May 07, 2008
by: Eric Frederiksen
Nodame Cantabile: The stereotypical nutty tomboy, or something more?
Look Deeper is a semi-regular feature that examines shows, characters, and even genres we love (or love to hate) and digs down past the surface to expose some hidden meaning or message with the hope of learning a bit more about it.
This week: Nodame Cantabile
(This article may contain spoilers!)
One thing I've noticed watching comedy and romantic anime is that the characters that populate these often act marginally normal at best (compared to societal norms). Usually this isn't just some randomly drawn attribute assigned by the mangaka or author, but evidence of something lying beneath the surface. It's meant to tell us something about the character that deepens our feelings about the whole story.
Consider the anime/manga/drama franchise Nodame Cantabile, with its main characters Noda Megumi (Nodame) and Chiaki Shinichi. On the surface, Nodame is just a hyperactive nutball. The classic anime stereotype: tomboyish, loud, and always eating. Chiaki-sempai is a bit of an elitist. He's extremely talented and well aware of it, as he's heard it every day of his life.
Nodame appears to exhibit what I feel confident calling symptoms of mild autism. She can barely handle social situations of even the simplest nature and her understanding of others emotions and motives is childish at best. She has a difficult time sympathizing and empathizing with others. At one point, she vies with Chiaki's much younger sister for his attention. She also deals with criticism poorly, often shutting down completely if the speaker doesn't present it properly. She also has her "Safe" zones: Chiaki-sempai and her favorite children's story, Puri-Gorota. When faced with uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations she will often retreat to these for comfort.
Nodame runs from her terrifying teacher.
On the other end, she has this absurd talent for music that allows her to pick it up by ear and reproduce it after a cursory listening, bordering on savant. Despite this talent, she has no flair for showmanship or posture - she leans over the piano, pouts out her lips, and goes to work. Her talent, while incredibly impressive, also is not very flexible. Chiaki, for example, is able to modify his style to better suit his during a duet while she is not able to change her playing at all.
This isn't the type of autism that you see in Rainman that would necessarily keep someone from living a normal life, but more the type of thing that would allow her to remain functional as long as she has someone to keep her on track. Trouble perceiving emotions, difficulty with change, and safe zones are all symptoms of autism in varying degrees.
Chiaki on the other hand is much more comfortable in social situations and can handle many of the things that Nodame is unable to. However, Chiaki finds himself paralyzed by fear. He has full-on phobia of air and sea travel brought on by childhood experiences. The fear affects him to the point that it results in physical symptoms. This keeps the otherwise prodigal pianist and conductor from leaving Japan to participate on the world stage that he has the potential for.
Chiaki does not want on that plane.
Nodame and Chiaki help each other through these problems. Chiaki cooks and cleans for Nodame and encourages her playing, doing his best to help her along despite his exasperation. I will admit that Nodame's method of curing Chiaki of his phobias is a little cheap, but I think it's more of a shorthanded way to let us know that she's able to truly catch Chiaki off-guard the way no one else can.
In the end, Nodame Cantabile isn't just about music or romance, or about Fancy Conductor Man and his Nutty Girlfriend. It's about two people helping each other reach their true potential despite the challenges they face. Two people perfectly matched to support each other and complement each other.
With this knowledge in mind, the show becomes far more interesting to me - the characters become real people instead of cartoon characters with silly quirks.