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Friday, Dec. 15, 2006

The two Nanas say bye to 707

Sequels are often creatures of box-office demand, not narrative need. Fans want to see the characters again, so studios oblige, even if the story was finished and stamped with a big, blazing The End. One famous example was the 1954 "Godzilla," which ended with the title character presumably dead. No problem -- Toho revived the Big G for the 1955 sequel, "Godzilla no Gyakushu," and for the many that followed.

Nana 2 Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star

Director: Kentaro Otani
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Dec. 15, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

There are also those films, like 2004 sea actioner "Umizaru," made with a sequel in mind, down to the "to be continued" title at the end. Then, midway on the "Godzilla"/"Umizaru" spectrum, is "Nana 2," the sequel to last year's smash about two 20-year-old women with the same name but radically different styles and personalities (one a fiercely independent rocker, the other a marriage-minded cutie pie), who become unlikely roomies and friends. Director Kentaro Otani has said that he called the first film "Nana 1" with the idea of making "Nana 2," but the TBS network, the film's producer, did not sign its stars, including leads Miki Nakashima (the rocker) and Aoi Miyazaki (the cutie), to a multipicture deal.

After "Nana," boosted by the huge fan base of the eponymous manga by Ai Yazawa, became one the biggest hits of 2005, TBS scrambled to cast the sequel -- and learned that Miyazaki and costars Ryuhei Matsuda, who played Nakashima's guitarist boyfriend Ren, and Kenichi Matsuyama, who played Nakashima's blonde band mate Shin, had scheduling conflicts. The network found Yui Ichikawa ("Siren," "Rough") to replace Miyazaki, Nobuo Kyo ("Aoi Haru") to step into Matsuda's shoes and Kanata Hongo ("Tennis no Ojisama") to take over from Matsuyama.

For fans who invested heavily in the first film's cast as ideal on-screen embodiments of beloved manga characters, the changes are likely to inspire everything from mild shock to howls of betrayal. Nonetheless, the film's meticulously created world, from the two Nanas' all-white apartment to their strawberry-patterned drinking glasses, has acquired such an iconic power that those same fans are likely to come for a second visit. Even before "Nana 2" 's release, distributor Toho was talking about a box office north of 5 billion yen, compared with a bit more than 4 billion yen for "Nana."

For this two-time visitor to Nana World, who enjoyed the first film for its energy, both dramatic and musical, and its rare (for a mainstream Japanese movie) sympathetic portrayal of female friendship, the second time around feels more like a reprise of familiar tropes, mixed with an often-told story of growing up and moving on. Think of it as an extended farewell to youth -- and the "Nana" films. This time, over means over.

At the start of "Nana 2," the two Nanas are still living in their funky old apartment, number 707 ("Nana Zero Nana" in Japanese). Together they celebrate the Tanabata Festival on July 7, with Nana Komatsu (the cutie, nicknamed "Hachi") wishing for a boyfriend and Nana Osaki (the rocker) wishing that Hachi gets her wish.

Soon after, with Nana's encouragement, Hachi hooks up with Takumi (Tetsuji Tamayama), the long-haired leader of Trapnest, the successful J-pop band that Ren plays in -- and that Hachi has long been a fan of. Slick, sophisticated and looking like the cover boy of a bodice-ripper novel, Takumi would seem to be far out of Hachi's league -- and acts it, treating poor Hachi like the latest in a long line of disposable women (while the real love of his life remains the man in the mirror).

Meanwhile, Nobu (Hiroki Narimiya), the loud-mouthed but good-hearted guitarist of Nana's struggling punk band Black Stones, falls hard for Hachi -- but she is already in Takumi's thrall and feeling lousy about it. Instead of opening her heart to Nana, her one real friend, Hachi shuts herself off, too embarrassed and conflicted to properly confess.

Nana is undergoing changes of her own -- her band is finally on its way up and her on/off relationship with Ren is in an off phase, perhaps for good. Then she discovers Hachi and Takumi in a compromising situation and flips, believing that Hachi is throwing herself away for a rat.

How can she bring Hachi and Nobu together, while blowing off Takumi?

This story is not, as par for the sequel course, spun out of whole cloth but derived from the manga, so fans will be prepared for what happens next. For viewers more used to the conventions of the Hollywood romantic drama, the climax may run against genre expectations, however. Let's put it this way -- you're not going to see two couples at the altar by the final fade.

As Hachi, Ichikawa plays more to the fluttery, mousy side of the character than to the bubbly, puppy-doggish side that Miyazaki embodied so well. (When I saw "Nana" with a packed house at the Udine Far East Film Festival, I heard "oohs" and "aahs" every time she cracked that curly grin.) Meanwhile, Kyo as Ren and Hongo as Shin are mostly fleeting presences who make comparatively little impact (though I did wonder what Hongo, who looks like a middle schooler with a chain draped across his mouth, is doing in a supposedly grownup band.)

Nakashima, however, is still totally Nana, whose outer toughness is a cover for a passionate, surprisingly tender heart. She may smile at Hachi with a mix of condescension and affection, but erupts in rage and tears at threats to her friend's stumbling pursuit of happiness.

Surrounded by a male cast that is cool to the point of self-parody and beyond, Nakashima stands out like a bonfire on a white sand beach at dusk. All her heat, though, can't burn away the feeling of sadness, of paradises lost and roads not taken, that hangs over the film. Yes, there may be record deals and babies and all the other bounties and burdens of the real grownup world awaiting, but Nana and Hachi will never again have what they had at number 707. Be careful, as they say, what you wish for.

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