This might end up being the most biased review on the site, given the context in which I'm writing it, but I'll try and be as informative as I can whilst reviewing the series. Before I start dividing this up into sections, I will say that it's not just suitable for fans of classical music - Nodame Cantabile can be for everyone. For once, I actually feel qualified to write a valuable review, although I won't be able to truly do it justice.
Given that this is essentially a slice-of-life anime, I went into Nodame Cantabile with very few expectations - I make a point not to hunt down information about anime that I haven't seen, and it usually works in my favour. All I knew was that it came highly recommended, had a very lofty rank in the AP database, and involved classical music in some way. Naturally, I assumed that I would be somewhat disappointed on the limited elements of classical that would be involved (more on this later), or simply left cold by the fact that Nodame Cantabile touts itself as a show about classical music, but actually uses it as a tool for comedy or drama. As a matter of fact, I was dead wrong. Nodame Cantabile is a comedy, a drama, and exacts a truly respectable measure of success from the subject matter it draws upon. Classical music is a minefield at the best of times - but again, more on this in the sound section.
The story follows the two protagonists, Noda Megumi and Chiaki Shinichi, at a music school in Japan - right off the bat, music heavily surrounds the series and the setting is appropriately upbeat and eccentric. The show is at its best when focusing on the pair of them, who provide some fantastic entertainment throughout - the comedy in Nodame is genuinely funny, and I found myself laughing plenty as events marched onwards. Noda 'Nodame' Megumi is a talented pianist, albeit wayward and too emotional initially, and contrasts wonderfully with the diligent and upright Chiaki at the start of the series - a large part of Nodame Cantabile revolves around them, and how their friendship ebbs and flows as the episodes flow past. I felt a huge amount of empathy for Nodame, particularly towards the end, as she wrestles with her dilemma of emotion versus correctness. There were also a few parallels to Piano No Mori in this sense.
Honestly, I'm struggling to write this section. All that I can say it that, given how hard it can be to combine comedy and romantic drama together effectively without overdoing it, Nodame does a cracking job in finding a good balance. The funny parts are entertaining, avoiding the pitfall of being overly zealous, and there's a ton of emotional drama to squeeze you through the wringer when all is said and done. Any slice-of-life anime would do well to copy this example, and it's oddly unpredictable a lot of the time, which is refreshing. I enjoyed the story, watching the growth of the S Orchestra and all of the other characters; and I won't deny that my heart was really thumping during some of those competitions and recitals.
Tough section to score, as ever. In terms of the basics, the standard animation is fairly fluid - though avoiding anything worthy of high praise - and the character designs are nice and clean to look at. There's a fair variety of locales and palettes on offer, and the wacky imagination of Nodame herself provides plenty of opportunities for the animators to cut loose away from the clean lines that comprise the world of the classique. Having said that, the only real criticism that I'd have of the series overall is the 'standard' animation. It's certainly fine to look at, but I felt throughout that a few too many stills were used - it didn't detract from the series particularly, given that on many of these occasions there was music playing (which speaks for itself), but...
...it's the sheer quality of the CGI in Nodame Cantabile that forces me to make the previous comment. Simply put, it is an absolute sight to behold, and a wonderful achievement - I'd daresay that it's a labour of love. Why? I noticed right from the start that they were intending to utilise CGI for the playing of many instruments throughout the series, which I deemed a fairly big risk - if they got it wrong, it could've spelled disaster. But when you manage to animate something like Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.2 and animate every single note being played correctly, as though it were a realistic video, then you have more than avoided disaster. You've succeeded beyond all measure. Not only that, but the additional effects surrounding the CGI, the expressions...they all help to get across the personality of both the characters and the music in a visual form, which is an artform in itself. That's why I suggest that Nodame Cantabile is driven by the power and passion of the creators - to go to such lengths in graphical terms is astounding, and should be roundly congratulated. If only they'd used it a little more! Regardless, JC Staff's reputation soars in my mind following this - a very impressive achievement.
This is where the bias comes in, and this is where I'm guaranteed to start waffling endlessly on about context - I wouldn't blame you for skipping ahead and fleeing with the shortened version, which is 'I love classical music, and it's done wonderfully well here'. A bit of background, first of all - I hate doing this, as it makes me sound pretty arrogant, but it helps explain why I've scored Nodame Cantabile as I have done.
I am a pianist. If I had to identify a material possession to represent my life, a piano would undoubtedly be the one I'd select - it is a wonderful instrument. It's not an understatement to say that it means the world to me. I've trained classically for thirteen years - the latest six of those under my own steam - and have a huge amount of experience within the realm of classical music. I harboured dreams of becoming a concert pianist for a very long time, until I strayed away from that path - the antithesis to Nodame, I realised that my playing was too cold and unemotional for such a theatre, and resolved to branch out into other areas. Regardless, I'd consider my knowledge of classical pieces to be pretty extensive, and I've even performed many of the compositions in Nodame Cantabile over the years (including on stage, and at competitions). Given all of the above, and seeing early on that Nodame firmly intended to tie classical music closely to the plot - indeed, the music seeps into it everywhere - I started rubbing my hands together. It was only ever going to end up being a very low score, or a very high score.
Well, what can I say? I've heard worse renditions than these in professional capacities. I have no idea who performed these songs behind the pretty animation and crazy characters, but whoever did it deserves a medal the size of Vienna - they synched their performance up perfectly with whatever was occurring within the characters at the time, and that is no easy feat. Emotion and music will forever be sewn together at every seam; this is an inescapable fact. If Nodame Cantabile was to succeed in portraying classical music, the creators needed to understand that the notes are informed by the musician as well as merely the score - Mozart can be 'pink and playful', but also bloody red, fast, frenetic, and lustful. Schubert is cold as ice with one pianist, and liquid steel with the next. You can hear throughout the series that the personalites of the characters are diffusing into the music, imposing (or cajoling) their own quirks onto the score. Nodame is wayward, but soulful - Chiaki tends towards precision, but carrying a wiftful sagacity. I could go on and on and on, but to say the least, anyone who cares even remotely about classical music will appreciate the effort on display here - the power of the Rachmaninov Concerto that Chiaki plays or the Brahms that the Rising Star Orchestra plays later on is worth the admission price alone.
I don't give perfect scores. But this is the exception - if Nodame Cantabile can stand up to such rigorous analysis and expectation in the sound department, then it deserves nothing less. An incredible body of work.
Nodame and Chiaki are the engine room of this cast, and they're the new benchmark by which I'll judge leading characters from now on. It's rare to find even one lead this easy to connect and empathise with, let alone a pair of them in the same show. Granted, I haven't seen many romantic or dramatic anime series, but I was still pretty shocked by how easily I took to both of them, and how badly I was rooting for Nodame in particular towards the end. At varying points I was either laughing heartily or on the verge of tears - they really did draw me in. Nodame is a beautiful soul, vivacious and a joy to behold, whilst Chiaki himself is a very sympathetic character indeed. Their relationship is much more complicated than the standard 'genki girl meshes with stoic guy' dynamic, and that's despite the random and occasionally bizarre behaviour from Nodame that might lead you to think otherwise. The humour in the show is brazen at times, but the dramatic moments are subtle and tenderly handled.
The secondary cast are very good for support - never given too much screen time, but always ready in the background to leap into the breach. 'Mine' in particular provides a lot of surprises throughout, and I thought that he developed well as a character considering how brash he was initially - yet still retained the qualities that made him stand out. Surprisingly, for a series that really does have a metric ton of secondary characters, I didn't have any problem with a single one of them - they were all utilised well, without dominating any scenes they weren't intended to, and without fading away into the background too much. On the whole, the entire bunch were a nice collective to watch.
Go in with no real expectations, come out with a top 5 anime - a pretty good deal. Nodame Cantabile has something for everyone - although music is an integral part of the plot, it's certainly possible to just watch for the comedy/drama and still enjoy the antics of the characters. I can't put into words just how impressed and amazed I am at the level of detail and enthusiasm that was clearly poured into the series...anything less would certainly not have gotten top marks from me. I daresay that this is the first anime that I would unhesitatingly describe as a 'work of art' - a description that's both accurate and entirely merited. Bravo!