Your Lie in April and Nodame Cantabile: music is the food of love

While keeping up with currently airing/streaming TV, I recently watched Your Lie in April. Its premise of classical music performance reminded me of those times I’d been recommended Nodame Cantabile, in that weird way that often happens. It’s a barely-noticeable drip-feed of “this is cool. You might like it…” over many months or even years, finally reaching critical mass after being reminded through something else, and practically forcing me sit down to watch the thing then wondering where it had been all my life.

Source: Pixiv (click pic for original)

In a recent Twitter conversation I was asked the very good question, “which is better?” but sadly could only come up with a “that depends…” cop-out answer. For the record, I personally enjoyed Nodame… more, but I don’t know how helpful that would be to anyone else. Sorry. Here’s why.

I find music-related film and TV stories fascinating because you get to see and hear the characters’ thoughts as well as the performances themselves. Despite spending most of my time listening to noisy guitar bands – or perhaps because of it? – I feel the need to occasionally and publicly point out that I’m a closet classical fan as well.

There’s an aura of perceived snobbery surrounding the popular opinion of classical though, so I constantly feel that I’m not knowledgeable enough to appreciate it properly…in the same way that I don’t consider myself to be a proper musician because I’m not formally trained and can’t read standard notation fluently. Unyclopedia not inaccurately describes it as “…a stereotypically instrumental composition that most commonly only old people, villains in action movies, your grandparents, the living dead, and smart people listen to.”

 

Lighten up, buddy! At least it’s not her mongoose outfit

Despite my piano skills being limited to the first few bars of 65DOS’ Radio Protector with a couple of false starts, and my ‘live performance’ experience being non-classical (namely: standing in a pub full of drunk people with a second-hand electric guitar), I do have some idea of what it means to be a musician in terms of the drudgery of practice, the introspection and dedication, and the mixture of terror and exhilaration that comes from live concerts. One thing that I think both these series do very well is convey those things to a general audience, despite the relative inaccessibility of many classical genres and the personal challenges of people who are, let’s face it, in a different league to the rest of us.

My favourite story arc of Your Lie in April is that of a piano competition in which the young hero Kousei is up against two old rivals with vastly different personalities and playing styles, but whose piano skills rival his own. This segment isn’t all that different from psychological drama or sports anime in that the tension and suspense come from what’s going on inside their heads, and the way it explores the reasons behind their prodigious skills and all-consuming ambition.

If Your Lie in April ever spawns a sequel in which we see Kousei, Emi and Takeshi cross paths again, I’d tune in without hesitation. In fact, I find that prospect even more appealing than the production we actually got. Many of us like to see personal drama and nailbiting competition after all, and the soundtrack would be just as fantastic. The fact that they’re still in their mid-teens means there’s loads of mileage in the emotional development of those three contrasting characters too.

 

Source: Pixiv (click image again for original)

Surprisingly, the ages of Your Lie in April’s cast weren’t the main issue I had with the show. Nor was the melodrama; not in of itself, at least. The protagonists are adolescents after all: a time of life when even the most minor things feel overwhelming and raw. It also looked and sounded absolutely stunning, and the stylistic tricks it employed to visually convey nebulous concepts like childhood trauma and stage fright were very convincing indeed.

From what I saw of other viewers’ reactions, the drama was divisive: for every person who got ‘The Feels’, another thought it overwrought and forced. I was able to let that slide and run with it, but the ending was what rubbed me up the wrong way. Genre conventions pretty much dictated how things panned out, so whichever of the two main possible resolutions the writers went for (I’m trying so hard not to post spoilers!) it would still have felt clichéd.

I was supposed to have The Feels: to be in tears at the tragedy and pathos of it all. I instead felt angry that the story had wasted a fascinating premise, complex and believable characters, gorgeous visuals and enchanting music, to shamelessly try to squeeze tears out of me in such a heavy-handed and hackneyed way. Again, without posting specific spoilers, the ending was foreshadowed very heavily near the show’s midpoint, so when it arrived I approached it with a mixture of dread and misplaced hope that it wouldn’t take the formulaic route I expected it to.

With my ‘classical music anime’ itch still wanting to be scratched satisfactorily, I remembered all those little things I’d read about the NoitaminA oldie Nodame Cantabile. At 3am this morning, when I should’ve been asleep, I saw the first season through to its conclusion. In all honesty though, I didn’t want it to end at all.

 

Rather than ramp up the emotion and angst to Jun Maeda proportions, Nodame Cantabile picks up the story when the characters are at – to me, at least – a more relatable age and opts for a more everyday and organic storytelling style. There are still arguments, blossoming romantic relationships, chibi-slapstick comedic interludes and music performances that are rendered with a gloriously realistic attention to detail, but for all the similarities in themes and settings the execution is very different.

There is a large and appreciative audience for the ‘tragedy pr0n’, ‘sick lit’ or whatever the popularly-accepted term for Your Lie in April’s genre category is called. In terms of catering to that audience, it does what it sets out to do very well. But if you didn’t get into the show for that, you’re not duty-bound to like it.

I guess I simply have limited patience for emotionally manipulative stories with predictably tragic endings. Nodame Cantabile has suspensions of disbelief of its own in the form of fortunate coincidences and an apparent idiot savant heroine (voiced by a nigh-on unrecognisable Ayako Kawasumi. Honestly, I could barely believe it was her) but it’s more mature, subtle and real.

While Your Lie in April’s final episode left me cold, the closing moments of Nodame Cantabile’s first season did actually leave me with a lump in my throat. I’m sure the differing demographics of their target audience are the underlying reason for all this, but the fact remains that it’s one of the most immersive and emotionally satisfying animated dramas I’ve ever witnessed. Shinichi may be stand-offish and arrogant and Megumi may be too dorky to physically exist…scratch that, they actually are. Except, none of that really mattered.

I’m not even sure why. For all their flaws, they somehow endeared themselves to me and watching trivial incidents and chance encounters lead to the creation of the ‘S’ orchestra and the ‘Rising Stars’ was an emotional journey I don’t regret one bit. Perhaps the truth is that there’s something magical and cathartic in seeing bright young people doing what they love, and working hard together to dig deep within themselves, creating something beautiful and worthwhile. And doing so without a death flag in sight.