**WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS AN EDITORIAL ON THE MANGA SERIES NANA TO KAORU, AS WELL AS MANGA WITH SIMILAR THEMES. AS SUCH, WHILE I WILL NOT POST HENTAI ON HERE, THERE WILL BE NSFW IMAGES FROM THE MANGA DISCUSSED THAT DEALS WITH BDSM. IF YOU UNDERSTAND, THEN CONTINUE. OTHERWISE, LEAVE THIS PAGE NOW.**
Back in 2008, a manga series began in Japan named Nana To Kaoru. This series has reached it ends this past October, with it’s final chapter being scanlated on (I kid you not) Christmas that same year. This is a series which inspired two live action films, an anime OVA, and two spin-off manga, so it’s ending should be a big deal, right?
No, not even a little. Truth is that this would’ve been a big deal had the series ended four years ago (ironically, when many Western readers began discovering it), when it still had momentum. Now, it ends with no fanfare and quietly just stops. Which makes sense, given how the manga ultimately turned out, but it begs the question: why was it able to get such momentum when it began?
Well, the image from the manga below should give an answer to that.
Yes, that disclaimer above was warranted. Nana To Kaoru was an erotic romantic comedy manga about two high schoolers practicing BDSM. It is fairly unique, at least in manga, due to spending a large amount of time actually showing the prep, as well as execution to several different types of sessions. It was not like many other BDSM-related or themed manga around.
And yes, that means that there are many other manga that feature BDSM as a main theme. However, they usually tend to follow a rule: they aren’t about actually practicing BDSM. You see, I once found a post online (no link provided, since I don’t remember where I found it, but this is why this is an editorial piece) that said “BDSM stories aren’t about people practicing BDSM for the same reason video game movies aren’t about people playing video games.” (Yes, that’s the full quote, and no, the poster didn’t give a reason for it) Granted, I know the reason why: both are potentially exciting acts which require a large amount of monotonous action to prepare. BDSM is a potentially dangerous act and it’s practitioners need to prepare and constantly double-check the actual safety of each play session. Hell, the manga turns it into a joke, with some chapters showing Kaoru tying himself up to figure out how to do it to Nana later (and cursing himself out as a result). But that’s not what many people making BDSM stories are interested in, hence why we get stories which feature BDSM themes, but not people actually practicing BDSM.
If there’s one thing those other manga share in common with this one, though, it is the use of BDSM to arouse the reader. Despite having many breather chapters (a term that’s somewhat ironic in this series) between the various sessions depicted that establish character dynamics and the preparation for the sessions, once the sessions begin, the manga plays up the sex-appeal of the act (full disclaimer: while the two leads, plus a third character, practice BDSM acts in the story, the story depicts no actual sex, possibly because they’re high school students and Japan has a strange relationship with teens and sex in their media, but that’s besides the point). The mangaka doesn’t want to make ignore the prep work that makes the sessions actually safe (again, another theme in the story), but he knows full well why most people are reading it.
Again, this flies completely in the face of other BDSM-themed, non-hentai manga. The series I’ll bring up to directly contrast Nana To Kaoru to is Sundome (one of the few of this genre that got an English release, although I don’t recommend it) and Heaven’s Lost Property (which isn’t about BDSM, per say, but it has BDSM-related themes in character dynamics and, occasionally, imagery). As a precursor to my comparison, I’ll just say that Nana To Kaoru, out of these three, is the only title that doesn’t completely demonize a BDSM or BDSM-styled relationship.
Sundome is easily the worst of these three BDSM-themed series (it’s also the most sexually explicit one, despite actually being released in the US, but that’s why I’m only showing the cover for one of the volumes). It follows a high schooler in a group who greatly show their lack of success with girls (and perversion) with pride. A new girl joins their club and she takes the lead character and effectively makes him her plaything (again, this is the only one of the three that features actual sex acts, so take that how you will). The series is gross, plain and simple. It tries to frame what is effectively sexual extortion (can’t say rape, the lead is actively looking forward to it and gladly accepts her “punishments”) as a great tool for him to grow as a person. Also, she has a tragic past that’s only alluded to because we don’t actually learn anything about the girl on the cover, only see her take advantage of the lead.
Like I said, the problem here, in addition to art (good God, I hate how this looks, how did Yen Press decide that this should be released here?), is framing. Her “punishments” are framed as tools for her to turn him more confident and out-going. It’s meant as a symbol of his growing up and maturing as a person. Where have I heard that before?
OH RIGHT, THE MANGA I WROTE THIS EDITORIAL ABOUT! I’m not kidding, but self-improvement is actually presented as a theme in Nana To Kaoru. Since Kaoru was kind of string and unhealthy, his beginning to be an SM dom makes him reconsider his health and strength, leading him to begin taking better care of himself. A big theme with the manga is how BDSM is healthy and constructive and this was one of the ways that it helped illustrate this theme.
Anyway, getting away from Sundome (may it go out of print and all the copies burn to ash), we also have another BDSM-themed (albeit loosely, this time) manga with Heaven’s Lost Property, whose manga never came over, but was adapted into an anime that has been released here by Funimation.
This is a somewhat typical harem-fanservice series about a high schooler, his childhood friend who is always beating him up, his friend, his class president, and the angel servants who come down to him. And no, that description is not meant to make the series sound weird, because in demonstrably isn’t (harem manga and anime are at this level typically, weird doesn’t occur until you get to stuff like Yomeiro Choice or Ai Kora or Maou No Hajimekata). Still, it’s being brought up because of the SM-inspired elements regarding the angels (or angeloids, as they’re called).
See, in this series, the angeloids come from another world in the sky called Synapse and are the slaves of the land’s ruler, who abuses them endlessly. Once the angeloids are connected to a master, they must do whatever the master commands. Oh, and said master is very possessive and doesn’t like other people touching his things.
Somewhat interestingly (though not surprising or well-developed), the series uses the master-slave dynamic and features SM elements in the design (the collars, the look of Synapse, the various competitions that the school president creates), but really doesn’t bring it up, even indirectly. In fact, though there are heavy elements present in Synapse, the angeloid’s design, and in many of the situations that occur, the series seems almost oblivious to it. And what elements were present intentionally call back to an old manga (and media, in general) stereotype.
In anime and manga, like most media, bondage (and BDSM in general) are used to denote a character as being evil (for those curious, the left image is the two quadriplegic sex slaves of the Slum King in Violence Jack, while the image on the right is of Corset, the main villain of Panty And Stocking With Garterbelt, who uses a suffocating corset on himself to make himself stronger). While this isn’t a hard and fast rule (see Gintama’s Ayame Sarutobi, Rosario + Vampire’s Ruby, and Monster Musumune’s Rachnera for examples of BDSM elements being applied to non-villainous characters), it’s more common to see this happen than not, hence Heaven’s Lost Property’s use of the dynamic to clearly address to the audience why we want any of these girls to end up with, well, this.
So, with those three series being representative for how BDSM tends to be depicted in manga, both directly and indirectly, what made Nana To Kaoru so different?
Put simply, it’s not just “drool over this bondage I’m drawing”. As I alluded to earlier, the manga is a character-based romantic comedy (or dramedy, if you hate humanity and use that term). The sessions, or “breathers”, are the focal points and climaxes, but they aren’t all that happens. Nana is a character dealing with the growing stress of keeping up her academic excellence and the manga has multiple sessions result from the growing pressure becoming too much for her to handle. Similarly, Kaoru is a perverted, wormy scumbag of a student and, while this is initially presented as the impossible scenario of his dreams (for context, Nana is his sub in his perverted fantasies), they also serve as a wake-up call to stop his underachieving and make something of his life, if only as someone to help Nana. The series presents the reader with characters who are using these sessions as a means to mature and grow (although not too much, since this series does get a stagnation problem as it progresses, but more on that later).
This character dynamic is effective here because it’s fairly familiar territory for the mangaka. He’s done other non-hentai manga and they tend to run into similar dynamics between the leads. One of his other series focuses on a college student who teases her younger cousin and grows to have a crush on him (there are many things to complain about with that statement, but I feel like, to get to the worst part, the cousin is 13-years-old and she’s 20). Another focuses on a 30-year-old virgin nerd stumbling into an arranged marriage with a woman with alcoholic tendencies and is equally immature. A third focuses on a college student falling for a young-looking widow in her late 30s. While the scenarios are different, they all showcase a specific character type, one that Kaoru exemplifies. Each of his series feature a cynical perverted loser who is close to giving up on any type of love, relationship, or even sex. And considering how the co-leads in each of these series are (Nana, the 13-year-old cousin, the alcoholic woman, and the widow), I have a feeling I know what type of character he believes himself to be.
Still, the series became successful, I’ll assume, mostly because of the bondage. This is based on a few things. First, the spin-off manga Nana To Kaoru Arashi, which is supposed to be a sequel (this is around when the series began to just spin it’s wheels) that focuses almost entirely on bondage. The second is the live-action film adaptation, which adapts the first two or three “breathers” and, as a result, doesn’t feature the characterization of the manga. And third, but most egregiously, the anime OVA adaptation.
Despite being a pretty literal adaptation of the first chapter and third breather, the OVA completely does away with ANY attempts at character-building (at least the live-action film had the characterization from the manga’s beginning). Despite not actually being hentai (again, this is a weird grey area, as there is no actual sex portrayed, there’s no story to make up for the sessions portrayed and the camera exists to creepily leer at Nana in a way the manga only did in the opening to the first chapter, which was meant to be creepy), the OVA offers literally nothing except a look in pain-staking detail at Nana in a leather bondage outfit and tied up in a swimsuit.
Still, the manga does exist and for most of it’s run, it’s actually a really compelling story of an underachieving pervert and his overachieving but easily stressed neighbor falling in love and practicing BDSM.
However, I did say for most of it’s run. Unfortunately, Nana To Kaoru falls into the same trap that many manga romances fall into: it gets dragged out for too long.
In anime and manga, because a successful manga will typically be milked for as long as possible (see Attack On Titan, which was initially planned to be 20 volumes, but recently released it’s 21st volume, with the story still not reaching endgame), there becomes a tendency for mangakas to stretch out a story for much longer than needed. Romance series suffer most from this extension, since it means the writers must prolong the climax of the series (and in the case of romance manga, the climax is usually when the two leads finally become a couple, so you know exactly what is done to stretch it out). Nana To Kaoru suffered from this, with the relationship between the titular characters growing up until a certain point, after which the manga just begins spinning it’s wheels with more “breathers” and heavy-handed melodrama that begin making the manga a chore to read. The last quarter of the series suffers most from this, as it features the most empty “breathers” from a character perspective (they mostly retread the same emotional ground covered earlier) and a long, dragged out ending arc which becomes tiring after spending so long on the same track (side note: the last arc features little BDSM, so it’s more focused on the melodrama, which has become unbearable by this point due to how much of it is retreading familiar emotional beats from earlier in the series). The arc does, at least, end with a strong conclusion (no, there isn’t any development, but it does highlight how much the two have grown since the beginning, so it’s not a complete waste), but that arc lasted way too long and the series has become a chore by this point.
Still, let it never be said that the mangaka cannot write a compelling story. I brought up that he has a particular fondness for the type of character Kaoru falls under and, as someone who strongly relates to his loser characters, he has a certain way of making them sympathetic and relatable that most other mangaka tend not to do (in any other writer’s hands, Kaoru would be a creepy stalker who we are supposed to laugh at and feel disgusted by, and that’s without bringing up his bondage fetish). He may write these stories as a fantasy for a specific type of loser, but the level of humanity given to those losers is admirable.
And admirable is the quality this manga had that made me want to write this editorial in the first place. I found this series in my freshman year of college, thanks to a podcast (Weekly Manga Recap, for those interested) spending an episode discussing it and to my own growing interest in looking at manga’s depictions of fanservice. And, out of the many different ecchi and harem and somewhat perverted manga I found and got a good laugh at, this was easily my favorite and the one that connected with me the most. Discovering a manga can feel really good, but discovering one which makes a personal connection with you like I did with this series is special and should not ever be taken for granted.
If you’re interested in other stories that follow a similar story path, I have a few recommendations.One manga I’d recommend, if for a similar approach to “scumbag character is given humanity”, there’s Onani Master Kurosawa (another manga found by Weekly Manga Recap, seriously, I recommend their show). It’s cruder and more misanthropic (and the actual plot description will probably turn many people away), but it tackles the way a character like Kaoru would be handled by other mangaka and manages to make him sympathetic and understandable (he’s a kid who’s still growing up, of course he’ll make bad mistakes like that).
I’d also recommend The Flowers Of Evil (which is available from Vertical), which also approaches a similar character type and shows the destructive elements that are present within.
Lastly, despite not being a manga, I’d recommend the webcomic-turned-graphic-novel-series Sunstone, which focuses on the romance and growing BDSM relationship between two women. The graphic novels are being published by Image and the original webcomic version is available on the artist’s DeviantArt page.
And with this, I will take my leave. I do recommend checking the series out. Now that it’s over, it available in a way that’s easier to read than it’s monthly release before, especially regarding it’s last quarter. It’s end does leave a void in manga that I hope will be filled, but until that time, I can take comfort in knowing that this phenomenal work has been able to go on and thrive for as long as it did (look no further than Shonen Jump’s Barrage or Gakkyu Hotei for great series that were canceled before they could truly hit their stride). This is a manga that was special for me due how I discovered it and how I connected to it’s protagonist, something that isn’t common is manga or anime for me, and it definitely deserves more love. So, I’ll leave you with the illustration done to begin the manga’s last chapter.