I rarely write a dedicated mid-way impressions post- between commenting in the Weekly Round-Up and writing final thoughts at the end, such a thing would seem surplus to requirements. Nonetheless, when it came to Nodame Cantabile, I had a sudden and overwhelming urge to create a post about it- not because I find it overwhelming good or appallingly bad, but to address the mixed feelings I have about the series.
Nodame Cantabile follows the like of Chiaki Shinichi, a piano major in his final year at music college. Although he is practically a virtuoso on the piano, Chiaki’s true dream is to become a world-famous conductor, an ambition that is hampered by his mortal fear of taking a plane or boat to another country. As our tale begins, Chiaki ends up befriending his next door neighbour Noda Megumi (a.k.a. Nodame), a fellow piano major who lacks the dedication and technical ability to be a solid player, but nonetheless shows flashes of her own unique style and brilliance. Nodame instantly becomes devoted to Chiaki, and an unlikely friendship between them and several other students in the music department begins. The result is a series that no doubt has potential, but like Nodame, it tends to come in the form of flashes of excellence set amidst weaker stretches.
As a fan of Honey and Clover and its brethren, naturally I cannot help but be drawn to the slice-of-life elements of the series- even if it is not “H&C with music”, it can’t be denied even the intimation that it is is a big draw for me. Watching characters face that point of transition when they must leave the safety of education and either strike out into the real world or find some way to avoid it will always be fascinating, as will seeing the unique solution each person has to this situation. In these moments, Nodame is everything I want it to be, and I have little to complain about.
The series’ other strength comes from its two leads, both intriguing characters who can be said to be geniuses in their own right, but for very different reasons. Chiaki’s abilities are technical and intellectual; he excels at piano, violin and conducting, and is always hard on himself and others in an attempt to achieve the best possible performance. Unsurprisingly, human interaction is not his strong point, although he does start to soften a little as the series progresses.
In contrast, Nodame’s skill is far more intuitive and instinctual; in terms of conventionally learning and reproducing music, she is barely able to cope, but she has an amazing ability to learn a piece just from hearing it, and even recompose it to produce her own unique interpretation. If there’s something she wants to achieve, she will dedicate herself to it to the exclusion of even looking after herself, but her interest is often fleeting and erratic- she doesn’t even want to pursue music as a career. The contrast between her and Chiaki is oddly absorbing, and in the moments when the series offers glimpses into the depth of their personalities, it gains a rare quality and allure.
Unfortunately, for all the potential that Nodame is apt to show, it is all too often brought back down to Earth by its numerous weaker elements. Chief among these is the series’ off-kilter sense of humour, which not only scrapes such low brow and unfunny topics as fart jokes, but gives Nodame a taste of ‘FMA syndrome’- the unfortunate tendency to destroy a thoughtful or dramatic moment by following it up with some ill-placed humour. Many viewers will surely enjoy the series’ lighter moments, but for me they are marred by simply not being the style of humour that I enjoy.
The series’ other major weakness is its supporting characters, who almost without exception range from the irritating to the utterly pointless. Chief offender is Chiaki’s mentor and famed composer Stresemann, whose constant womanising and flippant attitude is surely a blight on the series. At this point in the series, he has finally stopped appearing, but there is always the threat that he will return later on. Meanwhile, other characters such as violinist Mine and transsexual timpanist Masumi are more bearable, but they still have the capacity to annoy, whilst many of their classmates appear so little that when the time comes to care about them mid-series, it is impossible to even remember their names.
For the nitpicker, there are also some lesser concerns- the CG hands used in instrument playing scenes are distractingly ugly, whilst on a completely different note, there are occasional niggling shounen vibes. Will Chiaki put together The Strongest Orchestra and use the power of Destiny to make them magically level up? Will Nodame become the token female mascot who watches from the sidelines whilst having ‘great power’ that only manifests when the plot needs it to? The series isn’t really like this, but the undercurrents manifest themselves from time to time with enough presence to be noticeable.
Nodame Cantabile is perhaps even more frustrating than a series which is straightforwardly sub-par, because in this case the hints of potential and greatness are so compelling that they make the weaker stretches all the more apparent and frustrating. It may be that the second half of the series may settle things one way or another, but for now it remains determinedly hit-and-miss.