A while ago, someone in London was selling all 21 volumes of this manga, second-hand, in Japanese. I hummed and hahed, but eventually didn't buy them. On my most recent visit to Japan, though, I bought vol.1 to see what it was like.
Conclusion: it's really good, but I'm glad I didn't buy it all. ("All" is a relative term, incidentally, since the series is technically incomplete and on hiatus. Ai Yazawa fell ill in 2009 and didn't return to the manga industry on eventually leaving hospital.)
REASONS TO READ NANA:
(a) it really is excellent. It's a best-seller (22 million manga copies sold in Japan alone) and an award-winner (2002 Shogakukan Manga Award for shoujo manga). It's had anime and live-action movie adaptations. (I was convinced I'd seen the latter, but apparently I haven't. That's going on the list, then.) Ai Yazawa writes like a novelist, with flawed characters who make horrible decisions. She can communicate a deceptive amount of storytelling in one simple page. This is dense stuff. Each hundred-ish-page chapter of this one manga volume is like a standalone novel.
(b) the characterisation is truthful, direct and strong enough to hurt. Nana Komatsu, for instance, is a relationship train wreck waiting to happen. She'll fall hopelessly in love with any man on sight, regardless of suitability or whether she knows anything about him, and this is not the kind of manga that ducks the steamy material. She's an idiot. Imagine how this could go wrong. Well, that's where her chapter starts. (It's not the very worst thing that could have happened to her as a result of her lovestruck wholeheartedness, but in order of badness it's probably number three or four.)
(c) the art's strong too, albeit not entirely without amusing tendencies. (Characters will be tall and slender, at times to a fault. I defy anyone not to laugh at Kyosuke Takakura's tiny head on p29.) This art is realistic, with proper human proportions instead of the usual big shoujo eyes. The emotions are strongly portrayed, the line work is elegant and the tone can switch between "heartfelt" and "funny" at will. Yazawa also has a sizzling sense of fashion.
REASONS NOT TO READ NANA:
(d) it would have taken me forever. I'm reading in Japanese and this is no breezy page-skimmer (although it does have furigana). Himouto! Umaru-chan vol.1, for instance, took me next to no time. This little brick kept me busy for weeks. (Caveat: the translated English volumes are still available today, almost twenty years later, so this reason probably won't apply for most readers.)
(e) it hurts. I'm sure it mellows later, but that's part of why this volume took me so long to read.
The first thing that happens is Nana Komatsu's heart getting torn out and shredded in one clean, elegantly told page. (The follow-up scene is very funny, mind you, as Nana wails to her acid-tongued best friend Junko and gets shredded all over again by Junko's sardonic one-liners. Brilliantly, Nana's so emotionally dependent that at one point she'll complain when Junko becomes less merciless.) It's just painful to watch her. She's like a tiny glass figure dancing carelessly in a hailstorm. This is a girl who doesn't believe Junko when she says she's capable of not falling in love with a hot boy. Everything she does is wrong-headed. She's slowly (slooooowly) learning to become less stupid, but this means becoming stupid in amazing new ways instead. Her behaviour towards Shiri made me want him to drop her.
Furthermore, I'm reading about an idiot's love-struck, giddy adventures in a book with a dark, lonely cover. A dark-haired punk Nana (eh?) is sitting alone in a world of melancholy greens and blues, just reading the newspaper.
As for Nana Osaki, her chapter is basically a tragedy.
That said, though, I was missing a lot of context. I'd deliberately dived in without reading up on the series, which made my reading experience startling. It's about two Nanas, you see. There's Nana Komatsu (blonde, unstoppably wholehearted, a walking outpouring of emotion) and Nana Osaki (tough vocalist in a punk band).
I hadn't known about this. I was halfway through Nana Osaki's chapter before I started wondering if she might be a different Nana. They had different surnames, yes, but I could suggest at least four different explanations for that. Similarly, the backstory discrepancies could just have been lies. I'd been assuming that we'd simply missed some important stuff in the intervening months, like Nana giving herself a drastic image change, dying her hair and joining a band. The end of chapter one is a big enough shock that I could have imagined that.
I'm glad I read this volume. It's gripping, intelligent and often funny. I'd recommend it and I'm planning to watch the live-action movies too. I'm interested in knowing how things turn out. However I don't regret not buying that complete second-hand set of the manga. It'll take me about five years to get through my current to-read pile as it is!