Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Tensions are running high in Paris as musical whiz kid Shinichi Chiaki finds himself in the finals of the International Conductor's Competition. Fame and recognition are finally within his reach, but the person most interested in him is the one Chiaki most wants to avoid: famed conductor and notorious pervert Franz Stresemann. Stresemann strong-arms Chiaki into going on a world tour with him, leaving poor Nodame to pine after Chiaki and practice piano in the meantime. It's probably just as well, as Nodame is woefully under-equipped for her graduate studies at the Paris Conservatoire: her sight-reading skills and music terminology are well below average, and worse yet, she's got to know it in French! Hopefully the other music students at the apartment can help her out...
If the musical repertoire in Nodame Cantabile seems to lean heavily towards the Romantic era, it should come as no surprise considering that the series glorifies music as a means of emotional expression. What else could you possibly feel when seeing Chiaki guide an orchestra through the great works of the 19th and early 20th century, or Nodame pounding her way forcefully through Liszt's Transcendental Etudes? Sure, music could also be seen as an intellectual and technical exercise, but around here, it's emotion above all else. That's something that applies outside of the concert hall too: Chiaki's rage at being forced into Stresemann's tour, Nodame's subsequent mood swings as she longs for him, the worries of another young student as he plays music for the sake of his family. While it's true that most of these characters have talents we could never hope to attain, this volume is decidedly down-to-earth as it shows that they experience ups and downs just like the rest of us.
Before digging into personal issues, however, there's that little issue of finishing off the conducting competition. We should be thankful that most of the "tournament" or "competition" arcs in Nodame only last a volume or two, because if it ever ended up like those mega-blockbuster action serials, then you might as well had the baton over to a ninja or a shinigami. Fortunately, the competition comes to a quick end and still manages to toss out a couple of those lovely joy-of-music sequences along the way. The transition to the next stage of the story, however, is not quite as graceful: it takes some really stupid, improbable plot twists to get Chiaki into Stresemann's world tour, and their itinerary turns out to be even more outlandish. (So how exactly did Chiaki end up in China?) It's also disorienting to think that this comedy-relief side character has suddenly become a major figure in Chiaki's career development. While not exactly "out of character," Stresemann's rise in importance does seem out of place.
By comparison, the latter half of the volume stays closer to home, doing what it does best: showing the interplay between a set of amusing, intriguing characters. With the introduction of pianist Yunlong, the familiar Chinese-kid-pressured-by-parents stereotype rears its head, but his strong connection between family and music provides an interesting counterpoint to Chiaki (who's basically driven by his own genius) and Nodame (driven by her own madness). Even the impromptu performance at the Italian restaurant shows how different musicians can have different kinds of motivation. With Nodame, things get particularly serious when she arrives at the Conservatoire and the professor who invited her in the first place asks: "Why did you come here?" Clearly, these are some of the most piercing words a young musician could ever hear. But let's not forget what's going on abroad, as well: the distance between Nodame and Chiaki puts plenty of new kinks in their relationship. Is Chiaki taking an interest in that attractive pianist that he met? How mad is Nodame going to get after hearing that he's "cheating"? And why doesn't he ever call? Ah, even for classical musicians, long-distance relationships are hard work.
With the emphasis on dialogue and everyday life in this installment, it's harder to find the standout music performance scenes that make the artwork shine. The conducting competition is loaded with symphony-hall pageantry, of course, but that's finished in two chapters, so don't expect much sparkle and swish after Page 70 or so. Nodame's occasional piano-playing does leave an impression, but those scenes rarely last more than a page or two, which is hardly enough time to "get into" the music on a visual level. Thus the rest of the book becomes a parade of stylish, cleanly drawn characters who might be nice to look at, but aren't exactly the most exciting. Even the backgrounds and views of Paris, detailed as they are, have lost some of their novelty by now. (And why does the Conservatoire look so plain and dry?) Fortunately, the layouts keep the story moving at a good pace, with the angled panels creating emotion and expression where needed. Yes, it does get kind of static when people are just sitting or standing around talking about music and musical life, but the variety of angles and screentones in the background help to create a feeling of motion even when no one's moving.
Musical terminology is a big part of this series and its credibility, and for the first time ever, the Translation Glossary also includes notes on the various musical pieces and jargon encountered in this volume. (It'd be nice if they could spell "toccata," though.) Sometimes, like in Nodame's head-spinning first day at the Conservatoire, terminology is even explained in the margins, just in case you might ever want to know what a subdominant is. Thankfully, the other 85% of the writing isn't quite so esoteric, and readers will particularly enjoy the sharp back-and-forth exchanges between Nodame and Chiaki in the first chapter. The translation works really well when it comes to comedic dialogue, yet the writing feels a bit stiff when faced with serious, sentimental scenes. Well, at least we can kind of understand what motivates Yunlong to play the piano.
Although this volume of Nodame Cantabile trips over itself while transitioning from one story arc to the next, it still has plenty of enjoyable moments where the characters explore their personalities and their relationships through the world of music. It can be something as comical as Nodame and Chiaki describing each other in terms of symphonic pieces, or something as serious as Yunlong explaining what his family means to him and his upbringing as a pianist. Through it all, there are the usual performance scenes that show the joy of music and its expressive power, although not quite as often as in other installments of the series. There have been other times when the emotional impact was greater, and times when the plotting was tighter, but this is still a fun and fanciful portrayal of young musical geniuses growing up.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Lots of great character moments, a continually evolving relationship between the two leads, and smooth pacing and layout.