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The conflict and goals are based around music.

Nodame Cantabile – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Nodame Cantabile

 

Related: Nodame Cantabile Paris Chapter (season 2)

Nodame Cantabile Finale (season 3)

Similar: Kids on the Slope

Honey and Clover

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Your Lie in April

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Music Slice of Life Romance Comedy Drama

Length: 23 episodes (season 1), 11 episodes (season 2), 11 episodes (season 3), 3 OVA (1 per season)

 

Positives:

  • Great setup.
  • Main couple’s chemistry.
  • Beautiful music.
  • Serious about the classical industry, even when hilarious.
  • Exemplar of the ‘slow build’ relationship.

Negatives:

  • Concerts need more animation.

(Request an anime for review here.)

There was once a time in my life when I had no interest in music. Whether it was dancing, playing, or even listening to it, there was no appeal to me (classic Disney movies were the exception ~Oh rinky, tinky tinky. Tout le monde veut devenir un cat~). Even video game music didn’t matter to me beyond the game itself. I wonder if others experienced this. It wasn’t until my mid-teens when film/TV/anime tracks started to click because of their story context. Listening to a track standalone instantly evoked the emotions I felt from the show. Now that I love music and listen to it every day, stories centred on music have newfound appeal. Nodame Cantabile has been on my list for a decade (thanks to it starring my favourite anime voice actor) and at last, I have opportunity to watch it. Do not let me down!

It took me, what, ten minutes – if that – to love Nodame Cantabile?

Chiaki is prodigy at the piano and violin with dreams of conducting, until his arrogance and a spat with his teacher gets him demoted to the delinquent class. Not all is lost, however, when he hears piano played in an untamed yet inspiring manner. He must find the player! Well, all is, in fact, lost, for the player turns out to be his neighbour Nodame, who lives like a hobo. Flies crawl inside cans, half-eaten noodle packets replace floor tiles, grunge leaks from the very walls, and a general aroma of ‘loser’ fills her apartment. Worse yet, she declares herself his girlfriend after he cleans her pigsty. He pretends not to know her in public because she’s so embarrassingly filthy.

Having seen nothing but the cover art, I expected Nodame Cantabile to be a lovey-dovey romance. I did not expect these characters. Their opposing personalities and styles – her trashy freestyle and his clean precision – create instant chemistry and had me laughing right away. Furthermore, this dynamic isn’t contrived, forced to work because the writer said so. You believe that despite her being everything his isn’t, her random play style enthrals him because it shouldn’t work, not according to his meticulous studies. Inversely, she also has much to learn from him about taking the music seriously when needed.

One of the truly remarkable qualities about Nodame Cantabile is how it succeeds at making Chiaki and Nodame’s relationship a slow build. One major irritation with anime romance is never getting the couple together until the end. Oh, we know from episode one they will be together – it’s obvious – but the same nonsense will keep resetting their progress every episode. Our eyes can only roll so much. Nodame Cantabile never resorts to the one joke or gimmick to keep you on the hook. (See B Gata H Kei for a serial offender.) When Chiaki receives an offer to conduct an orchestra in another city, of course it’s going to set back the relationship. It makes sense. Nodame has opportunity to study under a master? Naturally, it means putting the relationship aside for the time being. Their relationship progression mirrors how it would be putting career first in real life.

Though primarily focused on comedy, Nodame Cantabile knows how to tackle serious subjects such as the worry of being able to constantly one-up oneself – “Have I hit my peak already? Will I ever perform better than this? – and the difficulties of managing a global career alongside a domestic relationship. It handles these issues well in a comedic manner without undermining their severity.

The main thread of the series is Chiaki’s journey to become a conductor, which starts at the academy when he gathers an odd bunch of characters like a rock violinist and a flamboyant percussionist to form an orchestra. Despite Chiaki’s handsome features and popularity with the ladies of the group (they like the way he waves his baton), his expectations of perfection make him difficult to work with. Seki’s inner Coach Sagara emerges here. It doesn’t help that their orchestra teacher from Germany always seeks the punani, even leaving Chiaki in charge just to go on a date. Everyone thinks the teacher must be some evil twin of the real famed composer.

The second season in Paris had me in hysterics. Nodame lives next to an actual Weeaboo, who’s about to learn from her what a real otaku is like. Her freak reaction to the French greeting (kiss on the cheek) is flawless as well. (Pro tip: Don’t greet a Japanese woman that way unless you are already friends. One woman called the police on an Italian tourist for this.)

Lastly, the music itself is top notch. The pieces are indistinguishable from a concert recorded at the Sydney Opera House. It gave me shivers. I found myself leaning back and simply closing my eyes to listen. I now listen to the soundtrack when writing reviews.

Art – High

The style is a bit long in the face. When playing music, the fingers are in sync with the notes for close-ups, but often static at a distance. Good framing and visual style ease the limited technical budget. This would warrant a Medium rating; however, season two improves everything with more animation, more style, cleaner characters, and concerts receive full animation through CG. The CG only falters when focused on a single character trying to move too much.

Sound – Very High

Ma boi Tomokazu Seki! What can I say? Superb as ever, especially opposite the female lead – the Japanese track is a must for the acting chemistry between these two. When in France, hearing people speak actual French is nice. It’s a shame they had locals voiced by Japanese actors with heavy accents. Seki, who’s character is meant to be Japanese with an accent, sounds better than the French waiter who’s supposed to have no accent! They nail the classical music. Any weak music comes from several out of place OPs and EDs, though the Paris ED is beautiful – actual French singer too!

Story – Very High

A hardline classical musician and his [alleged] girlfriend pianist pursue their dreams in music. With a dynamic main couple, great cast, beautiful music, hilarity, and drama where it matters, Nodame Cantabile hits the perfect note.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Must watch. Nodame Cantabile goes above its genres by never falling into a routine or the predictable path. Even those with no interest in classical music will find reason to love the characters.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

CharmExtensive Character DevelopmentGreat MusicHilariousStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support Characters

Negative: None

Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Beck

 

Similar: Kids on the Slope

Legend of Black Heaven

Detroit Metal City

Nana

K-On!

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Music Drama

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Dives into the struggles of musical success.
  • Creates a complete album for the story.
  • Depth of music knowledge.
  • Excellent soundtrack.

Negatives:

  • Unremarkable first act.
  • Engrish, if accurate, may be too much to handle in the Japanese track.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Beck is the story of a group of teenagers on the path for music stardom. On their journey, reality will throw all of life’s problems in the way as trials to overcome, should they ever take dreams seriously. We follow 14-year-old Koyuki and his encounter with decrepit guitarist Ryuusuke before joining his new band BECK.

I was not optimistic for Beck. Its first few episodes aren’t particularly interesting nor do they have that certain something which promises greatness further on. Take Koyuki for example, whose slant is complaining about how his life is at a dead end. He’s fourteen! This conflict hook didn’t convince me, never mind the stereotypical bullies that torment him. Even Ryuusuke, a guitarist fallen from grace having once played in a famous band, lacks a reason for sympathy. Sure, his Engrish lisp is amusing, but that doesn’t hook a viewer.

But then things start to change.

A girl enters the picture. Her relationship with Koyuki has a natural quality to it that I find refreshing, free from hype and melodrama. There’s also the crazy former Olympic swimmer turned guitarist who has to butt in and correct any swimmer with poor form. He coaches Koyuki in aquatics and music – his pet bird can only say “asshole.” Then they reference established pre-millennium rock bands – Beatles, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, The Who, Rolling Stones, etc. (the list is lengthy) – with a serious understanding of the bands as they write their own tracks, showing research on the subject matter by the writers. And once Koyuki starts playing and singing, in particular, Beck had me. Koyuki performs a song around the middle that is truly beautiful. The mid-crescendo in the plot erased the dull start. One of the greatest surprises comes from those bully stereotypes I mentioned earlier, for they evolve into complete characters by the end. This never happens.

Better yet is the second half when Koyuki gets serious about making it as a musician. He and the band struggle to book gigs, afford equipment, manage personalities and egos, all while working side jobs to pay the bills, and surviving high school on top of that. Beck leaves no corner of the music industry unilluminated from how to craft a melody to contracts to advertising and agencies – even a dip into the darker corners of music to spice the final act. Beck has the reality check that Shirobako should have had.

I love that Beck goes through an extensive arc from middle school through high school and beyond. Often with single-season coming-of-age anime, they only show a year or two of school and leave too much up in the air. To me, the result of the characters’ education is just as important as the journey that made them learn. I always feel unsatisfied when they leave the result in the ether. It’s like watching a film about someone training for a match but it fades to black just as they step onto the field for the big game (What the hell?). I am so glad Beck doesn’t torture like this.

The first half could do with a few episodes’ compression, but the second half is excellent. I experienced the passion for music in these characters.

Art – Medium

Has a distinct style with a drained colour palette that suits the underground music scene. Animation is wobbly and low FPS, but improves in the second half.

Sound – Very High

For a show about rock music, you would expect great rock music. Beck delivers. Beyond its references to rock classics, many original songs were created for the band’s journey, adapted by the actors in both Japanese and English versions. More than the music, the acting is good. In the Japanese, characters sing and speak in Engrish, which is technically correct, for they are Japanese. That said, it might become unbearable to some viewers. Ryusuke in particular has a thick accent with an Engrish lisp. On the other hand, Koyuki sounds almost native when singing English. Americans voice American characters even in the original track, but their dialogue is subpar, which the dub rewrite fixes. Japanese version: technically accurate. English version: easier on the ears. Up to you.

Story – High

A band starts in middle school and aims for stardom through to adulthood. The deep insight into rock music and the industry more than make up for the tepid first half, and is one of the few anime to portray the struggles of professional industry accurately.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for music fans. If you love rock in particular, Beck is a treat. If music isn’t your passion, Beck may still engage you with its characters, but music is the focus.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Deep NarrativeGreat Music

Negative: None

Interstella 5555 – Anime Review

Full Title: Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem

 

Similar: Legend of Black Heaven

Bohemian Rhapsody

The Galaxy Railways

 

Watched in: N/A (99% music)

Genre: Music Science Fiction

Length: 1 hr. 7 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Daft Punk music.
  • Visually striking.
  • A complete story, despite the music focus.

Negatives:

  • The need to get from one song to another without downtime in between.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Something many anime fans don’t know about is the prevalence of anime and manga in France. After all, the word ‘anime’ is French (hence the odd pronunciation in English). In the manga industry, there’s something called the ‘French Exception,’ where a series can fail in all Western markets except France. Many avant-garde or niche manga find more success in France than in Japan itself. France also localised works much sooner than other regions for a long time. I recall seeing the final season of Dragon Ball Z on French TV while the US had only begun dubbing to English. With all this in mind, it comes as no surprise to see French music duo Daft Punk collaborate with their childhood manga hero, Leiji Matsumoto (Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999), to create Interstella 5555.

Interstella 5555 is an anime visualisation of Daft Punk’s “Discovery” album. It opens on an alien planet to a band of Smurf-looking people playing “One More Time,” until invaders kidnap the group and take them to Earth. They manage a distress signal out to space pilot Shep. Down on Earth, after receiving the Michael Jackson treatment to pass for human, the brainwashed aliens become the Crescendolls, a band destined for earthly stardom under an evil music mogul. It’s up to Shep to slap the human out of them.

There’s no dialogue beyond a foreword and any lip-sync to the music. Sound effects similarly are at a minimum. However, there is a complete story here, one I enjoyed for its oddities featuring heroes, villains, and conflicts with resolution as it plays through the album. This is simultaneously the selling point and greatest flaw.

I don’t know if it’s because I don’t like musicals (outside Disney’s ‘occasional song’ style), but the jump from one song to the next felt a tad rushed, working best when the band played on-screen or during action. I would have liked moments between songs to give the music a rest. Outside of Shep, we don’t get to know the characters well. Twenty to thirty minutes woven between songs would have been great, especially since Shep has the best parts of the story. Imagine this across all characters. Dialogue isn’t necessarily the answer – just downtime.

Most, if not all, of Interstella 5555’s appeal rests on the soundtrack. If you don’t enjoy Daft Punk, then there’s nothing for you here, whereas fans will love it. Those with no strong feelings for the band either way? 50-50.

Interstella 5555 is an hour of Daft Punk set to anime. Simple as that.

Art – High

Interstella 5555 has a very 80s colour palette and character design like Captain Harlock. The pilot’s sideburns! Gorgeous shots of space and good animation too.

Sound – High

It’s Daft Punk music throughout, with minimal sound effects and no dialogue outside the introduction. Not much else to be said.

Story – Medium

An Earth villain kidnaps an alien music group to bolster his success. While I appreciate the inclusion of a full story arc, the focus on getting from one song to the next doesn’t allow us to meet the characters fully.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. If you’re a Daft Punk fan, then you must watch Interstella 5555 (if you haven’t already). For others, it’s worth a try. The soundtrack predicates your enjoyment.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great Music

Negative: None

Kids on the Slope – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Sakamichi no Apollon

 

Similar: Beck

Your Lie in April

Nodame Cantabile

Nana

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Music Drama Romance

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Music animations and the music itself.
  • The main trio.
  • Plenty of heart.

Negatives:

  • Some stiff writing.
  • Awkward interactions dampen drama.
  • MS Paint shading.

So, Kids on the Slope has kids in it, music, a love chain to the moon, and even a school. But where’s the skiing on the Slope they promised me? You cannot promise skiing and then deny it from me later. What do you mean this isn’t a sports anime?! Rubbish! 0 out of 10. Why was this a requested review? See you next time. (Recommend an anime for review here.)

But no, seriously, Kids on the Slope is a music anime set in Japan’s 1960s when relations were still a little iffy with the US. It centres on three high school students as they grow in love and life – the aforementioned slope is a street near school. We have Kaoru, the jaded honour student, Sentaro, with his devil-may-care attitude willing to do anything and then complain about how the thing he decided to do sucks (then why did you do it, Dumbo?!), and Ritsuko, daughter of the music shop owner where the boys play jazz together.

Like other coming-of-age stories, Kids on the Slope aims to explore the transition from teenager to adult through ordinary struggles that seem insurmountable to the teen mind. Kaoru needs to stop being such a mop, Sentaro had better learn some responsibility, and soon or later Ritsuko will realise a crush doesn’t define one’s life. The central conflict stems from a never-ending love chain – Kaoru likes Ritsuko, but she likes Sentaro, who in turn likes this other girl, who likes yet another guy! Music takes less space than I thought. When I saw how much effort went into animating the music, key press for key press, beat for beat, I thought it would be about them hitting it big on the music scene. It’s the hobby that brings them together and any friction in the relationships creates dissonance in the music. Characters are the focus – no complaint from me.

The writers poured heart and soul into these characters, making me feel for them. But when it comes to handling the awkwardness of teenage years, I cringed. Not in the good way. The first episode alone had almost too much to handle. Sentaro’s near obsession with Kaoru in their first hour of meeting aims for endearing, but the over friendliness comes across as creepy in a trying-too-hard-to-be-quirky way. The characters aren’t familiar enough with each other to act like this yet. On the flip side, the way the rest of the school glares at Kaoru, a guy they’ve just met this morning, and act like he’s scum isn’t believable. (Apparently his family has money…?) The mannerisms are too extreme at both ends. It’s certainly no The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in character dynamics.

Capturing teenage awkwardness is a difficult task, especially for adults long past those years. Hell, even writing it as a teenager would have challenges, for teenagers rarely notice their own awkwardness. That guy posing with a katana in his Facebook profile? Yeah, have him write a coming-of-age story and he’ll make every character praise the protagonist for how groovy his katana is.

Great teen fiction won’t be noticeably awkward when viewed by teenagers because they will think that awkwardness is normal behaviour. Handsome guy stalking plain Jane protagonist at her house? “How romantic,” sighs the teen. “Where’s that restraining order?” says the adult, unlocking the gun safe. Kids on the Slope doesn’t have the right sort of awkward. The heavy moments lose tension when the teens act not like teens, but what adults imagine of teens during their first kiss or some trauma. Think of your parents trying to get in on the latest “me-me” with their “fellow kids.” Less is more, as always.

That rant aside, Kids on the Slope is a good anime. The love tempest makes an engaging tale and taps into some oft-overlooked aspects of Japan, such as the minority Christian religion and American relations. While these don’t take a lot of screen time, they add that little extra fullness to the characters’ lives. They feel like characters plucked from reality (barring above problems). It’s strange to say a series is still good without its heavy moments; however, ‘the journey, not the destination matters’ has never been more applicable.

I could see the train wrecks in their lives coming, could see when reality would shatter their dreams, and had to watch without being able to warn them, for experiencing these hardships is what makes one come of age. They make us adults.

Art – High

Kids on the Slope demonstrates its excellent animation within minutes as Sentaro brawls with three guys on a whim, and later when playing music. Every note of music has the exact animation to match. There’s no faking it. Unfortunately, the shading technique looks straight out of an amateur’s Deviant Art profile, with a blurry mess that flattens the art.

Sound – High

I could listen to the jazz for hours – a relaxing experience. While the dub is fine, the Japanese works better in every way. The script could do with dialogue smoothing.

Story – High

A love chain set to the backdrop of jazz in a 1960s Japan high school. It has plenty of heart despite the unnatural interactions when drama hits its peaks.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Try it. Unless you hate high school dramas, Kids on the Slope delivers engagement throughout its twelve episodes.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid AnimationGreat Music

Negative: None

Wolf Children – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Ookami Kodomo no Ame to Yuki

 

Similar: My Neighbour Totoro

Grave of the Fireflies

Usagi Drop

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Supernatural Contemporary Fantasy

Length: 1 hr. 57 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Gorgeous art in every regard.
  • Best mum in anime.
  • Real kids.
  • Excellent use of music.
  • Original or dub, the acting is top class.

Negatives:

  • Needed another five minutes.

If I told of a werewolf romance story, you would probably roll your eyes and think, “Not another of those romances.” Wolf Children could seem like one such tiresome romance at first, but it doesn’t take long to defy expectations and evolve into a great story of family and survival.

At its heart, Wolf Children is about motherhood. Hana, an ordinary human woman, dedicates her life to raising her half-human half-wolf children, Yuki and Ame. The characters, as in any great story, are the core of the film, and their believable, human portrayals draw emotional engagement from the viewer. Hana is an incredible character, best mum in anime, and her struggle in raising two unusual kids made my heart go out to her. Her love shines through her dedication as she deals with strangers old and young, cranky and friendly.

Regarding the kids, they too have the real quality that brings them to life. These kids feel like real kids – they whine, they demand things, they vomit on the carpet, they chew through table legs (alright, that may not be normal for kids), they cry in the middle of the night, and yet through all this, they manage to be adorable, and genuinely try their best. The writers show a great understanding of children rarely found in fiction (the lack of innocence often the cause). Yuki is hyperactive, a hunter, always creating a mess for her mother to clean up, and has an endless appetite. On the other end, Ame is quiet, reserved and matures too quickly for his own good, outgrowing his stages in life at an unmanageable rate. Both children have to contend with controlling their wolf instincts – they can shift at will – while fitting into society, never mind the worry this secret causes their mother.

Back to the parents, their romance is a sweet one void of the “nobody gets me” overtones in teen supernatural romances, and is reminiscent of UP’s prologue. Why they work well together makes sense. At no point did it feel as though the writers wanted to force these characters together. No, it seems as though we looked in on two people as they lived their lives, no narrator’s hand to manipulate them for theatre.

If I had to level a complaint against Wolf Children, I would ask for a longer conclusion. Yuki’s plot thread ends, not on a cliffhanger, but without confirmation of what to expect next for imagination to carry on. Another five minutes could have wrapped everything together. Still, a minor issue.

Wolf Children is a proper life story of choices, challenges and conflict – and cuteness overload. It has a heart I found refreshing after consuming several heavy dramas in succession.

Art – Very High

Gorgeous art, highly detailed environments, and animation so good, you probably won’t notice the CG unless you know where to find it.

Sound – Very High

Music tells just as much story as words in Wolf Children. Entire sections have no dialogue, no sound effects, just beautiful music that conveys all we need. It has been a while since I have seen music-driven storytelling. When the sound effects return, they too know their part – subdued when needed or amplified to create unease or sorrow. You cannot go wrong with either language. The English doesn’t rope in out of place celebrities, but uses the best voice actors in the business.

Story – Very High

A mother struggles in life as she raises her two werewolf children, but she has a determination unlike any other. Real characters and emotion create an unforgettable experience.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. There is no more I can say to convince you of Wolf Children’s necessity in your anime library.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

CharmDeep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationGreat MusicStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None