “queer vs. queerbait” discussion, as without an ending, there’s no saying whether or not these hints would ever pay off. Even if one is to confidently come to a conclusion one way or another, Ai Yazawa has every right to resume the manga and leave her own, canonical answer.

The closest thing the series has to an ending remains ambiguous: starting in volume 12, Nana’s narrative jumps around in time, connected by narration of different characters reflecting on their lives and circumstances. In the present, Nana and Hachi have a falling out when Nana becomes pregnant by Takumi and decides to marry him, despite the abuse she endures at his hand. Five years later, they’ve had a second child, but their marriage is falling apart. 

Nana disappeared sometime in those five years, and the remaining cast is searching for her. While there is some foreshadowing about why she vanished, it’s never established what exactly happened. Her narration implies that she’s afraid to come back and depend on people for support again. Hachi waits for Nana to return to her in their old, now-abandoned apartment every year during the summer festival, ironically echoing the wait Nana fans have had to endure since the hiatus.

Hachi watches Takumi pick up their daughter. Text: I will wait forever... for the day you get up on your feet again.

This kind of unresolved “ending” allows people to read Nana with various interpretations, rather than a true ending that conclusively describes their relationship as either romantic or platonic. Even a proper conclusion that remained open-ended about this would not have the same effect, as then fans would at least have confirmation that their relationship was intended to be read in a variety of ways.

The lack of ending reflects a lack of stated authorial intent that most works tend to have either within the text or paratext. However, were Yazawa to conclude the manga, it would not necessarily be a retcon to define their relationship explicitly one way or the other, as she fully intended to conclude the series before her illness stopped her.

As romantic as it would be for Nana to return and the two to live a happy, romantic life together, Hachi’s nickname evokes one other famous Hachi: Hachiko,  who became famous for his loyalty when he waited for years for a master that never returned. While the series is willing to indulge in melodrama, there are also just as many moments where characters face quiet, sad realities, which makes it all the more painful knowing there is no official conclusion.

An image of a countryside road. Text: I... just wanted to see you... to see you... to see you... and I walked that road... up to that room... countless times.

It would, admittedly, be upsetting if the chemistry between the two Nanas became another case of queerbaiting. However, I don’t think their relationship isn’t meaningful if read platonically. Their bond and solidarity as women remains powerful even now, close to two decades after the series’ release. While a few elements may be slightly dated, and the lack of a conclusive ending can be painful, it’s a journey worth experiencing for the emotional depth and richness of the story.

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