Series Description: “The son of a famous pianist, music student Shinichi Chiaki dreams of studying abroad and becoming a conductor like his mentor. Unfortunately, his fear of flying grounds his lofty plans! As he watches other classmates achieve what he has always wanted, Shinichi wonders if he should quit music altogether.
“Then one day he meets fellow student Megumi Noda, also known as Nodame. This oddball girl cannot cook, clean, or even read a music score, but she can play the piano in incomparable Cantabile style. And she teaches Chiaki something that he has forgotten: to enjoy his music, no matter where he is.”
Several weeks ago my local comics shop finally put chunks of their older, gathering-dust manga on sale. There were boxes and boxes of manga from the last decade or so, plenty of stuff that really should be consigned to quarter bins, or given away as a promotional tool, anything just to flush them from inventory. But there were some gems there. I picked up the elusive second volume of Bakune Young, a fantastic series from Viz’s sadly defunct PULSE imprint. I also found the beginning volumes of several older series I’ve been wanting to check out, including Yakitate Japan! and Nodame Cantabile, two series I’ve heard lots about over the years but have never gotten around to checking out.
I remember reading, about ten years ago, a comment by a comics critic* about the size and kinds of comics available in comics shops and in bookstores. He was speaking to the overall health of the industry, about the various comics and programs and media events that people were looking to “save comics,” or “make everyone love comics” or some such thing. I’m only paraphrasing here, but he wrote that what the industry needed was not a superhero movie or a Pulitzer prize-winning art book to get comics more exposure, but a healthy, expansive midlist of titles dominated by non-genre and adult genre material.
This was the cusp of the manga explosion, the early years when it looked like all the manga in the world (or, I guess, Japan) would come flooding into English translation. Publishers were publishing anything and everything just to see what would stick, and it looked like manga would fill this midlist void. For better or worse, publishers quickly discovered what would dominate the market (romance, action/adventure) and what would be a tough sell (art-driven manga, political thrillers, pretty much anything geared toward adults). However, that has changed, and in recent years there’s been a wealth of material for adults, including books that thrive in that midlist range.
Nodame Cantabile is precisely this sort of book. Solid, quirky, non-genre (it verges on romance, plays with the expectations of the romantic comedy, but never falls into the genre’s biggest clichés and tropes), Cantabile is hard to pigeon-hole, fun to read, gentle in its exposition, and strong on character. If it were a movie, my wife would call it “sweet” or “a fun little comedy.” Easy to pick up, and (for me) easy to put down, this series is the perfect answer to the question, “what’s a good manga to take to the beach?” if that question is asked of you by anyone from college age up, particularly if they are female (Nodame Cantabile doesn’t strike me as particularly “girly”, but it’s got no engine, as it were, and the very subtle nature of it could be read as flat or boring by guys looking for something high-octane).
Will I check out more volumes? Certainly, given the opportunity, but it’s not necessarily one I will pursue or seek out. I will say this: the initial conflicts are resolved by the middle of the first volume, so I mistakenly assumed, as the next plot thread played itself out, that the story was headed into a rut. I was wrong—the book ended much stronger than I had expected, and I was pleasantly surprised by the developments of character and theme. Given its overall subtlety, I imagine this is a title that only grows stronger over multiple volumes. Poking around the net, I’ve also discovered that this translation isn’t the strongest, and that there are multiple gaffs in both the manga proper and the explanatory notes. Kodansha has released some bilingual volumes in Japan that are supposed to be excellent, and might be worth seeking out. This is definitely something I’ll look into given the internet’s ease of availability.