Desert Isle Keeper
Brilliant in piano and violin, Chiaki Shinichi aspires to be a conductor, but his career will be limited as long as his fear of travel traps him in Japan. After he breaks with his professor and his girlfriend on the same night, he gets drunk and wakes up in the squalid apartment of his next-door neighbor Noda Megumi. Nodame, an awkward misfit, is also a surprisingly exceptional pianist. Chiaki’s orderly, orthodox approach to life and music collides spectacularly with the brilliant mess that is Nodame – and the result may bring each of them the pieces they’re missing. Nodame Cantabile was a thoroughly enjoyable read which I highly recommend.
The plot follows Chiaki and Nodame as they move through music university, collecting friends including a rock and roll violinist, a flamboyant timpanist, a gifted concertmistress, and an impoverished contrabassist. The plot is episodic. A German professor appears who’d rather chase women than conduct his special orchestra, giving Chiaki his first opportunity. Nodame performs as a pianica soloist in a big band, donning a mongoose costume to play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Chiaki helps found an orchestra; Nodame enters her first competitions. All the characters make plans for their careers after graduation. The supporting cast is strong, especially the rocker friend, who grows alongside the protagonists. I appreciated that Chiaki and Nodame couldn’t do everything alone.
At first, I found the characters to be exaggerated, especially Nodame. Her inappropriate behavior (such as stealing and eating other people’s lunches) and disgusting apartment made me think she was a mentally ill caricature. Within a few episodes (or “lessons,” as the chapters are divided), however, each character is rounded out. Nodame becomes likeable in her awkward genius. It was fun to read her because that character type is usually written as a male (female misfits are usually faux-geeks who just need the right dress, whereas Nodame dresses up for her competition and still looks bedraggled.) You get the feeling she’s from the same world as Mozart from the film Amadeus – earthy and vulgar one moment, childish the next, then suddenly brilliantly sublime. I worried for her as she worked herself into a fugue to prepare for a competition with a cash prize.
I have a weakness for genius heroes, and Chiaki is an appealing and well-rounded one. He’s a musical prodigy, but he’s flawed, both in his music (excessively literal) and in his personality (misanthropic and arrogant). Thanks to Nodame and his other friends, Chiaki learns to find feeling as well as precision in his music and acquires the social talents he needs to become the leader of an orchestra. I wonder why we don’t see more sexy conductor heroes. On the downside, his fear of flying is too easily resolved, and it’s excessive how girls lose their minds over his good looks.
Chiaki’s relationship with Nodame is everything I want a romance to be in terms of characters supporting and improving each other. The only thing is, I’m not sure it ever should become sexual. The story arc stopped before the author resolved the question of what precise type of love they have for each other (see more on the length of the series below) so I don’t know what will happen to them eventually. For now, I like their emotional understanding, even if I’m not convinced they should ever end up in bed.
Nodame Cantabile successfully transported me into a detailed world of elite music students. The characters discuss the technical nuances of performing pieces, but the text is accessible to someone with basic music literacy. The depictions of instruments and music are incredible. I can’t imagine the work that went into meticulously transcribing scores and drawing every single instrument in the orchestra – the oboes alone must take forever! Layouts, texture, structure, and shading evoke the tone and feel of the musical piece being performed. It’s amazing how musical a silent piece of paper can be.
The company translating Nodame Cantabile, Del Rey, was acquired by another parent company and stopped releasing this work halfway through the translation. This isn’t really a problem, though, because volumes 1-9, which are all available in English, tell a full story with a satisfying ending (in fact, the Japanese television adaptation only went up through Volume 9). I believe the English volumes go up to 15, but I suggest stopping after 9, because that way you won’t be left hanging. If you must read all the way to the end, you can find fan translations online. I haven’t read them, though, so I can’t comment on the romance or ending.
Like Nodame, Nodame Cantabile isn’t perfect, but the problems aren’t severe and the best parts are delightful and original. If you like it, look up the live-action television adaptation. It’s wonderful, too.