Review: Romance · Review: Teen Fiction

TV Show Review: Nodame Cantabile

So, for the past few days, as I work frantically and largely sleeplessly on editing, coding, referencing and writing, I’ve been watching Nodame Cantabile. I’ve seen it before, multiple times, although possibly didn’t finish the anime previously. And when I responded to someone’s review of the show on LJ in a comment longer than the maximum comment limit, I decided it was time to write my own review.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the series, Nodame Cantabile is a manga, anime and TV drama from Japan about music, life and love. Never judge this story by its art or its summaries, because people who do always seem surprised by how gripping the show actually is.

The two main characters are in a university for music in Tokyo, Japan. In fourth year is Shinichi Chiaki, a piano major who is good-looking, skilled and generally more popular than his crass personality should merit. In third year is Megumi Noda, known to most as Nodame, a piano major with a reputation for stealing other people’s lunches and generally shrugged off as a technically proficient but uninspiring musician. They live in apartments next door to each other, but have never met before until a bad night finds Chiaki slumped, drunk, against the wall outside his apartment. Chiaki is a hard-working, tidy, excellent violinist and pianist with a trauma-induced terror of flight and the ocean which are leading him to despair over his aspirations of becoming a conductor, trapped as he is in Japan by his own fear. Nodame is an unprincipled, unmotivated musician with an excellent ear and no sense of hygiene who can’t adhere to a score and only wants to be a kindergarten teacher. (There is a point at which Nodame expresses astonishment that Chiaki is actually able to play to the score, much to Chiaki’s irritation.) The first time Chiaki hears Nodame play, amongst the chaos that she makes of Beethoven’s Pathetique, he hears raw potential that inspires him more than anything he previously knew to exist in Japan.

Does it sound like the beginning of a shallow Hollywood romantic comedy? If you thought yes, you’re probably the majority. But if you thought yes, you would have been very, very wrong.

Music always steals the screen with this show (and the speakers, quite frankly). (The manga is rather less fun, as you hear things described and you know what piece is being played, but it’s just not the same without the sound.) But the developing relationship between Nodame and Chiaki is the driving force behind the story. It is comedic and sometimes touching, with emotions often understated, but nevertheless made my world. The thing that makes this relationship an absolute treasure in the world of romances is that all antagonists are internal. While there are several would-be romantic rivals for both Nodame and Chiaki, ultimately, none of these rivals poses any sort of a threat and often their affections go unacknowledged or even unrecognized. The true antagonists, which grow stronger and deeper as the story progresses and Nodame and Chiaki grow closer, are their insecurities, their failures, their hopelessness and fear. The relationship, despite its comical moments and the pair’s exaggerated slap-stick fights, feels real in a way that many stories fail to capture, and manages to remain constant and unbroken without succumbing to cliches like happily ever after.

Of the three versions of this story, I find that I prefer the TV drama. The manga, while the original work, is my least favorite version, since you can only hear the music if you either have it in your head or have a convenient recording on hand. Both drama and anime seem to have inspired many a person with little interest in classical music to give the genre a chance. The anime is better in its music, in my opinion, because I can actually hear it when the orchestra isn’t quite right, or Nodame isn’t playing whole-heartedly. The drama, while preferable overall to me, seems to have music which is either perfect or with supposedly blatant mistakes subtle enough that my ears cannot catch them while the characters gripe about them, or so exaggeratedly bad as to be trying on the ears. Either way, however, the music in both is gripping, and pulls you in as much as the story itself.

I shall now talk more about Nodame and Chiaki’s relationship, so here’s ends my spoiler-free commentary.

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

The end of the series is what really makes me love it. The end is almost everything to me with most stories, because the end defines everything about my state of mind when I step away, sigh and look back. On the rare occasion that a wonderful story meets a horrible ending, I choose to live in denial about the ending in order to continue loving the rest of the story. But otherwise, the ending is quite heavily weighted in forming my opinion. And in that respect, the ending of this series was perfect to me.

To summarize, Nodame, who decided to change her aspiration to becoming a concert pianist with the aim of performing with Chiaki one day, is certain that she and Chiaki will be a pair unrivaled in the musical world. So certain, in fact, that she dies a little inside when Chiaki not only performs the concerto she wanted to perform with him with piano prodigy Son Rui, but performs it better than Nodame had imagined she herself and Chiaki would have. Sunken into despair, Nodame resolutely maintains her upbeat demeanor, though Chiaki realizes something is wrong; following a night together, she proposes marriage to him, and he brushes it off as a joke. This rejection devastates Nodame, and so when master conductor Stresemann comes to call in Chiaki’s absence, she shares her devastation with him and he—having long since been in awe of her potential—carries her off to perform her first piano concerto with him. Following the astounding performance which was so moving that even Chiaki, for all his understanding of her musical potential, is left staggering in awe and admiration, she (whilst avoiding Chiaki) decides to retire from professional performances, and reverts to her desire to be a teacher. Chiaki finds her and confronts her. She tells him that she doesn’t think she could perform anything better than she performed that one concerto. She is worried that their performance together will be less than she has imagined, and if it is, she fears she will stop loving him. Chiaki, who has learned through trial and error that neither reason nor spontaneous displays of affection can move her, drags her away (quite literally, in fact) to perform together the first duet they ever performed: Mozart’s sonata for 2 pianofortes. Their enduring musical chemistry confirmed, Nodame’s insecurities alleviated, they embrace and life goes on.

Some people express dissatisfaction with the ending. In a way, I can understand why. The lack of resolution for the marriage proposal, the lack of an official co-performance… But to be honest, I love that it ended this way.

(Note: the next several paragraphs are only lightly edited from a comment I submitted to a blog of a fan of the show who expressed such dissatisfaction.)

Most people who dislike the ending seem to blame the lack of resolution of the proposal, or the fact that Nodame has changed, and changed her values, aspirations and beliefs, to the extent where Chiaki himself wonders if she wouldn’t have been happier had she stayed in Japan just playing music for fun, without all the stress.

It is, in fact, the drama’s lack of time to overtly state all the emotional upheavals that Nodame and Chiaki go through that gives way to this dissatisfaction, I think. Having watched the anime—which has more internal monologues—the whole drama at the end makes more sense. The subject of marriage was dropped—and this was also the reason Chiaki instinctively brushed her off, according to his internal monologue in the anime—because both of them knew perfectly well that Nodame wasn’t proposing simply out of love for Chiaki. She had previously believed, on some level, (and so had Chiaki, before he heard Son Rui play the Ravel concerto) that they shared a special sort of connection that allowed them to share and create music like neither of them could with anyone but each other. Chiaki and Son Rui’s Ravel concerto was a staggering blow to this belief, and on some level, Nodame gave up on her and Chiaki’s “golden pair” that she had dreamed about until then. Her proposal wasn’t made out of love, but out of insecurity—if they couldn’t be bound by music, then they would be bound by law. Had Chiaki said yes, I don’t think things would have gone well, in the long run. They’re still together, and they’ll probably get married someday (Nodame certainly seems to want them to), but when they do, neither of them will be accepting an offer of marriage from the other for anything less than honest, sincere love.

As for their concerto, I’m glad we didn’t see that. I’m glad it’s still in the future. Have you seen Tangled? How insecure Rapunzel feels when her lifelong dream is about to come true? In Tangled, they resolved it in a typically Disney fashion by the characters both finding new dreams (which are each other). In Nodame, I’m happier with the ending that in spite of everything, they’re still determined to astound the world with their first concerto together than I would have been if it had been after that concerto, with them determined to do even better next time.

I would not have been satisfied if Nodame reverted to her dreams of teaching kindergarten. Nodame as a kindergarten teacher has been debunked both in the anime and the live action series. Chiaki is, I think, quite right when he says that Nodame wouldn’t make a very good one. Her general attitude, not given to responsibility, will entertain children in ways that parents will smile upon from time to time, but not in a way that could make parents trust her with their children day after day after day. She’s given to strange behavior and random acts of irresponsibility that would eventually and inevitably (though not intentionally—never intentionally) endanger or harm a child and lose for her the parents’ trust. I find Chiaki’s assessment quite astute when he says that Nodame as a kindergarten teacher is just a lawsuit waiting to happen. But more importantly, it’s her music. Children love repetition. And exact repetition. To this day I despise Disney’s Sleeping Beauty after spending months of being subjected to it day after day, and sometimes multiple times in one day whilst babysitting my sisters. The same goes for storytelling, and music. Change one line in a child’s favorite story, or a measure in his or her favorite tune, and you get reprehended or laughed at and told to get it right. Nodame simply doesn’t play like that. We’ve never seen her play the same thing the same way more than once. Not her competition pieces, not her exams, not pieces she played for fun, not even her concerto. This, as the children she was babysitting demonstrated for us, is not creativity in the eyes of most children, but error. This characteristic is the making of a wonderful, brilliant performer. But not of a kindergarten teacher, nor really of anyone studying music in the conservative and perfectionist country of Japan (as Chiaki is quick to observe).

But the fact that Nodame has made huge compromises to her beliefs and aspirations “for Chiaki’s sake” remains unaddressed. The thing is, I don’t see it this way at all, and here is why. In Nodame’s second lesson with Professor Auclair, he points out that her problem is that she doesn’t truly care to listen to the wills of the composer when she plays a piece. She captures what she can instinctively, but never intellectually, and this is why she plays as haphazardly as she does: skipping, composing, changing the style and tempo. But when he plays a piece she composed and she tells him to play a section differently, he points out that she has specific intentions lying within her composition, and so other composers do too.

Classical music scores are things we take for granted. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky—these names are as familiar to us as other artists such as Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Shakespeare. Many people, on hearing a recording of the Mondschein Sonata, take it for granted as a Beethoven piece and barely spare a thought for the performer. If the composer can be likened to an author, then the performer can be likened to a publisher. The publisher refines and alters stories to their taste, but ideally does so without contradicting the will of the author, just as a performer is expected to do with a composition. Nodame’s playing at the beginning of this story is equivalent to a publisher who would make of Miss Havisham a beautiful, loving, betrayed mother who had naught but good intentions; of Elizabeth Bennet a contrary tramp with little respect for society; of Raskolnikov a romantic hero. While not entirely out of the realms of conception from the story, her interpretations disregard the author’s (and therefore the composer’s) will and desires entirely. In studying with Professor Auclair, Nodame learns to hear the composer’s intent, and that there is more to music than merely what she feels right then and there. It is a good lesson, and one that is well-received. On learning this, Nodame develops more respect for the scores she interprets, and while she is still very much prone to unique performances, she transforms from a performer who strays from scores and disregards composers very nearly entirely to a performer who touches hearts with music that is still the composer’s piece, and yet more evocative and powerful than her audience is accustomed to.

I think that there is no scene as personifying of Nodame as that Chopin concerto, where she staggers Maestro Stresemann himself by playing in a completely different way from what they rehearsed the moment that they were onstage. She loves the performance, and she loves letting people hear her music. What she doesn’t love is the pressure. But frankly, I think that if anyone can live without getting swept away by stress within a stressful industry, that person is Nodame. And when she every so often reaches her wits’ end (and I love it that she never loses that streak of optimism, that she remains so unbegrudging even when she’s practically dying inside), Chiaki will be there to love her and her music equally, to cherish them, to think about what’s truly best for Nodame and act accordingly.

I love this series, truly. 9/10 is my score for those of you who need numbers.

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8 thoughts on “TV Show Review: Nodame Cantabile

  1. Wow..you really did an excellent analysis about this series. I enjoyed your thought as much as i enjoyed the series. Until now, there is still no drama better than Nodame Cantabile which exposed music in details. Glad to know your blog :p

  2. I just finished the TV drama and the anime. I like you review about the ending. It helps me to understand the relationship between Nodame and Chiaki.

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