How long would it take to teach a normal person with little or no exposure to classical music how to understand and appreciate the fine nuances of a Mozart sonata, or a Rachmaninov piano concerto? How much longer would it take to convince such a person that his preconceptions about classical music were totally unfounded and that classical music might actually be...interesting?
Apparently, all it takes is 23 episodes of Nodame Cantabile. Actually, in my case, it was far less than that. By the second episode, I was already dusting off my piano, untouched for ages, and digging around for old books of classical pieces my teacher used to make me practise.
Nodame Cantabile tells the story of the unlikely college romance between the meticulously clean Chiaki Shinichi, a perfectionist and star pupil of the Momogaoka Academy of Music who aspires to become a conductor, and Noda Megumi, (who prefers to go by Nodame) a complete slob, but a brilliant piano student who can barely read sheet music and plays almost exclusively by ear.
In every romance, there is that fine line between a captivating love story and oversentimentality: make the plot too pedestrian, and the audience loses interest; make it too fanciful, and it becomes a sappy soap opera. Nodame Cantabile strikes a wonderful balance, creating a capriciously charming tale with its full share of priceless moments.
Apart from feature-length productions, generally associated with the likes of Hayao Miyazaki, Satori Kon or Shinkai Makoto, which I deem to be in a different category than conventional televised anime, truly few titles offer the visual quality of Nodame Cantabile. The overall aesthetic appeal of the series is extremely high, especially when one considers how much screen time is devoted to showing the playing of various orchestral instruments. I cannot speak for the animation of other instruments, but certainly, the playing of the piano sequences is faithfully portrayed.
What really sets Nodame Cantabile apart from its peers, though, is the absolute undeniable genius of the animators in finding a way to visually convey the beauty and emotion of a piece of classical music. I will not even attempt to describe this in a review: it must be seen for oneself. I was equally blown away by the use of spectacular hand-drawn glamour shots with accompanying sparkle effects to emphasise dramatic moments of the anime.
My one gripe about the visual aspect of the anime was that certain secondary characters were drawn too similar to Chiaki. On several occasions, I had to look twice to determine whether it was really Chiaki on the screen. While this is a small issue in the grand scheme of things, I consider it mildly sloppy, given the extremely high quality of the rest of the production.
Ironically, as an anime about music, Nodame Cantabile has very few opportunities to showcase original compositions. Rather, the vast majority of music played throughout the series are brilliantly performed pieces or excerpts from various classical composers. The one original piece which stands out is the catchy title theme, Allegro Cantabile, which is reiterated in many forms throughout the series.
One would think that the sound team had an easy job, simply recycling recordings of famous classical works. This could not be farther from the truth. As it turns out, every piece was re-recorded to fit the context of the anime. This is particularly evident when characters are learning a new piece of music – the improvement and accuracy of a performance from day to day is quite observable.
The seiyuu selection could not have been more ideal. I am not one to use superlatives lightly, but I have a hard time imagining how this anime could be the same without the prodigious performances of all the seiyuu. I attempted to watch the live-action version of Nodame Cantabile, but could not continue past the first episode. The live-action felt totally lifeless without the dynamism and energy of Kawasumi Ayako in the role of Nodame, the frustrated retentiveness of Seki Tomokazu as Chiaki and the perverted insanity of Ogawa Shinji as Maestro Stresemann.
Nodame Cantabile is the strongest candidate to date for a perfect score in sound. However, in all objectivity, I was disappointed not to see a higher standard of music choreography within the anime. No one can dispute the beauty and the quality of the music, but there were a few scenes which left me wondering why the audio team were being so parsimonious with the background music. As a contrast, I mention Someday's Dreamers, in which practically every scene is paired with an atmospheric soundtrack. The result is clear: a style which gives the anime a rich and mellifluous feeling, which I felt was sometimes lacking in Nodame Cantabile.
The characters in Nodame Cantabile really shine. Each is their own unique person, with quirky but believable defining characteristics. Characters of quality are a rare breed, as the common mistake committed by many an anime is to create memorable characters by giving them exaggerated caricatural traits. I thus consider myself fortunate when I come across a cast of rich and complex characters such as the one in Nodame Cantabile.
Nodame is without question one of the richest and most colourful female lead characters in any anime I have seen. Far from a picture of perfection, she is a piano genius placed in the body of a sloppy, dirty, possessive, selfish and childish girl. Yet, with her adorable attempts at haute cuisine – a fish accidentally burnt charcoal black garnished with a string of pink, heart-shaped mayonnaise – as well as her peculiar mannerisms and bizarre expressions, "Gyabo!" or "Mukya!", she wins over her audience with the same unforgettable charm with which she wins over Chiaki.
In fact, all the main characters in Nodame Cantabile have distinct and often clashing personalities. Of course, it is the interaction between these conflicting character traits which are the source of all the hilarity. At one point the anime notes that "the mind can be freed by new encounters", and nowhere is this more acutely observed than through the changes we see in the main characters as they grow and learn from each other.
A quick browse through YouTube for videos of classical music pieces featured in Nodame Cantabile – Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, for example – reveals comments like "Nodame!" or "Gyabo!". It is practically unthinkable that an anime about an arcane topic would garner such strong and reverent support, but having watched all 23 episodes, it is easy to see why.
Quite simply, this is a superbly produced anime. Few titles are able to keep audiences watching merely with good pacing alone, but Nodame Cantabile has certainly attained grandmastery of the art. Fewer yet can inspire audiences worldwide to appreciate the beauty of music written centuries ago. And only Nodame Cantabile can do it with the perfect dose of humour, drama and energy to make it appealing to all viewers.
The studious and uptight Chiaki is well-known as the top pianist of his school, and dreams of becoming a world-class conductor like his idol, Viera; but his fear of flying (which makes studying abroad impossible) combined with a recent break-up and dismissal from his piano instructor causes that future to seem both bleak and unlikely. After collapsing outside of his apartment, drunk, Chiaki inadvertently meets a young woman named Nodame who, while quite talented at the piano, is unclean, clumsy, and haphazard. Despite being almost polar opposites, the two begin to grow closer and work, together, to overcome the obstacles in their careers.