How does an anime about two girls who drift apart over a man garner such a loyal sapphic fanbase? As a lesbian who loves shoujo anime, I’m very familiar with the iconic sapphic romances in Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and Sailor Moon, so I was curious where Nana fit in.
Before I finally watched it, I was hesitant to get invested in a relationship between two straight girls. And I was especially hesitant if the show itself was only interested in baiting the audience or pushing tiring love triangles. But Nana centers itself on one incredibly painful and typical lesbian experience: an obsessive, devoted female friendship that ends in heartbreak.
Nana is a 2006 anime based on the popular shoujo manga by Ai Yazawa, the manga-ka of Paradise Kiss. Though the manga is on indefinite hiatus, the anime had its first HD release drop in February 2022. The story follows the converging lives of Nana “Hachi” Komatsu, a co-dependent hopeless romantic, and Nana Osaki, the lead vocalist of punk rock band Black Stones. The girls meet on a train heading to Tokyo. Immediately hitting it off, the pair become inseparable and move into an apartment together.
However, the anime is much more than the misadventures of two cute, spunky twenty-year-old protagonists. What sets Nana apart is its deep introspection into both girls, their relationships with men, and their intense friendship.
Though Nana and Hachi approach dating differently—Nana doesn’t like hooking up and is still fixated on her first love Ren Honjo, whereas Hachi quickly falls in love and gets into relationships with older, married men—all of their relationships hinge on sex.
Tired of constantly being the “other woman,” Hachi tries to develop a meaningful friendship with her college crush Shoji Endo, but he quickly writes this off as her friend-zoning him. After confessing to each other during a heated fight, Shoji laments that Hachi probably won’t sleep with him and, though she initially doesn’t want to, she agrees to do it when she “hears” his heart tell her he loves her. Hachi understands that love and sex are not mutually exclusive, and she compromises her own desires in order to receive male validation.
This is reinforced when Shoji feels rejected and later cheats on her after she chooses not to sleep with him during one of their dates in Tokyo. Her tumultuous affair with Takumi Ichinose—bassist of rival punk band Trapnest—is primarily about sex and the fantasy of being in love, but Hachi is never truly happy because she internalizes the idea that she cannot be loved unless she uses her body.
Nana, on the other hand, is still in love with her former flame Ren, the ex-bassist of her band, who she is enamored by and jealous of. When she first sees Ren play before joining Black Stones, she is mesmerized by his stage presence and aspires to be like him. Though Hachi might argue that Nana moved to Tokyo to be with Ren, Nana left her hometown to hone her talent and achieve stardom. Perhaps these two ideas could easily converge, but Nana feels a push and pull internally, often trying to officially break things off with Ren only to be pulled in deeper when he kisses her. Rarely does the audience see Ren and Nana not hooking up, which to Ren might be a consummation of their love and, to Nana, receiving validation from someone she deeply admires and wants to emulate. Without garnering any sexual validation from men, Nana and Hachi have no idea how to navigate their complex feelings for each other.
Every episode opens with a vulnerable letter from one of the girls, usually Hachi, to the other reflecting on their time together and their regrets. Hachi admits in one letter that meeting Nana “felt like falling in love,” and Nana writes something similar, musing that she “felt like a teenage boy falling in love for the first time.” These letters—or confessions—represent the truth that the girls were too afraid to admit before their falling out. Words that couldn’t have been truly expressed at the time because they didn’t know how.
Afraid of how their adoration and possessiveness might be harming the other, Nana and Hachi often seek out advice from their friends—other straight twenty-somethings who don’t have the language for their probable struggle with compulsory heterosexuality. The only response Ren has when Nana tries to explain her complicated feelings for Hachi is to ask if she wants to sleep with her—minimizing them to something sexual and fleeting. Relying on rote heteronormative jargon, their friends tease that Nana “acts like a boy,” and Hachi jokingly refers to Nana as her boyfriend.
Scenes like the two sleeping in the same bed or sharing a bath are initially played for laughs, but they hold immense emotional weight and represent a way for the girls to explore their feelings free of judgment. For example, Hachi jumping into Nana’s bath is a funny moment at the time, but years after their falling out, we see a devastated Hachi running her fingers through her bathwater and imagining Nana by her side.
My jaw dropped watching these scenes. Matching engagement rings, longing looks, a brief but magical kiss. How could the show be so overtly gay if they weren’t going to end up together?
What makes Nana special isn’t an endgame romance, but Nana and Hachi’s clear and undying love for each other that transcends time and circumstance. Sure, the pair probably would’ve benefited from scrolling through the Lesbian Masterdoc, but I recognize that I didn’t know everything about myself or my first intense crush on a friend at the beginning of my lesbian journey. Love and friendship is tricky to navigate even for cishet people, so couple that with homophobia and internalized shame, and you get something confusing and catastrophic.
What makes Nana special is how it conveys the familiar feelings of yearning, of asking, “what if?” The reflections that reaffirm your identity but make you wish you were braver, more honest or things were somehow different. The warm memories mixed with the bittersweet reality of a heteronormative world.
Nothing encapsulates it more than these words from Nana to Hachi, “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep my promise. You probably don’t remember, but I was really serious about building that gorgeous house with the big yard. I’ll be there waiting. So, every time a boy makes you cry, you can come back home, and just… smile.”