Spoilers for Talentless Nana
The stories that we tell about superpowers always end up revealing something about the ideology of the real world. In many ways, Talentless Nana plays with the usual “superhero” narrative and its assumptions about heroism and villainy, but when it comes to morality and gender it ends up falling into the regular tropes and expectations. Despite having a teen girl assassin as its protagonist, the contrast between Nana and the healer Michiru ultimately paints a picture of the ‘savior complex’ being righteous amongst women.
Talentless Nana is a psychological thriller where teenagers with supernatural abilities, called the Talented, are sent to an island to train for their battle against the “enemies of humanity.” Unknown to the public, the government considers the Talented the true enemies of humanity, and the island is the stage for their execution. The series’ protagonist, a teenage girl named Nana, infiltrates the island as one of the “Talented” students, on a mission to assassinate as many of her new classmates as possible.
Nana develops a friendship with Michiru, a classmate with the ability to heal physical injuries by licking them. Michiru’s superpower is incredibly useful; however, the use of this ability shortens her own lifespan. She is a sweet and timid girl who befriends Nana without knowing her true identity, and who willingly helps and heals many characters across the series regardless of the cost to herself. As the anime progresses and their friendship strengthens, it becomes undeniable that Michiru has a savior complex: the extreme desire to “save” people or “fix” their problems to the point where it endangers your own well-being.
Michiru’s depiction as a selfless girl who wishes to “fix” the people around her, even if it causes her harm, provides a stark foil to Nana, who ruthlessly pursues her goal. The contrast between the two characters, and their eventual roles in the story, raises questions about the expectations placed on women, and how these martyr-like traits are ultimately celebrated even in a morally ambiguous series.
Michiru’s kind and timid personality is a common trope for female characters. Talentless Nana is an example of how these traits are encouraged in girls and these expectations are portrayed as normal and acceptable in media.
From the start of the series, Michiru uses her powers recklessly. Regardless of how minor an injury is, Michiru does not hesitate to heal it, disregarding the consequences of using her ability. Because she’s the only one with a healing talent, Michiru feels duty-bound to help others, even if it is a small cut. Her classmates praise her for her generous use of her talent, calling her an angel, and Michiru in turn seems to enjoy the praise and sense of righteousness she gets from it.
While Michiru can heal physical injuries, she cannot save the dead. Despite knowing this, she always pushes herself to try. As Nana conducts her assassinations in secret, Michiru becomes increasingly desperate to try and bring her victims back. This desperation stems from the sense of failure she feels over being unable to save her classmates. Michiru repeatedly shows no concern for herself and insists on trying to save everyone, even the class bullies, when it could be immediately fatal to her own life.
Michiru’s power, and her role in the anime, reflects women’s expectations for women to play the “savior” or “healing” role, especially in their home environment. Whether as wives or mothers, sisters, or even just as friends, it has been normalized for women to take on nurturing roles to the point of burnout. Women are often praised for their selflessness, and their ability to push past their limits to support others is celebrated as a strength.
The excessive use of her power results in Michiru experiencing burnout. When her friends notice this, she insists that she is fine and tries not to worry them. Michiru plays down the effect that using her powers has by equating it to eating junk food. Eventually, Michiru collapses from fatigue with a high fever and nausea. While this might be a wakeup call for most, Michiru is unfazed. She does not give herself time to heal and continues to use her power immediately after waking up.
The ability to heal at the cost of shortening her own life is how Michiru represents these expectations and how they affect women. Michiru’s ultimate fate confronts the extent to which these expectations are instilled and how harmful they are.
However, Michiru also serves as a foil for Nana—a character who skews those expectations and whose goal is to harm rather than heal. The traumatic death of a loved one is a turning point for both of these characters and has affected their behaviour and thought process. Michiru’s best friend, Hitomi, accepted and encouraged Michiru to have confidence in herself and her ability. Tragically, Hitomi dies of cancer and, due to the limitations of her ability, Michiru could do nothing to help. Inspired by Hitomi’s kindness and her feelings of guilt, Michiru feels driven to push past her limits to help others.
In contrast, the murder of her parents drives Nana to see Talented as “enemies of humanity” and trains to kill them and make the world a safer place for ordinary humans. While both characters are motivated by the loss of a loved one, their goals and approach differ vastly, with Nana taking on the more typically masculine “driven avenger” role.
Nana is merciless and pragmatic. She works methodically towards her goal for vengeance and uses advanced tactics to carry out her assassinations. Nana utilizes self-preservation strategies that allow her to minimize suspicion and pursue her own personal goal, such as performing a falsely innocent, feminine persona for her classmates. She is aware that overexerting herself and blowing her cover would be fatal, thus leaving her mission incomplete. On the other hand, Michiru’s goal is helping everyone. She places too much faith in her ability and disregards her own safety and needs entirely.
Though she is the show’s protagonist, Nana exists in a morally grey space, in sharp contrast to Michiru’s clearly-defined philosophy that everyone deserves to be saved. Nana’s sweetness is a deliberate disguise hiding her assassination plans, and the show’s first-episode twist relies on shocking the audience with the idea that a seemingly sweet airhead is actually a cold and calculating genius beneath. This is different from Michiru whose sweetness is genuine. Michiru uses her kindness for the sake of others rather than herself, and is named “angel” unironically.
Although Nana’s position as protagonist potentially complicates the moral implications of the show, by the end of the anime it is Michiru’s attitude that is proven to be “right” as she sacrifices herself to save Nana. She dies as a martyr, satisfied that she succeeded in saving her friend’s life.
As well as ensuring that the main character’s journey can continue, her death is portrayed as a noble act of friendship and represents Michiru’s success in her own goals. Michiru’s death suggests that the moral compass of the show and the world is aligned with idealistic ideas about what is right and wrong. The anime shows Michiru’s sacrifice in a bittersweet yet ultimately positive light, suggesting that the “right” thing to do is to help others, no matter the cost.
Nana does not share Michiru’s ideology. It is clear that she uses whatever’s necessary to survive and carry out her mission, no matter how cruel. While this helps her to succeed, Nana’s actions come across as selfish and lead her towards great loss and regret—particularly in cases like Michiru’s self-sacrifice, where innocent and naive characters end up in the line of fire because of how Nana prioritizes self-preservation. The ways in which she subverts the gendered behaviors expected of her are tied into the aspects of her character considered “flaws.”
Michiru’s character points toward expectations placed on women being virtuous; however, that doesn’t mean they’re in women’s best interests. In contrast, Nana’s character makes the point of showing how women must be ruthless and pragmatic in order to not only survive but succeed. Nana carefully navigates the expectations placed on women to be kind and sweet, but knows, through examples like Michiru, that she cannot truly inhabit them because they ultimately lead to death. Nana ends the anime series alive and still heading towards her goal, but she is left in broken shadows while Michiru is left with a figurative halo around her head.
Michiru’s Talent serves as a working metaphor for the savior complex often imposed upon women: the extreme desire to save others, an overwhelming sense of failure when she cannot, and excessive self-sacrifice to the point of self-deterioration. She also shows how the saviour complex can cloud one’s judgement and be self-sabotaging. Yet, we also see how normal and acceptable it is to place these expectations on women, and how a narrative may “reward” these traits and present them as good even if its moral takes are otherwise ambiguous.
Michiru’s foil, Nana, is a character who uses whatever tricks and violent acts she can in the name of survival. Michiru is bound by her sense of duty and unable to recognise or overcome the expectations she felt, whereas Nana skews these expectations and uses them to manipulate her targets. However, though Nana remains the series’ focal point, in the end it is Michiru who is proven “right” and noble as she saves Nana and allows her to continue on her mission.
Despite its toxic nature, these expectations to “save” people and “fix” their problems are encouraged and seen as righteous. Though Michiru’s death is sad, the audience can accept it as it’s expected behaviour for her character, and celebrate this as a personal victory as she does, ultimately, fulfil her goal of saving lives. Michiru completes her character arc by the end of the series, while Nana is left empty and still striving. The contrast between these two underlines how a narrative can have a female protagonist who breaks gender roles but still ends up supporting, whether consciously or not, those same norms.