Nodame Cantabile

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Saturday, June 28, 2014

I’m open to every genre of anime, but my favorites would have to be drama and romance. When shows of that type are done well, I often find myself following the events of the characters and completely engrossed in their lives while sometimes putting my own on hold. Nana was one of the first to have this kind of hold over me, and Nodame Cantabile led to the same marathon viewing. Interestingly enough, both of these shows are focused around music, but while Nana was about the rock scene this one is all about classical music. There are three seasons, with the first running for 23 episodes and the other two (Paris and Finale) spanning eleven episodes each. I usually review seasons separately, but due to how fast I watched the entire series I think it makes more sense to tackle it as a whole.

Each season has a different director and lead writer, but J.C. Staff is the animation studio for all three. Despite the slight changes in staff each time through, I found that there was a similar feel throughout the entire 45 episode run with a bit more emphasis towards additional drama in the second two seasons. Since this is the case, I’ll talk a little bit about each season first and then tackle the animation and audio over the entire series since those two elements stayed fairly consistent throughout.

The first season introduces us to Shinichi Chiaki, a gifted piano student at Momogaoka Music Academy who dreams of becoming a conductor. Despite his ambition, Chiaki is also highly critical of his own and others performances and comes off as arrogant and snobbish early on, leading to a demotion to the piano teacher that is known for taking on problem students. Unbeknownst to the rest of the cast, Chiaki also suffers from a phobia of flying and sailing due to some incidents that happened when he was younger, which leaves him feeling as though anything he does won’t matter because he won’t be able to return to the European hubs of classical music.

One evening Chiaki takes out his frustrations at the bar and ends up outside of his apartment on the verge of passing out. His next door neighbor takes him in and as it turns out, she’s the other piano student at Momogaoka considered to be a “problem student.” Her name is Megumi Nodame, but she goes by Nodame. Nodame is the polar opposite of Chiaki, as she’s extremely messy and unorganized and tends to be very silly and make up children’s songs on the piano. However, despite her somewhat strange way of playing she possesses the ability to pick up classical pieces extremely well by ear and Chiaki is drawn to her because of this. It doesn’t take long for Nodame to fall in love with Chiaki, but her feelings are not reciprocated immediately.

If you were hoping for Nodame Cantabile to really up the romance, I think you may come off slightly disappointed with the first season. The way the relationship between Nodame and Chiaki builds is a slow burn, as the two start off with Nodame being an annoyance that Chiaki often finds irritating but can’t seem to leave alone. Instead, a significant amount of the storyline focuses on the development of Chiaki and Nodame as people and how they progress through their final years as music students at the academy. Chiaki slowly begins to open up more and lose some of the rougher edges that turned people away from him, and he gains the opportunity to conduct a school orchestra through an unlikely partnership with Franz von Stresemann, a highly distinguished European conductor who seems to spend more time in Japan fulfilling his perverted desires rather than conducting. This leaves Chiaki with a chance to grow as a conductor and gain countless opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. Meanwhile, Nodame struggles with studying the piano seriously and not having Chiaki’s love reciprocated, and as you might expect she also has some dark secrets of her own that are holding her back.

Season one has a large number of supporting characters, and while some of them do receive some development and background for the most part they simply serve as a way for Nodame and Chiaki to further develop rather than truly standing out on their own. The two main supporting members are the eccentric violinist Ryutaro Mine and timpani player Masumi Oduyama, who is openly gay and almost instantly develops a crush on Chiaki. Due to the more eccentric personalities of the two, they are used in more humorous situations throughout the episodes. There are other supporting characters, as the cast opens up considerably once Chiaki starts conducting a student orchestra, but I did find that they weren’t always easy to tell apart. But this wasn’t something I considered to be a flaw as I watched, as each of the 23 episodes had me fixated on the continually evolving dynamic between Chiaki and Nodame as well as the evolution the classical pieces went through as they went from rehearsal to the full performance.

The second two seasons I’ll cover together, as they both take place in Paris. At this point Chiaki has managed to overcome his phobia of flying and ends up with a big chance to conduct one of the long running Parisian orchestras. Nodame comes along with him to continue studying piano at one of the top conservatories, with the two seeming more like a couple by the end of the first season. The major change in these two seasons is the shift from comedy over to more drama, as Nodame finds herself having trouble keeping up with the other students and becomes much more serious. At the same time the two often find themselves drifting apart due to various circumstances, so the romance continually takes one step forward and one step back. Viewers are introduced to a new set of supporting characters, and what made the Paris and Finale seasons stand out more was the fact that these supporting roles actually got more screen time and focus. There’s a decent amount of time spent on the dynamic between Russian piano student Tanya and oboist Kuroki, and it helps break things up a bit.

I’ve already talked quite a bit about the overarching storyline that drives things forward, and don’t want to go into too much further detail and spoil the major events that happen. But even though the supporting cast didn’t always completely stand out, it was the evolving dynamic between Chiaki and Nodame as well as the performances that glued me to the screen. I’ll talk more about the music component shortly, but what worked so well throughout Nodame Cantabile was the way the two main characters changed. If you compare the point that they are at when the last episode of Finale is over to where they both were individually and as a couple during the first episode, there’s a significant difference. Not every anime I’ve watched has been able to achieve this, and there was a sense of realism to the personalities that helped me to really connect to them.

I have a bit of experience with classical music, but not to the point that I’d be able to pick apart the performances showcased in the series. Part of what makes each of the rehearsals and performances stand out so much is the fact that they were all recorded by the Nodame Orchestra, conducted by James DePriest (who also appears as a character during the Paris/Finale seasons). Having the performances be live recordings done by a real orchestra rather than adaptations of previously recorded works makes a big difference, and I enjoyed seeing the subtle differences from that first rehearsal to the final version. The series pulls from a wide range of composers, and I definitely feel like it exposed me to more classical pieces than I had listened to before. When it comes to opening/ending themes Nodame Cantabile goes for laid back J-pop that’s a bit of a diversion from the rest of the music utilized, but the songs they chose do fit the overall tone of the series and I had a few of them stuck in my head after viewing. As far as voice acting is concerned, as you might expect the standouts are Ayako Kawasumi (Nodame) and Tomokazu Seki (Chiaki) as they provide convincing performances that truly bring these two to life. Chances are if you’ve seen a good deal of anime you’ll be familiar with these two, as Kawasumi has been in Crest/Banner of the Stars and Ai Yori Aioshi while Seki has been in Fruits Basket and Gungrave. I also found it interesting that Kawasumi also played a prominent role in Nana, and it was neat to see him tackle another music focused role.

J.C. Staff used a consistent animation style throughout each season, and as a result once you’ve seen a few episodes you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the remainder of the series. Although there are some exaggerated character reactions complete with over the top facial expressions, Nodame Cantabile goes for a more subdued approach that comes off more like a realistic drama than an anime. I can’t speak to how well this matches up with the manga as I haven’t read it yet, but seeing as the series was adapted as a live action television show first the anime seems to match that type of style. There is a tendency for some of the minor cast to look a little too similar to each other, to the point where you might initially get confused during a few scenes as to exactly who it is that’s talking. But this isn’t necessarily surprising for an anime that is about an orchestra, where the emphasis is on large crowds on a regular basis. During the performance scenes there is some very obvious use of CG when the instruments are shown, and while there are situations where it fit well with the rest of the animation, some of the instruments (such as the timpani) had a bit of a jarring transition when they made this switch. There’s nothing glaringly bad about the animation, but I don’t know that I’d consider it to be a truly eye catching series when compared to others from the 2007-2010 timeframe.

The supporting cast may pale in comparison to Nodame and Chiaki, but I found that Nodame Cantabile was the type of series that hooked me after an episode or two and I couldn’t stop watching it. It not only had the drama and slight romance elements that I like so much, but the realistic approach to classical music and representation of what it’s like to be a music student made this one that truly stood out. It’s an anime I would definitely watch again further down the road, and anyone that enjoys classical music or just wants a decent character drama will want to seek it out. Unfortunately for English audiences that’s not easy to do, as only the first season appears on Crackle dubbed and the other two haven’t appeared officially in any form. I’m not sure if that’s because the classical recordings have higher license costs that have kept North American publishers away, but hopefully someone will give Nodame Cantabile some type of official streaming or retail release down the road as it deserves to be experienced by more viewers.

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