There are many, many spoilers here, so if you have not read volume 21 of Nana, you may want to avoid reading this.
In Volume 21 of Nana, Ren gets into a car crash and passes away. Ren’s death is so tragic that it’s impossible for me to read or think about it without tearing up. Yet my reaction to Ren’s death would not have been as painful without Ai Yazawa’s wonderfully expressive artwork. Instead of relying on dialogue, Yazawa’s art helps convey sorrow in a dramatic yet completely realistic way, so that we not only empathize with the characters but are absorbed into their world.
Ai Yazawa’s artistic craft is used to give each character a distinguished reaction to the tragedy that suits their established personalities. Nobu’s body is drawn in a way that it appears to be hurling itself away from the sight of Ren, expressing Nobu’s shock and horror. His tears and anguished facial expressions capture his pain in ways words could not possibly. Takumi’s expressions capture the stages of his disbelief, until he closes his eyes in painful reconciliation.
The scene is messy and drawn dramatically, perfectly capturing the passionate energy of Reira’s character. Her body is hurling towards Ren, serving as a contrast to the earlier image of Nobu. These memorable images also serve as dramatic irony, since later on Reira’s denial about Ren’s death becomes so strong that she represses her memories of the tragedy.
This was perhaps the most striking panel for me when I read volume 21 of Nana. It’s so simple but extremely effective; because even though we are looking into a room filled with major characters, the room feels completely cold and empty. While earlier panels are frenetic, full of movement and flooding tears, this scene allows both the characters and the audience a moment of silence. The panel captures the inner turmoil of these characters, framing their emotions after the fact that their friend has died has sunk in. Even though we can’t see any of the character’s faces, their limp bodies tell us that they are worn out from crying. After seeing this image, all of my feelings became overwhelming and my tears turned into cold sobs.
As seen in the first panel, Nana is initially numb to the news of Ren’s death, and says that she wants to continue her music tour as if nothing has happened. It’s only when Yasu tells Nana to say goodbye to Ren because it will be her last chance to that scenes of her and Ren flash before her eyes. Her pain finally begins to register with her, and tears well up in her eyes. However, it’s too much for her to process, and she avoids thinking about Ren to the point of lashing out at those around her. As the pieces are falling together to connect the present to the future, it is likely Nana’s unwillingness to accept Ren’s death that has caused her to run away from everything – from opening his birthday present to her, to eventually leaving behind all of her friends. From Ren’s demise, many other tragedies silently bloomed.
Tragedy is hard to convey because it can feel manipulative, as if it’s forcing the reader to cry. Death is not as effective when it is over the top, such as if all the characters were screaming ‘He’s dead! I can’t believe he’s dead!!’ Instead, Nana uses subtlety, making Ren’s death one of the most beautifully poignant and memorable moments I’ve ever read.