OK, I've been slacking off. Working on a wedding will do that to you. Well, no time like the present then to take a look at one of the most notable titles to be lost in the Del-Ray/Kodansha takeover.
No, not Moyasimon. No, not Mushishi either. The other one.
NODAME CANTABILE (Nodame Kantabire), by Tomoko Ninomiya. First published in 2001 and first published in North America in 2005.
Shinichi Chiaki is a brilliant music student, even by the high standards of the music school he attends. He's determined to become a great conductor like his mentor. There are just two problems with that plan. First of all, Chiaki is afraid of flying, which prevents him from studying abroad with said mentor. Secondly, Chiaki is so arrogant about his skills that he believes that none of his professors are good enough to teach him what he wants to learn. His latest teacher flat-out kicks him out of his classes and sends him to Eito-sensei, a teacher renowned for taking in all the drop-outs and difficult kids. It's through him that Shinichi meets Megumi Noda, aka Nodame. She's something of an idiot savant, in that she's a simple-minded slob with little to no musical discipline, but she can learn just about any piece by ear and plays with an incredible amount of emotion. Chiaki takes it upon himself to clean up Nodame's life and turn her into a proper piano student, but in doing so he learns just as much about himself and music as he does about Nodame.
It really pains me to say this because I know a lot of manga reviews loved this series. Still, I have to be honest, and this is the truth: I did not like Nodame Cantabile. Why? Because I couldn't stand the main couple.
I've gone over some of my personal pet peeves of fiction on this site, but one I don't talk about so much is my dislike of Manic Pixie Dream Girls. They're one of the worst tropes in romance. If I see one more story about a girl who isn't a girl so much as she is a collection of oh-so-wacky and/or countercultural quirks who exists mostly to cheer up some sad-sack guy, I'm going to puke. So already Nodame Cantabile was at a disadvantage because Nodame is very much a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, minus the Manic part. Her quirk is apparently living like a child, from the way she lives in a apartment made of trash piles and mold to her infrequent bathing habits to the way she steals food from friends even when asked not to. This gives her relationship with Chiaki a paternalistic air that makes the prospect of a romance between these two hard to stomach. Worse still, once Chiaki enters her life, Nodame imprints on him like a puppy. She thrives on the attention he gives her, no matter whether it's positive or not. When he's not around, she's depressed to the point that she can barely bother with everyday tasks, much less playing music. I understand that Ninomiya means for all of this to be charming and that we're supposed to overlook her quirks for the sake of her talent, but I have to agree with Chiaki: Nodame is a disaster of a girl.
That's not to say that Chiaki is much better. He's a selfish, stuck-up, neurotic little asshole. You have to wonder why he even bothered with this school if all he can do is complain about his professors while idolizing his childhood mentor. You also have to wonder why he wouldn't bother with some actual therapy to deal with his fear of flight considering how blatantly it is holding him back from his dreams. That being said, his character arc here is handled far more gracefully than Nodame's. By interacting with her and the other trouble students, Chiaki is forced out of his comfort zones and to think outside the box. He discovers within himself the ability to teach others without necessarily sacrificing their own unique styles. He's still kind of an asshole by volume's end, but he's clearly on a path to becoming far less of one. I just wish that it didn't have to come at Nodame's hands, as being around her tends to bring out a lot of his worst qualities in the name of 'comedy.'
So I have some issues with the characters, but what about the music itself? After all, this is a story about music students. As such, it should be able to communicate some of the passion and beauty of their performances. Sadly, Ninomiya isn't quite up to the task. She can describe the music all she wants and draw the characters making weird faces as they lose themselves in the performance, but like so many others before her, she can't quite make up for the lack of audio. Unless you've got the pieces queued up to play along, something will always be lost.
Nodame Cantabile has such a fine reputation, and it's truly a shame that I find it so frustrating. The biggest problem was that Nodame and Chiaki drove me nuts most of the time, and because of that I couldn't get invested in anything going on between them. Ninomiya clearly knows her stuff when it comes to classical music, but her approach to romance is somewhat lacking.
Nodame Cantabile's art is simple but effective. The characters are simple and plain, and sometimes there are still some rough lines left in, as if Ninomiya didn't erase them after inking the page. Still, there are little bits of weirdness that give the characters a bit of charm, such as the weird faces Nodame makes while performing. She doesn't get terribly fancy when it comes to drawing clothes, but she clearly loves using fancy screentones to decorate Nodame's dresses. This plainness is contrasted with the level of loving detail she gives the instruments, which are clearly drawn from reference. She also tries to capture the quality of a performance through doodles and screentones, be they nauseous swirls, shoujo sparkles, or crackling lightning. It doesn't entirely make up for the lack of literal music, but it's a good idea and it's executed fairly well.
It's weird. As much as I didn't like the leading couple, I didn't entirely hate Nodame Cantabile. I get what it's trying to do, and as far as Chiaki is concerned it's actually working fairly well. It's just that the romantic element didn't work for me at all, and no amount of visual charm could completely compensate for this.
This series was published by Del-Ray. This series is complete in Japan with 23 volumes available. 16 volumes were published and all are currently out of print.