With most anime, it’s usually a case of straightforward like or dislike, but right from the start, Nodame Cantabile was different. It tantalised me with its leads and the things we might have in common, frustrated me with off-kilter humour and wacky side characters and in general formed a surprisingly complex relationship with me. With this in mind, was it any wonder that I would eventually turn to the original manga in order to see what happened to Chiaki, Nodame and the rest after the anime had ended?
Since the anime was basically a straightforward adaptation of manga volumes 1-9, there really isn’t much point in dwelling on it; for both myself and anyone who might read this, the true interest will lie in what happens next. Chiaki and Nodame have spread their wings and gone to Paris, where Chiaki hopes to make a name for himself in the conducting world whilst Nodame studies at a conservatory. Compared to Japan, however, France is home to many talented people from all over Europe, and both of them will have to up their game if they wish to stay ahead of the competition.
Chiaki and Nodame: Shounen-style training and unconventional romance
For me, the greatest pull of Nodame Cantabile has always been its leads- one a technical genius with a relentless desire for perfection, and the other a more intuitive talent who takes longer to be persuaded to employ her talents to their fullest extent. Along the way, a highly unconventional relationship develops between the two, and whilst kudos must be given to the series for trying something outside the box of normal romance, the result cannot always be said to be either worthy or satisfying.
First, though, let’s look at the characters separately, for more so than before, the Paris arc separates the threads of their musical careers. From time to time, Nodame Cantabile gets compared to a shounen series, and indeed it isn’t hard to see why- in the anime alone there were exams, competitions, and Chiaki’s attempt to create and conduct what I liked to nickname The Strongest Orchestra. The Paris arc takes this one step further; almost as soon as they arrive, we have a ‘tournament arc’ in which Chiaki enters a conducting competition, whilst the latest translated chapters see him struggling to bring the struggling Roux-Marlet orchestra back up to par.
Fair enough, you might say, except for the fact that it rarely seems as if the characters actually have to work hard to succeed. Even in the earlier volumes, everyone was able to magically improve, and whilst it would have irritating to have it drag on forever, the way Chiaki’s fear of flying was dealt with seemed like a barely plausible ‘quick fix’ way to get rid of a plot device that would otherwise hamper the story. Now, the same pattern is repeated over again- despite making mistakes and messing up a couple of times, Chiaki uses Main Character Power to win the very first competition he enters, whilst Nodame goes from being depressed and behind at school to messing around in the halls and getting good marks in a matter of chapters. Yes, the characters still have issues to overcome, but overall it never feels as if they have to work too hard; somehow they just automatically level up enough to deal with whatever is in front of them- and it is hard to care about their achievements when they never seem to be working too hard.
Away from work, the series’ other focus is on the developing relationship between Chiaki and Nodame, and as I mentioned above, it is anything but the typical romance. Nodame becomes very taken with Chiaki right from the start, latching onto him after he cleans both her and her room, and continually referring to them as husband and wife from thereon in. Chiaki, meanwhile, seems initially drawn to Nodame because of her musical ability, working on getting her to commit herself to her studies and take them seriously; gradually, however, he stops protesting when people refer to her as his girlfriend, even going so far as kissing her and giving her the key to his apartment. It certainly seems as if he is giving in to the idea of a romantic relationship between them, but what exactly is the basis of the feelings between them?
On Chiaki’s part, it is hard to know if he is drawn to Nodame as a person, or if he merely wants to bring out the best in her music- even the aforementioned kiss could cynically be seen as a way to pull her out of a slump so that she would concentrate on her piano rather than worrying about Chiaki’s relationship with another character. Similarly, does Nodame genuinely care for him, or did she just latch onto him because of a needy personality? What sort of bond can grow out of an unequal relationship where Nodame has been totally dependent and devoted from the start, whilst Chiaki simply seems worn down by her constant presence? Or is it that their unique talents are so unbalanced on their own that they truly need each other in order to fully achieve their potential?
Speaking of which, I must conclude this section with one last thought- until she too becomes committed to her studies, Nodame frustrates Chiaki by simply wanting to enjoy music and play for fun. As someone so talented, is it Nodame’s duty to develop her abilities to the fullest? Is there anything wrong with wanting to pursue something simply for the enjoyment of it, or is there a responsibility to use and apply something so rare, perhaps in respect of the people who do not have that talent? These are clearly questions that everyone must find their own answers to, but it is interesting that in amongst everything else, the series manages to raise them.
Having said so much about the leads, it is now time to turn to the supporting characters, who inevitably must suffer for the two leads to be so well developed. Admittedly, I never much liked or cared for the ‘wacky’ side characters, but it seems something of a waste to leave most of them behind when the Paris arc begins, with only oboe player Kuroki making an appearance after that. The only consolation is that the new characters, whilst nothing special, are at least reasonably likable.
Going back to the earlier chapters, however, and the ‘levelling up’ issue affects the minor characters as much as it does the leads- not only do their abilities tend to magically and automatically improve, but they are amazingly lucky in love. For example, one minute Mine simply wants to study violin with Kiyora Miki, but the next time we see them together, she has just slept with him. No, it isn’t their story, but surely we could have seen their relationship properly develop instead of just going from A to B.
Where some series can cover up any story problems with beautiful artwork, Nodame is not so fortunate- whilst the simple style at least suits the tone of the series, it often seems lacking technically, with misaligned facial features and basic backgrounds. It is also somewhat strange to be reading about orchestral performances- ideally, one should sit down and put on some classical music before reading.
Nodame Cantabile is far from perfect, but despite its many problems, it remains an oddly compelling series. Maybe it’s because of the flashes of brilliance I first saw in the anime, perhaps it is as simple as just wanting to know what happens next, but despite its flaws, I must stick with it.
Volumes: 21 [ongoing]
Creator: Tomoko Ninomiya
Licensor: Del Ray