One of the common comments I often hear about Japanese Manga is (apart from those that look at the more hard-core subjects) is that it is so much more diverse than Western comic in terms of subject matter. The USA of course is utterly dominated by Superheroes and the comics I grew up with in the UK were far more Science Fiction and War oriented. This drama is based on a popular Manga, living in the realms of students studying at a Music Academy. And utterly delicious it is too.
“Nodame Cantabile” is the story of two students. Megumi Noda (Juri Ueno), the Nodame of the title, is a talented yet unorthodox pianist. A free spirit, and also a little, well, odd. She enjoys the piano, but harbours dreams of being a Nursery School teacher. Shinichi Chiaki (Hiroshi Tamaki) is that staple of Japanese drama – the good looking, arrogant and utterly focussed star student. He is majoring in the Piano, but harbours dreams himself of being a conductor. Chiaki has a big problem though – he is terrified of flying, and will not be able to continue his studies abroad, which is going to limit his opportunities immensely.
They are thrown together both as neighbours and classmates, and instantly Nodame falls for Chiaki. The affection is not immediately responded to, although slowly a friendship does emerge. There is a wider cast whom we follow too, including a rather bizarre famous German Maestro, Stressman (Takenaka Naoto); Mine Ryutaro (Eita) a violinist who is more interested in Rock than Classical music; Okuyama Masumi (Koide Keisuke) a gay Timpanist who harbours a huge crush on Chiaki; and the focussed Violinist Miki Kiyora (Mizukawa Asami).
The show is an utter delight. Although oddly, despite the title, it is mostly the story of Chiaki, it is able to mix humour, drama and music into an addictive parcel of joy. It has that magic touch of mixing some of the more outrageous aspects of Manga (sometimes by the use of the tiniest bits of CGI) with some good old fashion romance and tension. Every character gets their moment under the sun, and not only that, they are able to grow and change over multiple episodes.
The show basically covers the first 9 of the Manga’s 23 volumes, but it manages to tell a complete story, leaving you wanting more. There are a couple of mis-steps however. One episode is given over to a poor Contrabass player, with a rather bizarre conclusion, and she hardly appears as an important part of the story again – she gets lines, but is never really part of the story. Also right near the end, another gay character with a crush on Chiaki is introduced, that you suspect had a wider role in the source media, but is introduced so late on it feels unnecessary.
And it is funny. Really funny. Not just the crazy hyper-real moments. An episode based around the charms of a heated dinner table, meeting Nodame’s rather eccentric family, any time Takenaka Naoto is on screen and the first performance of the Orchestra of underachievers are hilarious.
It really is the story of Chiaki though. We only really get to see his inner monologue, probably as outwardly he really is quite a cold character. It is only in the last few episodes that we really get to spend time with Nodame, seeing her motivations and story, outside of the more comic aspects to her character. Again, I suspect this is more to do with the following of the Manga. Only in the final episode do we see her family, what drives her on, and what it is that actually limits her. Indeed, there is a little of this with Chiaki, he seems to avoid his mother, and there is obviously something to do with the relationship with his father that we don’t get made privy too (other than one tiny line of dialogue).
But for all these faults, it becomes clear that this is why I adored the show so. It is because I want to learn about these characters. I want to go on their various journeys of growth and self discovery. I want to laugh at the funny moments, cry at their disappointments, and most of all celebrate their success with them.
Juri Ueno is probably my favourite Japanese actress to watch. She is kooky and funny, able to portray a wide range of eclectic characters, and in another’s hands, her Nodame could be utterly annoying. But she is able to make the girl charming and loveable. Hiroshi Tamaki is also excellent, although it takes a while for you to warm up to him – but I think that is the point. And boy he has come a long way since donning that afro in “Waterboys”.
You would have to be a hard person indeed not to share in the utter delight of the first public performance of the Loser’s Orchestra. I am not really that musically aware, especially in the world of classical music, but that is J-Drama at its best – a joyous moment when you can connect with all kinds of individuals.
NB: There is a 4 Hour TV Special and a couple of movies that follow up this J-Drama, and I fully intend to follow up on them in the blog.