Nodame Cantabile

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For those of you who don’t know the series, Nodame Cantabile is based on the bestselling manga of the same name by Ninomiya Tomoko, and while I do like that particular work, the anime is a little bit special in that it’s one of the rare occasions where the adaptation is as good as, or in this case better than, the original.

We’ll talk about that in a moment though.

Now, many people have been raving about the current Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood series because of how faithful it is to the manga, but what many people seem to have forgotten is that there were already a few shows around that were almost completely true to their manga counterparts (and that didn’t include much in the way of filler episodes) – Genshiken, Air Gear, History’s Strongest Disciple and Nodame Cantabile to name but a few. In addition to this, many of the long running shounen franchises like Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, etc, generally  stay true to the manga for much of the main story, but have a tendency to provide “anime original” tales and filler episodes too.

Regardless of what one may think of a given show though, the surprising thing is that many faithful reproductions of the original manga are pretty decent, especially if the source material is good. When the tale is something like Nodame Cantabile though, then something special happens, something that doesn’t happen very often in anime.

As with the manga, the story follows the “adventures” of the eccentric musical genius Noda Megumi, and her love interest, the handsome Chiaki Shinichi. The two meet by complete accident and Nodame quickly falls in love.

What follows is, well, a roller coaster of laughs, many of which you won’t see coming.

Unlike many other romantic comedy anime, the action in Nodame Cantabile doesn’t take place in a high school but instead centres around Momogaoka College of Music, and the difference in not only the mentality and personality of the characters, but the overall approach to the story and plot, is actually quite telling. When one watches the series, it becomes obvious that the characters are no longer children, and while they may not yet be out of full time education, their attitudes to life, the world, and to other people, are actually very different from what one encounters in the hordes of high school romantic comedies around.

Now one of the main issues when it comes to adapting a manga is that of pacing, in particular how the plot flows from one episode to the next, and from one story arc to the next. With manga, as with anything written, the pacing is dictated by the reader, whereas with anime the pacing is already there, and it’s up to the director to find the balance so that viewers and fans of the original work will warm to the adaptation. Thankfully, Kasai Kenichi (Honey & Clover, KimiKiss Pure Rouge, Major), managed to get the formula very close to what many viewers find acceptable.

Okay, some of you may be confused by all this talk about pacing issues, but there’s actually a good reason for bringing it up. Many shows can get by when the pacing is a little bit off from what you would prefer (Bleach, for example, with it’s annoying recaps at the beginning of each episode), however Nodame Cantabile is a special case as problems with pacing and timing would have had disastrous effects on one’s enjoyment of the show, and the reason for this is because the series lives, and dies, by its music.

Earlier I mentioned that this anime is one of the rare occasions where the adaptation is better than the mange, and the reason for this is because of the music. Where the manga made do with track names and examples of written scores, actually hearing the music played in the anime brings the whole series to a new level. While there are a number of thematic tracks on offer, the heart and soul of Nodame Cantabile are the various pieces of classical music that are played throughout the series, whether it be solo or with an orchestra. In addition to this, unlike other classical music based anime like La Corda D’Oro ~Primo Passo~ and Piano no Mori, as well as the more pop/rock style shows like K-On, Beck, etc, one of the things that sets this series, indeed the whole franchise, apart is the aspect of musical appreciation.

Confused? Well it’s fairly easy to explain. One of the aspects of Nodame Cantabile that can heavily influence whether one enjoys the series or not is whether you, the viewer, actually listen to, and appreciate, the music itself. People may find that in order to better understand the character’s passion for music, they will in turn listen to the track in a way that they may not have done with other shows, and while this may not seem obvious to most at first, a good question to ask come the end of the series is whether your opinion of classical music has improved over the course of the series. Nodame’s antics may help things along with a good dose of comic relief, but the music is the glue that holds everything together.

Given the heavy musical emphasis, one would be forgiven for thinking that something was sacrificed in order for the whole thing to work. It’s surprising then that Nodame Cantabile is actually pretty close to the manga in terms of plot and story, and although some alterations to the tale do occur, these are barely noticeable as they don’t really contribute to any major changes in the plot or characters.

Now, while the music is a hugely important factor when deciding if one will enjoy Nodame Cantabile, one other aspect will determine whether you love the series or not – the characters.

Unlike many other romantic comedies the show has opted for a slightly more whimsical approach to love, life and relationships, and the characters are generally the epitome of this ethos. Noda Megumi (the titular Nodame), is not simply an eccentric musical genius, she is also thoroughly otaku, has a tendency to stalk her love interest, and hates cleaning. Chiaki, on the other hand, is a talented but arrogant musician who is widely regarded as the “prince” of the college.

What sets this series apart from other romantic comedies is the manner in which the characters are used. While the two leads may be the focus of the show, there is considerable development on the part of several other supporting characters as they strive to become better musicians, and in keeping with the sentiments of the franchise, this never really occurs in the way one expects.

Actually, at heart Nodame Cantabile is simply a different take on the “Beauty and the Beast” format, with classical music and a bit of role reversal thrown in for good measure.

That said, there’s nothing beastly about the looks, although there is a slight “cartoon” element to the facial features of the characters, something which is used to good effect during the funny moments. The overall design of the characters however, errs on the side of realism in respect of their movements, and while there’s an over-the-top element to the actual animation of their movements during certain scenes, the majority of the time the characters move how one would expect a normal person to move.

The backdrops and settings are pretty well realised for the most part, although there is a watercolour feel to some of the scenery, and the colour palette seems more understated than in most other anime. The combination is strangely elegant in its own way, and makes the visual comedy and parodies of typical shoujo manga scenes funnier for some reason (but that may just be me).

The one issue I do have with the animation is this – why on earth choose such bad CG for the orchestrral scenes. Granted the animation is technically astute when it comes to finger movements and hand positions, but the overall execution is poor, and does not mesh well with the general feel of the show.

One of the reasons why I was attracted to this series is because I like classical music, however even I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Nodame Cantabile. The series plays fast and loose with the typical perception that such music is staid and proper, and the comedy is often surprising in both its accuracy and  its execution. Much of the humour is easily accessible to those with no knowledge of music, especially Nodame’s notorious “Fart Song” and “Moja Moja Suite”. This strange but well executed combination of classical music and comedy is a far cry from other shows, and the approach is far more tongue in cheek than one might initially expect.

In addition to this, the depiction of student life is easily on a par with the likes of Moyashimon and Genshiken, with everything that entails too. It’s nice to see students doing things that students would actually do (like going out as a group and getting hammered).

Given the current glut of high school romantic comedies, Nodame Cantabile is a breath of fresh air because of its more mature yet whimsical take on love and life.

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