The Many Face of Nana

Last week I finally managed to track down some copies of Nana v13-14. And while I was reading them, it struck me that Ai Yazawa has a very limited number of facial types. This has always been a minor issue with her work, but it's only become noticeable with the proliferation of new characters in the last few volumes.

How Ditkoesque

An assortment of similar faces from Nana v.12-14. A shiny PayPal dollar to the first commenter who can correctly identify them all!

In Yazawa's defense, a couple of points. I have, of course, deliberately picked faces that bear a strong resemblance to each other, and further enhanced the resmblance by erasing the ears and foreheads (there were just too many piercings to touch up). And it's not like this is an uncommon problem — even some highly-acclaimed artists have only a limited number of facial types. Creating a hfully-realized human face from scratch is very hard work, and it's not surprising that artists tend to resort to either shortcuts or other ways of distinguishing characters from each other. So what other ways are there to distinguish characters? The most obvious methods are hair and clothing, body type, and body language. Yazawa only has a limited number of body types, but in the other two categories does an incredible job of differentiating the characters.

Hair and clothing are tricky because they're very changeable. What a character really needs is an overall sense of style that enables you to identify who they are regardless of what they're currently wearing. Or else you lock the character into the same outfits forever, which works in some comics but not others — great if it's a gag strip or set in an office in the 1950's, but not so great for a contemporary strip set in the "real world." Yazawa does a great job of creating a unique style for her characters that allows them to be identified at a glancewhether it's Nana O. in her designer Vivienne Westwood outfits, Nana K. in the simple lines of her retro clothing, Misato in her gothic lolita get-ups, Takumi with his open collars and untucked shirts, or even just Yasu in his heavily-starched suits. The amount of thought she puts into characters' little stylistic choices really pays off, to the point where you can identify a crowd of them from the rear.

The other way she differentiates the characters is by creating a unique posture and body language for them. Nana K. is touchy-feely, Nana O. always looks like she's ready to leap across the room and punch you in the face (and even when she's calm she looks nervous), Takumi is stiff and cold, Yasu is stiff and warm, Ren is languid and slouched (or stoned, if you prefer), Yuri is even more touchy-feely than Hachi (though in a fake, deliberately exaggerated way), and Miu is so reserved and shy she can't even look people in the eye. She does such a good job of creating distinctive body language for characters that when when "Mai Tsuzuki" shows up in volume 14, I was immediately able to guess her real identity ultra-polite mannerisms and posture. (The handful of accessories she couldn't bring herself to get rid of didn't hurt either.)

I suppose the point of this is that we deride artists all the time for not being able to draw different faces, but the real goal is not to create different faces but to be able to create memorable and distinguishable character designs, of which the face is only one element. As long as you can tell the characters apart at a glance, who cares if they have the same face?

I Am the Biggest Doofus in the World

I've just now realized that Nana's covers actually tell a continuous story of the two Nanas having a day on the town. It has taken me over two years to notice this because I am apparently hideously unobservant. I guess I can put that next to "prone to accidental self-mutilation" on my resume.

Today's Moment of Enlightenment

Nana v. 13 p. 179

Nana v.13, p.179

For someone who's widely regarded as an airhead, Nana Komatsu sure manages to dispense a lot of wisdom...

Comments (5)

  1. Michelle Smith (02/10/2009)

    I started out regarding Nana K. as an airhead, but came to love her quite a lot. Especially in these little bits of narration she has.

    And, if it makes you feel better, I never noticed about the covers, either. :)

  2. den (02/10/2009)

    also the characters are designed very similarly b/c there're only certain faces fans of shojo/josei will accept for main characters. (unless it's the side characters like managers, the moms, the dads). so the guys sometimes look exactly the same if you erase their hair/clothing as you have done here. b/c those are the faces fangirls like. afterall this is a commercial product.

    hair style is also an important distinguishing features. no matter what they wear you recognize them b/c of the hair style. ie. takumi actually wears the same thing as yasu sometimes(shirt and tie) but you totally can tell them apart b/c of hair style. the least recognizable person has always been nobu for me b/c he has the most generic hair.

    actually i love yazawa's SD expressions alo . her SD have alot of classic expressions that're very much loved by her fans.

    and the cover thing it's interesting too. i have a feeling it's things the two nanas wished they'd done but never have. afterall the time span of the entire nana is actually very short.

  3. Dave White (02/12/2009)

    Michelle:

    I still think of Nana K. as a bit bubble-headed but I've always liked her. It doesn't hurt that she seems to be instinctively aware of some of the social and emotional aspects of relationships that the other characters just plow through blindly.

    Den:

    Interestingly, a lot of her older male characters also have very similar faces — Mr. Komatsu has the same face as the real estate agent who sets them up with apartment 707 and Mr. Kawano. The only thing that sets them aside is their facial hair.

    I'd say while hairstyle is definitely a major way that we identify people, it really has to be treated as just one part of a character's personal style — if Takumi were to cut his hair short we'd still need to be able to identify him at a glance when he shows up with his new 'do. Even in real life we only really notice big changes in a person's hairstyle when they're completely radical. Heck, once I shaved my beard into Ambrose Burnside-style sideburns and no one noticed until I pointed it out to them.

    I do have to agree that Nobu is the most generic of the characters, and it doesn't help he spends a lot of time next standing next Shin. If it weren't for Shin's piercings and languid expression it'd be hard to tell them apart.

  4. Mildred (08/23/2009)

    Hi! I tried to figure out who is who of the faces! It was really fun! I'm not so sure about the most of them but I decided to just send it even though it may be wrong (or most likely is hahah). So I hope that you'll tell who is who sometime ...

  5. Mildred (08/23/2009)

    Line 1/7: Hachi, Reira, Hachi
    Line 2/7: Shin, Reira, Nana O.
    Line 3/7: Shin, Kyosuke, Hachi
    Line 4/7: Takumi, Ren, Yasu
    Line 5/7: Nobuo, Ren, Nobuo
    Line 6/7: Junko, Takumi, Nobuo
    Line 7/7: Takumi, Naoki

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