NANA Project: Special

by  in Comic News Comment
NANA Project: Special

This time around we take a break from our usually scheduled NANA Project to discuss an instance of censorship in Viz’s release of Ai Yazawa’s NANA in the U.S.  Danielle tracks down the anime adaptation to find out what exactly has been cut from the manga, while Melinda theorizes about why these cuts might have been made and then we all discuss the challenges of adapting Japanese comics for the American marketplace.

Danielle:  So a few days ago I discovered (via manga critic extraordinaire Jason Thompson) this thread at, detailing instances of censorship in U.S. publishers’ adaptations of manga for the American marketplace.  Being such a devoted fan of NANA, I was shocked to find volume 4 on the list and not only had the volume been edited but four entire pages had been excised (the content of which I will detail shortly).  I think a part of my shock was the fact that this new information undermined my belief that the time period when Viz released NANA and created the Shojo Beat Brand / Magazine was part of a new era of manga in the U.S. (2005 and later).  This new era is — in my mind — defined by publishers’ greater understanding that manga fans want as “faithful” adaptations as possible and that they are getting better and better at (cost-effectively) giving fans what they want all the time.

In order to figure out what had been “censored” I went to and compared my volume of NANA volume 4 with the 17th episode of the anime (both are adapted by Viz and cover the same period of the story).  Here is the content that appeared to have been excised:

Just before the Trapnest concern starts, Nana separates from Hachi and finds a quiet space to have some time to herself.  She lights a “Blast” cigarette (in the original a “Blackstones” cigarette, I believe) and reminisces about how the Ren-Nana-Yasu-Nobu band originally got its name.  Back in the day, all four are gathered together trying to brainstorm a name for their new band.  Nana spots Yasu’s cigarettes and tries one out, commenting that “Black Stones” might be a good name for a band.  Nobu is enthusiastic, noting that they can shorten the name to “Blast,” which Yasu likes because it also means a “strong gust of wind”.  Nana’s also chagrinned when Ren takes the cigarette she lit and chokes on the disgusting taste (of the cigarette, of course, but Nana’s a little hurt anyway).  Ren asks Yasu to make a “celebratory announcement” and as “band leader” Yasu declares that they should only smoke Blast / Black Stone cigarettes from now on.  Everyone’s response – “Smoke it yourself!”

The story then returns to the present, with Nana taking a private moment to smoke and think before the Trapnest concert begins as Hachi waits for her at their seats.  In the manga, the entire interlude is excised so that if you read the book you only know that Nana sits and smokes before the concert begins and aren’t given any indication that she is thinking about a very specific moment when their band was basically created (and not, for example, thinking of a romantic or painful moment she shared with Ren, her former lover).

The following questions spring immediately to mind after I had viewed this version of the excised content — why delete these pages entirely in the manga rather than edit them (perhaps edit out / adapt references to the brand name)?  Could these pages even be edited sensibly, especially considering the fact they do revolve around using brand names to create the *band* name?  And how much have we, the readers, lost through the editing?

Melinda:  I was initially really confused by the removal of those pages (and I mean literally confused–when, in volume seven, Hachi makes a cake that says “Black Stones” on it, I had no idea what that meant) but when I stop to consider trademark law, I can understand why Viz might have been at odds over how to handle the situation. I’m not a trademark lawyer, but I’ve had to deal with registering trademarks for the company I work for and I can immediately see the issue, just based on what I learned from that.

A quick search through the the United States Patent and Trademark Office Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) reveals that a trademark for the printed word “BLACKSTONE” has been held since 1926 by Swisher International, Inc. in the category of G & S: Cigars.  In fact, if you look at a photograph of the packaging Yazawa’s drawings are modeled from it is easy to see the registered trademark symbol just under the name.

Given this, there is no way Viz could use this trademark (either on the cigarette package, or in any printed dialogue referring to cigarettes) in their manga without fear of lawsuit, save for paying to license the trademark from the company (assuming this was even an option).  This gives Viz a couple of immediately obvious choices:  keep the scene, but omit use of the trademark by changing the name of the cigarettes (and therefore, the band) to something else, or remove all references to BlackStone cigarettes by omitting the conversation in which the characters name their band after them, leaving readers confused later (as I was) but allowing them to keep the name “Black Stones” as it appears later on in the manga.

Neither of these options is particularly attractive, and I think the compromise they came up with for the anime works pretty well–keeping the scene, but rewriting the dialogue so that Nobu’s suggestion of “Black Stones” comes from out of the blue (though it’s certainly a little random)–but I don’t think that was probably an obvious solution at the time, since it does require rewriting the scene significantly, something fans also complain about.

Obviously my comments here are largely conjecture (I don’t actually know for a fact that this is why Viz removed the pages) but I think it’s a pretty fair guess.

Michelle:  I was confused by that scene in volume seven, as well. If I recall rightly, there was no editor’s note to explain it, either. Perhaps they thought that readers who came for the “sex, music, fashion, gossip, and all-night parties” were not going to have much interest in trademark issues, but it still would’ve been nice had they made some mention of it. Perhaps they’ve had so much backlash for their other, sillier bits of censorship that they didn’t even want to broach the subject here, even though it’s a special case.  Heck, they certainly haven’t been shy about retouching scenes where nudity and underage smoking are involved… why not just blur out the logo or something like that?

Melinda:  Well, even if they’d blurred the logo, they would have been left with the problem of what to do with the scene, since the entire thing is about naming their band after the cigarettes and they can’t actually print the name of the cigarettes, logo or no logo. But it would have been nice if they’d figured out how to explain it at some point without opening themselves up to lawsuits.

Danielle:  Am I crazy for thinking they just should have excised the logo and gone for a slightly non-sensical scene rather than just getting rid of it entirely?  I mean they could just pretend the brand of cigarettes is called “Blast,” and edit the dialogue accordingly.  Or is this expecting entirely too much?

Melinda:  Well, that’s what they did with the anime. Perhaps they didn’t consider that idea way back when they were translating the manga. Like I said before, it kind of works (though it makes Nobu’s suggestion of “Black Stones” pretty random) but it requires so much rewriting, I can see why it might not have been an obvious choice.

Danielle:  I’m just hung up on FOUR ENTIRE PAGES OF FLASHBACK being cut.  Flashbacks are soooo incredibly significant in NANA I can’t imagine an editor not wanting to move heaven and earth to keep them.  (On the other hand, of course, I think censoring anything when adapting is problematic, this is just the first time I think I’ve been faced with such an extensive cut of the actual story in manga.  i.e. this isn’t the same to me as using a Britney Spears reference instead of another Japanese pop idol name).

Melinda:  See, you’re facing their exact dilemma here. They can’t legally print it without extensive editing. So what are they supposed to do? Fans will complain either way. If they cut the pages, they’ve “censored” it (which I find to be an interesting choice of words, since it’s usually used to describe alternation or removal of what some nefarious governement power has deemed “dangerous” or “objectionable” which suggests motivation that does not appear to be a factor here). If they edit the scene as extensively as they’d have to in order to keep it without running afoul of the Swisher corporation, fans would complain that they “butchered” it or something like that. I’ve seen massive fan outrage over the alternation of a single name.

This trademark issue is not something a manga editor can do anything about. Can’t we offer some level of understanding here? I’m really not talking about you Danielle–the outrage over editorial choices in fandom overall frustrates me frequently. I’m not pro-“censorship” by any means, it’s just that any adaptation from Japanese to English requires some level of editing (some more than others), and it bothers me that fans seem unwilling to consider that there may be factors involved that are not immediately obvious to them. Would we rather they just never translated it at all?  That’s the vibe I get often from fandom.

Michelle:  I don’t get particularly bent out of shape over adaptation choices; though I’d prefer it if original references and names were kept. It doesn’t *really* change the story significantly that the names are different in Case Closed for example, and though I wish they weren’t, I can still enjoy the series and support its release. And I completely understand that VIZ’s hands were tied, but wish there could’ve been something there. Even a note like, “At this point in the original manga there is a scene” blah blah.

Danielle:  Melinda’s points suddenly reminded me about the flap over Viz’s translation of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku.  Many, many people have criticized the translator or editor’s choice to use “archaic” language to demonstrate the time period (the work takes place in a fictionalized version of historical Japan), and I’ve seen a few individuals that refused to buy the work because of those adaptation choices.

Now, I’ve defended the translation but not because I necessarily believe those were the “correct” or “right” choices, but because some thought was put into those decisions and I don’t think the final effect of the translation obscures or undermines the artistic work as a whole.

In the instance of NANA, the choice to remove those four pages pains because it was ultimately unnecessary (as I believe the anime adaptation reveals) and while we may chalk it up to editorial “learning experience” I think it is perfectly acceptable to criticize Viz because I do want to see more and more *challenging* manga titles officially adapted for the U.S. market.  I also feel very strongly that U.S. publishers are getting better and better at learning what it means to be adapt material even *with* all the constraints they face (trademark, of course, just being one example).  Melinda’s point about fans basically being so over-protective of works that they assume U.S. adapters can’t possibly do justice to these works is *very* well taken, but I argue that thoughtful critique of those choices has its place and that is what I am trying to forward here (also I don’t think it is out of line that I *mourn* the loss of those pages — I love this work, I’ve supported it by buying not only the manga but also the anime adaptations and will continue to do so long as it is officially released in the U.S.).

Melinda:  Perhaps I’m just not picky enough as a reader, but since any translation from Japanese to English requires considerable adaptation just to make sense (from what I understand) I admit I’m pretty forgiving about most choices. As a reader, my priority is that the work reads smoothly and effectively in English, even if that means changes had to be made. I suppose that’s why I’m feeling forgiving about the cuts in NANA as well, since the one possible adaptation option we’ve discussed (the one employed in the anime) leaves some things making almost as little sense as they do with the pages cut out completely. Both are poor options, and there’s no perfect way to handle the situation.

It’s interesting that you bring up Ooku, because though you’d think it would have bothered me a lot (based on what I said above), after a chapter or so I stopped noticing the issue and got swept up in the story. So perhaps in the end I can be okay with anything as long as the story is still good enough.  Which I suppose brings us back to my original irritation. I’m endlessly baffled by people who are so upset about a single change or adaptation choice that they would abandon an entire series over it, as if that one issue trumped everything else the author had put into the work.

All that said, Danielle’s points are well taken and not at all unreasonable.

Danielle:  I had the exact same experience, Melinda, with Ooku!  I kind of feel you have to abandon yourself to a work like that even if a part of us rebels when we first encounter the so-called “archaic” language.  Once I was able forget the “alien-ness” of the language, I could then sink into the story without a problem.   However, I try to understand that some people just can’t do that and the choice of language is too great a barrier (even though I’m really sad that some have had to abandon such a great work because of that hurdle).

Well, I was hoping we could wrap up this special edition on a positive note by naming any manga adaptations / titles we have really, really enjoyed.  Have either you ever thought a certain script flowed very well, or a title had a smart use of slang, or what have you?  Or do you think that in good adaptations we shouldn’t “notice” such things?  (i.e. a good adaptation is one where you don’t “see” the work behind the translation?)

Michelle:  A lot of times I don’t really notice adaptations, which I feel somewhat guilty about since obviously it requires a lot of work. The first time I really paid attention, though, was with the adaptation for Shinobi Life by Ysabet Reinhardt MacFarlane. I thought the dialogue and style suited the characters extremely well, particularly for Beni, the lead character. Punchy and snarky, it captured her personality nicely.

Melinda:  I’m especially fond of William Flanagan’s adaptations of xxxHolic and Mushisi, both of which I think are fairly esoteric works in their own way but read extremely well in English. I think it’s absolutely the case that most of the time a good adaptation is kind of invisible. But those are the two that come to mind immediately for me as. Also (and this is a Korean comic) I love the vintage screwball comedy feel of NETCOMICS’ new translation of Full House.

Oh! And I can’t overlook Joyce Aurino’s work on Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, which had to be one of the most difficult adaptations *ever*.

Danielle:  The two adaptations that came to my mind immediately were xxxHolic and Fruits Basket.  I think because both those works convey so much about the characters and their emotions and yet most of the time they are also about *withholding* information because the storytelling style demands it.  I imagine those were challenging works to adapt but when you read them you can tell that the folks involved in the adaptation really, really cared about them.

I think intellectually I agree with Melinda’s point that a good adaption should be “invisible” but sometimes I kind of appreciate an adaptation that is a little showy.  For example, I just finished Dorohedoro by Q Hayashida which had a kind of hilariously matter-of-fact foul sensibility in the script.  I’m sure that comes from the original too, but I thought it was a great English-language adaptation.

Michelle:  I actually have a small quibble with the adaptation of Fruits Basket, which, I now realize, is completely one of those situations where a person states that the fan translation is better.  You see, Fruits Basket is one series where I bought the Japanese volumes as they were released and followed along with fan-created text translations.  In one volume, Yuki is thinking about his feelings for Tohru and says, essentially, “To me, you are so very dear.”  In the English versions, this came out as “I love you.”  While one could argue that “I love you” does not necessarily imply romantic feelings, I still prefer the earlier version. In a way, it perhaps withholds *less* information by casting Yuki’s love in a non-amorous light.

Not that this kept me at all from buying and enjoying the English Fruits Basket volumes or anything, and there are plenty of laudable things about it—speaking of conveying character, great things are done with Ayame!—it’s just that what sticks out for me is this one instance where I was disappointed in how an important moment was handled.

Melinda:  Since this has come up, I’ll throw in an instance where I felt the opposite!  There was a time when I used to read scanlations (as you know), especially for keeping up with series I was already reading in English. In volume ten of xxxHolic, there is a really important moment between Watanuki and Himawari, in which Watanuki finally confesses his feelings. The setting is hugely dramatic. Watanuki has nearly died, Himawari has revealed her worst secret to him, and emotions are running high on both sides.  The confession is made in a large panel that takes up the majority of a page, with a close-up on both Watanuki’s an Himawari’s faces, indicating the strength of the emotion behind it. The fan translator chose to translate Watanuki’s confession as, “I like you.” Bill Flanagan translated it as “I love you.” Since I don’t read Japanese, I have no way of knowing which is the more precise translation of CLAMP’s wording there, but I can tell you that the difference in emotional impact is *huge* and it was Bill’s translation that (in my opinion) best matched the dramatic resonance of the visuals and brought tears to my eyes (literally) as I read it.  To me, *that’s* adaptation.  Taking everything into account–wording, visual cues, and the emotional buildup of the scene to best bring the work to life for English-speaking readers.

Michelle:  I think both of our examples serve to illustrate the impact that adaptation has on one’s enjoyment of a series and bringing its best qualities to the fore to be appreciated by an American audience!

Danielle:  I couldn’t agree more and I am going to take advantage of Michelle’s graceful summation of our last thoughts on adaptation to conclude this edition of the NANA Project.

Join us next time when we return to regularly scheduled programming and discuss volumes 11 and 12 of NANA!