Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Praise of Nodame Cantabile

I've never made a secret of my fondness for Nodame Cantabile; in fact, I listed it as one of my ten favorite anime shows in an early blog entry. The recent availability of a DVD box set with the first (and only) English dub caused me to go back and look at the show again, and it holds up very well.

Nodame Cantabile is more than just an anime series; it's a media franchise. It's been wildly popular in Japan in all its incarnations. The 23-volume manga series, written by Tomoko Ninomiya, received the 2004 Kodansha Prize for best shoujo manga and is a perpetual best-seller.  The manga spawned three anime series (the original, Paris Hen, and Finale), a live action TV series, two live action TV specials, and two live action movies. The debut of the first anime broke viewership records for its time slot, and the DVDs sold well. The live action TV series received 2007 Japanese Drama Academy Awards for Best Drama, Best Lead Actress, Best Direction, Best Music, and Best Title Song. There are numerous CD collections of music from the various shows.

So why isn't the anime licensed in the US? It's a fan favorite, and multiple groups competed to subtitle all three series. Yet the only available English-language DVD edition is a Korean box set, even though the dub was done more than three years ago. Why?

I have a couple of theories. First, Nodame is labeled as shoujo anime, and the target demographic for mainstream US anime companies is, overwhelmingly, teen-aged males. The classification is actually misleading. Nodame Cantabile is as much about the hero, Chiaki, as about the heroine, Nodame, and it would be more accurate to call it a romantic comedy. Second, the characters are all college students and then graduate students, rather than the more popular high-school or junior-high students, and there's not a trace of moe. But the killer issue, I believe, is that the show is about classical music, and that's a deal-breaker from a US commercial point of view.

Classical music is alive and well in Japan, which hosts multiple orchestras in its major cities. Here in the US, it's dying, viewed as elitist "art" for "old folks." Music classes - whether for music appreciation or study - have disappeared from public schools. The audiences at classical music concerts are skewing older and older. Mainstream US anime companies want "to appeal to the kids," and they clearly believe classical music has no appeal.

Can Nodame Cantabile be appreciated without understanding of or interest in classical music? Perhaps, but it really helps to know at least something about it. The show doesn't demand deep knowledge of classical music - almost all the pieces are repertory warhorses, like Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Brahm's 1st Symphony, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Stravinsky's Petrushka. However, if you've never heard the finale of Beethoven's 7th, then Stresemann's outburst about Chiaki's inappropriate approach won't make any sense. If you've not listened to Brahms 1st, then Chiaki's struggles to convey the overwhelming mood change in the last movement will be boring. If you've missed Petrushka, then Nodame's disaster in her competition concert, and her semi-inspired if ultimately unsatisfactory recovery, will lack context.

Still, I think the show can be appreciated as pure character-driven comedy. Chiaki and Nodame make an eccentric pair of mismatched lovers, each driven by childhood events that have scarred and shaped them. Chiaki's issues are rather melodramatic in origin, and the deus ex machina resolution of them is one of the weaker aspects of the show; but Nodame's problems stem from realistic encounters with bad teachers, and her struggles to overcome them are quite moving. Still, the problem-solving and drama take a back seat to the comedy, which derives from the clash of Chiaki's obsessive, type-A perfectionist personality with Nodame's disorganized and messy lifestyle. Both are given their due, though. The series make it clear that Chiaki is an excellent and methodical musician, while Nodame is an intuitive stylistic genius.

The leads are supplemented by a fine cast of supporting characters who have interesting stories in their own right and are allowed to make some progress on them; they don't just serve as foils for the leds. And then there's Stresemann, the European maestro, a hilarious take on the debauched, eccentric ojii-san. He steals every scene he's in, but he also acts as a goad to drive both Chiaki and Nodame beyond their limits and towards potential success in music. His domineering secretary/agent/manager, Elise, is a great comic turn. Finally, there's an anime within the anime: Puri Gorota, a typical kid's "let's all work together" show that Nodame is addicted to. It was so popular that eventually it got its own OVA, like Kujibiki Unbalance inside Genshiken.

Because Nodame Cantabile is about music, it's not surprising that the music in the series is terrific. The opening song, Allegro Cantabile, by Suemitsu and the Suemith, is a driving piano-based rocker that sets the tone for the whole show. It inspired some elegant work by karaoke artists in various fansub groups. The series includes extensive excerpts from classical pieces that are competently, if not spectacularly, performed by a pick-up Japanese orchestra.

The voice acting is great too. Kawasumi Ayako (Lafiel in Crest of the Stars; Saber in Fate/Stay Night; Mahoro in Mahoromatic) portrays all of Nodame's moods, from mania to depression, from ruthless focus to utter spaciness, with great expression and aplomb. Seki Tomokazu (Sosuke in Full Metal Panic; Shuichi in Gravitation; the title roles in Kenichi and Maze) conveys Chiaki's buttoned-down, control-freak personality with precision. He also makes Chiaki's gradual warming to Nodame (and other people) very believable.

And that brings me back to the newly available English dub. I'm not a great fan of dubs, but this one is pretty good. The cast is American and professional. They use a decent, if compressed, translation. (The Japanese cast speaks at 90 miles an hour, which causes readability problems with faithful subtitles.) On the other hand, the release suffers the usual defects of most DVD releases: the subtitles are poor (mostly dubtitles and way too compressed), the subtitle timing is terrible, and the typesetting is non-existent. This really matters in Nodame, where many of the jokes are conveyed through signs. The last four minutes of the final episode are a comic book that bridges to the next anime series set in Europe and also closes the stories of the characters who will be left behind in Japan. The fansubbers went through great pains to put the translations into the dialog balloons. On the DVD, all the captions are at the bottom of the screen, clashing with dialog and song lyrics and making reading almost impossible.

The fansubs hold up fairly well in comparison, even though they were done more than five years ago. Yes, video standards and styling standards have improved since then, but all three versions (Anime-Keep, Froth-Bite, C1) are quite watchable. If someone absolutely feels they must have a modern softsubbed version and has access to R2J DVDs (no BluRays yet), I have the C1 scripts and most of the typesetting, and I'll make them available to any serious resubber. There are some things I'd like to fix, of course...

As for a US license, I'm not holding my breath. I think the show is too old now, and the classical music theme probably remains a deal-breaker for any mainstream US anime company. But if RightStuf can license Rose of Versailles and Victorian Maid Emma, and a mainstream company can license Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun (another romcom that pairs a type-A control freak with an out-of-control intuitive), then perhaps there's hope for Nodame. I'd like to see her and her friends get the audience they deserve.

1 comment: