Saturday, April 6, 2013

Nodame Cantabile - Series Review

Year: 2007
Studio: J.C Staff
Genre: Slice of Life, Music, Romance

Okay, I won't beat around the bush, I absolutely love this show and it has secured a spot in my top 10. I regret not have seen it earlier despite it has been on my watch list for quite a while now, I guess with school work and in-season series, it just sort of slipped my mind. Maybe josei is really a genre that's bound for greatness because pretty much every josei title I've seen to date has been fantastic and Nodame Cantabile is no exception. Well, that's an understatement, I think it's one of the best even within the genre. It's very much a "feel good" series with a vibrant cast of characters and an engaging plot that left me thirsty for more. But most of all, it makes me want to fall in love. It has been a fun and sentimental journey watching the relationship between Nodame and Chiaki blossom against all odds. At the start, I didn't think the pairing is anything out of the ordinary – having a reserved guy, not to mention one that's talented and mind bogglingly handsome, and a ditzy girl running the show is hardly ground breaking. But I guess this is where the it succeeds, by subverting every preconception I had about the relationship model. It's weird though, because this is actually not a high-maintenance show, not in the sense that you have to do a lot of mental work to appreciate what it has to offer, but it has an odd way of pulling you in and never really let go even long after the curtain closes. Okay, I confess, the slapstick humor – and there is a lot – took a little getting used to, but once I did it grew on me. It's like one of those things that may be slightly irritating in the beginning, but once you habituate to it and it actually becomes an integral aspect of the series that makes it so endearing.

Nodame is quite the eccentric individual with an imagination that can't really be evaluated through common lenses. She's unruly in both daily affairs and in music, and it's always a spectacle to behold when she's given the freedom to be her erratic self (the dumpster that's her room is a good example). In truth, I find it difficult to summarize her in a couple of sentences, not because she's psychologically complex, which is really not the right description I would use for her, but how idiosyncratic her mind is despite her simple outlook on life, all coloured in childlike innocence. She shows great determination and focus, but without the ambition to carry it to fruition in the form of fame and recognition. She simply enjoys playing, and it's reflected in a performance style in which she instills too much of herself and refuses to let the original composer do all the talking. If others play music to express what the composer intends to express, then Nodame plays to converse with the composer on an equal footing and thus changing the impression it leaves. I suppose for the vast majority who strives to carve a niche for themselves in the respected music community, her behaviour and aspiration or lack thereof may seem unfathomable. This conflict, both within herself and as the base for the tug of war with Chiaki, becomes quite central to the plot, particularly in the latter seasons. Now, I wouldn't say she doesn't care for recognition at all, but it's more out of a desire to entertain and inspire, which she succeeds a great deal in because of her unassumed charisma. On the other side of the equation is Chiaki, who's a total opposite to Nodame in many ways. While Nodame is erratic and carefree, Chiaki is organized, goal-oriented, and has an unwavering determination to match. It's hard to imagine how the relationship could ever work out, but it ultimately does through subtle steps and that's what makes the story and the character it houses so charming and unforgettable.

The first season of Nodame Cantabile is more or less Chiaki focused, as he steadily learns to be a conductor who's able to keep an entire orchestra in check without sacrificing the important personal connection with each member of the team. We don't see much of Nodame's development until maybe two thirds of the way into the season and that's the point where character development really picks up. The pacing was a little uneven for me because in my opinion Nodame is the more interesting character of the two and there is a lot more to her than we were let on. What I do like is how much of the plot is dedicated to actual performances, at times we are treated to complete music sessions on end that spans more than one third of an episode. It's like listening to a concert played by people you know well from the best seat in the house. The feeling is phenomenal. The supporting cast in the first season doesn't show a lot of in-depth characterization, but considering the lighthearted, uplifting mood the series goes for, they do more than enough in supplying humor and dimension to the plot. At the end of the season, both Chiaki and Nodami take a huge leap forward from where they started. Chiaki is able to overcome his plane phobia owing to Nodame's powerful hypnosis intervention (that she uses it to great effects for personal gain...haha) and Nodame makes some brave decisions to finally confront music head-on so that she can stay with Chiaki.

The pacing became less of a issue when I eagerly marathon-ed through the second and third season, which is essentially a single arc split in two as far as narrative goes. Now, the Paris arc is a lot more character driven than the first, with the actual performance events rushed and glossed over most of the time save for the ones that facilitate character growth. If we had another season, then perhaps the series could've been more elaborated, but taking the time constraint into account, I didn't think it was a bad choice to have a selective focus. For starters, Chiaki's affection for Nodame is a whole lot more obvious in this chapter. He does little things that are just adorable to watch, like getting Nodame a necklace (he briefly considered the ring, which he ended up dismissing for being too suggestive), leaving her notes and comforting her whenever she's dejected. In general, he just becomes more attuned to her feelings and to his own, despite still being verbally clumsy much of the time. In truth, the story had a lot of opportunity to kick into into full blown melodrama, especially with a girl, who is musically successful and in love with Chiaki, thrown into the mix. I even expected it to at some point, but thankfully, Nodame Cantabile is not a stickler of conventions. We need more series where after the guy suggests they breakup, the girl kicks the flying daylight out him and chokes him until he agrees to start over. Anyways, Rui does become a catalyst for conflict, but it isn't so much to do with her involvement as it is with the couple's own miscommunication.

I hardly use the word romantic to describe anime relationships because there are a few that truly strike a cord with me, but I can say with ease that Nodame Cantabile is a very romantic story at heart, enough to constantly induce "awws" from me, amidst hearty laughs. Chiaki finds the key to happiness – letting Nodame be herself. Throughout the last part of the series, he truly becomes a remarkable guy. And there is a particular scene where he really scores points with me: during a rehearsal when he askes Nodame to fill-in for him, the crew mistakes Rui as the backup when she visits, yet he insists that Nodame is the one he asked, not Rui. It may not seem like a big deal, but it goes to show just how considerate he is towards her feelings. It's true that they are not always on the same frequency; in fact, the few times he tries to advance their relationship, which are all pretty untimely if you ask me, Nodame is too tangled up in her own frustration to understand the implication of his action. But the point is he never stops trying to make it work somehow, whether it is compromising his own career to help her out, blaming himself for being jerk for not taking her proposal seriously, or hopping on a train to look for her. Well, if she can't become the musician everyone expects her to be, why not give her free reign? And that's exactly what Chiaki did – to be with her, he simply decided to match his rhythm to hers. That's not to say Nodame didn't benefit from the harsh trials, it moulds her into a more capable musician with better control over her talent, and it's no doubt that she is proud of her accomplishment. The subplot of the supporting cast adds extra human touch to the story. Rui's struggle with her mother and Tanya and Yunlong coming to terms with their failure all play out with a lot of pathos. All in all, it has been such an emotionally involving experience with Nodame Cantabile.

The animation isn't the strongest point of the series, but that's not too surprising considering J.C Staff's general record. It does get progressively better towards the last season, but the first did abuse still frames to the extreme. I can't convince myself that it's for stylistic needs and not lazy animation. It's nothing too distracting though, and given the slice of life nature of the show, animation isn't really the most important part. Besides, it's not mediocrity across the board either, the close-up hand movements are animated with fluidity. Well, the music makes up for everything really, you won't find another series that capitalize on the power of classical orchestra as much as this one does and the best part is you don't need to be an expert to experience its impact.

Okay, I think I will stop here. There is not much left to say other than I love Nodame Cantabile to pieces. The main characters are crafted with enough emotional depth and layered nuances to come off as believable, and the plot, while not complex, is sincere and uniquely engaging in its simplicity. I wish with my heart and soul that we are bestowed with more josei titles of this caliber in the future.

Nodame Cantabile: 9/10
Paris: 9/10
Finale: 10/10 

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