Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 5th 2007
Graduation day has come at last for Megumi "Nodame" Noda and the senior class of Momongaoka Music Academy! Nodame is off to Paris to hone her piano skills at a conservatory, while the love of her life, Shinichi Chiaki, is also headed that way to participate in a conducting competition. Culture shock sets in quickly for Nodame, who barely knows any French—fortunately, one of her new neighbors is an anime otaku, and they both have the same favorite show! Thank goodness for the universal language of geekdom. Meanwhile, Chiaki's conducting competition begins, and while he's there he meets a young rival whose charisma and talent (and annoying girlfriend) could be a considerable match for him. With little time to prepare and many pieces to learn, Chiaki's musical abilities will be pushed to the limit.
It's a problem that most school-based series run into at some point: What do you do when your main characters graduate? For some, that's the cue to end the series, but Nodame Cantabile dodges that bullet by sending its musically talented protagonists abroad. It's a smart, believable move that not only extends the storyline, but also makes sense in the context of the classical music world. It's only natural for young musicians to seek out international exposure, and in doing so, the story brings in a host of new characters and experiences. Some of it isn't as fresh as it could be—seriously, another competition plotline?—but the beginning of the Paris arc proves that Nodame Cantabile still has lots of joyful music-making in store.
Before the kids head off Europe, however, they've got to officially leave school first—and that's all taken care of in a quick "prelude" chapter. However, it's a messy affair that dredges up all the old characters from earlier in the series; the scenes jump around awkwardly as everyone tries to say farewell and tie up loose ends. Once Nodame and Chiaki get to Paris, though, the story gets back into a much smoother flow, and it's here that Tomoko Ninomiya's sense of humor shines through. One scene in particular is a guaranteed laugh riot: Nodame visits her anime-obsessed neighbor Franck, discovers his tapes of "PuriGorota" dubbed in French, and then proceeds to learn the language because she knows all the original dialogue in Japanese. Truly, this girl's eccentric genius knows no bounds.
Sadly, the cross-culture hilarity only lasts half a volume—although not before Nodame and Franck trek to a French anime convention (did this series suddenly turn into Genshiken or something? Either way, it's still awesome). After that, the story turns to its serious side once more, with Chiaki in the conducting competition. Admittedly, it's kind of annoying to see yet another music contest so close on the heels of the previous one (Nodame's piano competition in Volume 9) and having to put up with more scenes of people playing music that no one can hear. Chiaki's turn in the spotlight really gives his character a chance to develop, though; not only is his musicianship challenged, but he meets a couple of interesting new characters, too. Mega-bishounen-conducting-prodigy Jean is the perfect foil to Chiaki's own talents, and the abrasiveness of Jean's girlfriend makes her the kind of villain you love to hate. Add the fact that Jean is a student of Sebastiano Viera—the conductor that Chiaki's wanted to study under all these years—and this has the makings of a thick, intriguing plot.
A conductor's job is to express the feelings held within a music score, so it should be no surprise that the series' artwork is at its most expressive when it comes to the music performance scenes. Seeing top conductors and orchestras in action brings back an exhilaration that hasn't been around since the days of the R*S Orchestra—sweeping lines, impressionistic backgrounds, and closeups that almost make it feel like being there. Ninomiya also uses layouts to her advantage—notice, for example, how the panels become more angular and compressed when Chiaki stresses out on his final assignment. The more ordinary scenes in the book aren't quite as showy, but still remain visually appealing. Crisply drawn French architecture gets plenty of exposure in the first half as Nodame gets used to her new home, and the character designs, although simple, provide plenty of charm and variety as the new cast is introduced.
With the story now taking place in France, translation suddenly becomes a trilingual effort—most of the French dialogue is written in a different font with a translation beneath it in parentheses. Meanwhile, the English dialogue is easy enough to follow, although some of it can be too plain and literal—the internal monologues in particular seem unusually flat. If music is the language of emotion, why aren't the musicians showing it? Sound effects are translated with small sounds next to the original characters, and in-depth readers can look to a glossary in the back of the book for more notes on Japanese language and culture. (Surprisingly, there isn't anything about France that needs to be explained.)
Although the series takes a pretty sharp turn at this point, there's still plenty to enjoy as the setting moves to France. New places to go, New People to meet—seriously, how can anyone not love the idea of a French otaku actually showing up in a manga? That's instant comedy gold right there. Our enigmatic male lead also gets plenty of page time in this one, developing his character further than anywhere else in the series; the emergence of a rival and a connection to his childhood idol have put Chiaki firmly in the spotlight for now. Maybe it's getting a bit tiring to see yet another music competition as a plot device, but the actual act of playing music—as drawn in this series—will never grow stale. The passion, the joy, and the drama of artistic expression are as alive in Nodame Cantabile as they've ever been.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A-
+ A healthy balance of comedy moments and character development as the story goes in a new direction.
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