SPOILERS: Up to episode 37 of Twin Star Exorcists, general discussion of Nodame Cantabile.
A good rivalry is one of the most rewarding relationship types in shounen manga and anime. One reason Vegeta is such a compelling character in the Dragon Ball franchise is because he never stops trying to be better than Goku. Goku is often a less interesting character, in part because he trains mostly as a reaction to external danger or his internal motivation to get stronger, not in response to his peers.
Mutual rivalry of the Naruto vs. Sasuke type is far more satisfying. Character A’s progress makes such a strong impression on Character B that they start working harder, getting results which lead to Character A redoubling their efforts… and so on. It’s a type of storytelling that links character growth with working towards an ambition.
Put this through a filter for romantic relationships and you get the Nodame standard. (Not an official name, just what I’ve been calling it to myself – if it already has a name, please let me know!) In this type of relationship each person works harder as a direct result of seeing the achievements of the other person, all in pursuit of equivalent goals, the process of which brings them closer to romance.
As with rivalry, this is not necessarily in direct competition with one another; the characters may compete against each other individually but in pursuit of a shared goal, or motivate each other while pursuing entirely separate goals.
The ambition doesn’t need to be the same, just equivalent and unrelated to romance, and whatever their ambitions they need to be equally as successful in accomplishing them. A female character working just as hard but never quite matching the male character doesn’t cut it. The whole point of the Nodame standard is that it establishes the two characters as equals.
In Nodame Cantabile, Nodame is an eccentric music student who falls for her senpai, refined overachiever Chiaki. While an imprecise pianist, something about her playing captivates Chiaki. He sees great potential in her, and is appalled to find out her only wish is to become an early years school teacher. For his part, while a student in the piano department Chiaki actually wants to become a conductor, and is held back only by psychological obstacles.
Nodame is the first to push Chiaki into a position where he actually has a chance of conducting, and helps him to overcome those obstacles. However, Nodame knows that she can’t stay by Chiaki’s side forever like this, and forms her own ambition: to play a piano concerto with an orchestra conducted by Chiaki. She commits to her piano playing for the first time since she was a child.
Over time, Chiaki learns to have more fun with music and Nodame learns to take it more seriously. Each becomes a more personally fulfilled and professionally successful person because of their relationship. Along the way they see each other’s best and worst sides and draw closer for it. This is not a story of romance but of connection; we don’t see their romantic relationship develop, no details like first kisses or first dates, but we absolutely see them fall in love.
Nodame Cantabile is a high profile example of this type of story, but it’s not unusual in manga targeting women and in live action TV dramas in Japan. It’s also common for the gender roles to be the other way around, with the woman already a hard worker and the man inspired to develop a work ethic or goal of his own, or for both to already have serious ambitions they are unwilling to sacrifice for romance. Same sex relationships can meet the Nodame standard too, as long as there is a textual romantic element.
To break it down then, to meet the Nodame standard the relationship must be between two characters who:
- are each motivated by the efforts and accomplishments of the other to work harder themselves
- are equally as successful in their respective (non-romantic) ambitions
- get closer to a romantic relationship as they get closer to their non-romantic goals
While not unusual in more domestic stories, battle-driven shonen anime do not often meet the Nodame standard. I mentioned Naruto and Sasuke, but let’s look at Naruto and Hinata. Their relationship becomes much more interesting once Hinata, inspired by Naruto from a young age, becomes a source of inspiration for Naruto himself. Sakura has more power and involvement in Naruto’s life than Hinata, and she is motivated by the example of Naruto and Sasuke to work harder herself, but they are not motivated by her in return. Sadly, this is more often the role female characters in shonen anime end up in.
That is a real shame, because relationships which meet the Nodame standard are almost inevitably feminist. By its definition, a female character in this type of relationship either needs to have or develop an ambition unrelated to romance. She needs to work hard at a goal that does not involve getting a romantic partner. She needs to end up successful by a definition that does not involve marriage and babies. Shonen fighting anime are all about being inspired by others to become stronger – but if this process involves a woman, it is not often mutual.
This year we have had an example of a battle-driven shonen anime which actually does meet the Nodame standard early on: Twin Star Exorcists. Two teenaged exorcists who experienced tragedy at a young age have clashing strategies for handling it.
Fiery Rokuro has sworn off exorcism forever after seeing many of his friends die, while stoic Benio has thrown herself into her work since her entire family were killed, avoiding closeness with anyone else. When they learn they are prophesied to marry and have a baby who will become the strongest exorcist of all, Benio’s biggest problems are 1) the threat this poses to her career and 2) Rokuro’s complete lack of ambition.
Since seeing Rokuro accidentally drawn into a battle, Benio is impressed – and dismayed – by how strong he is despite not caring at all about the work. Her pride wounded, she decides she needs to best him in order to prove herself. Rokuro continues to resist her attempts at rivalry, insisting he doesn’t want to fight at all.
However, Rokuro ends up in a position where he is unable to rescue a close friend because he is out of practise and unprepared to take part in a difficult battle. He begs Benio to help. Rather than using it as a stick to beat him with, she tells him no-one should ever have to beg for the services of an exorcist, and that she will fight whenever he needs her to.
After seeing this example and being able to save his friend with her help, he begins to step back into the world of exorcism. He later credits this to her directly. As he gets back up to speed, on the one hand we see that the more committed he becomes the warmer Benio is towards him. On the other hand, the more she sees of his strength the harder she works to stay ahead of him.
Even so, she continues to call him useless until they end up in a battle in which they are both genuinely outmatched and left deeply shaken by the experience. For the first time they have an emotional conversation about their fears and vulnerabilities. Rokuro expresses a wish to become stronger. Benio says she wants the same thing.
We already know they have the same dream: to end the war between humans and monsters and create a world in which there is no need for exorcists. With Rokuro now committed to his work and Benio finally letting down her guard, they re-establish themselves as equals and commit to becoming stronger together.
This commitment is repeated throughout the series, usually preceded by one of them trying to achieve something impossible alone only for the other to remind them that they are not alone.
While they continue to work on individual performance, they also accept the need to fight as partners. As the destined twin star exorcists, they share an ability called ‘Resonance’, through which their power is multiplied from their physical contact and mental focus on a shared priority. There are certain things they can only achieve by working closely together.
However, Resonance is just the most literal representation of the strength they give each other. They physically protect each other right from the start, and over time begin to see each other as a source of emotional support.
Rokuro has another love interest in childhood friend Mayura. Through her we get to see an alternative version of events in which love means protecting those you care about from harm, even if it means stifling their full potential. Benio represents a different kind of love, where she values Rokuro’s self-actualisation over his comfort.
We also get a glimpse of a traditional rival for Rokuro in Shimon, who joined the exorcist elite when he was 14 – the same age as Rokuro at the start of the series. Just two years older, he is a reminder of what Rokuro could have become had he not taken time away from training.
However, rather than causing typical love interest and rival conflict, these characters shadow the path of Rokuro and Benio, with cheerful Mayura learning the importance of persistence and workaholic Shimon learning the importance of friends. Mayura has feelings for Rokuro, but quickly accepts his destined relationship with Benio, whom she actively befriends. Shimon is frustrated by Mayura, the daughter of the teacher he idolises, but warms to her once she demonstrates passion for and dedication to exorcism and self-improvement.
They will never have completely equal abilities, Shimon is already too advanced and Mayura is not naturally gifted. However, they could still meet the Nodame standard if Mayura’s ambitions were different enough from Shimon’s that she could someday be considered as successful in her chosen field (maybe healing rather than combat?) as he is in his. He would also need to see her accomplishments in that field and work harder himself in response. It seems unlikely that this will ever happen, but that their relationship is based on respect of each other’s work ethic is a good start.
The only actually established couple in the show doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but gives promising indications that it would meet the Nodame standard if it did. In episode 37, Ryogo, the older brother figure in Rokuro’s life, finally proposes marriage to Haruka, his girlfriend who is also an exorcist, saying he wants to protect her smile. She looks troubled, and he worries it is because she’s going to turn down his proposal.
However, what is troubling her is the idea that their relationship would not be an equal partnership. She says she wants to protect his smile in return, and seems to accept his proposal on those terms.
Twin Star Exorcists is far from a perfect show, and its overall treatment of female characters and couples is by no means ideal. Mayura in particular is often Comedy Boob Girl, and the way adults manipulate 14-year-old Rokuro and Benio into going through the motions of dating or even marriage under the pretense of “training” is uncomfortable and unnecessary. Living together indisputably brings Benio and Rokuro closer, but they were already living together in a dorm situation at the start of the series; more confident writing would have let their feelings for each other grow organically under those circumstances without forcing them into creepy situations.
As with any series, one feminist-friendly element does not offset other problematic elements, and just because it meets the Nodame standard at certain points does not mean that will necessarily last throughout their entire relationship. However, despite all the things wrong with it (and there’s a much longer list than I’ve included here), I continue to watch Twin Star Exorcists because anime that meet the Nodame standard are rare, shonen anime that meet it even rarer.