I’ve never managed to develop a taste for manga and anime. When a student wants to write an assignment about Japanese “popular culture”, I send them to my colleague. When another colleague lent me the first volume of the best-selling manga series NODAME CANTABILE, about the lives and loves of a group of students at a fictional music college in Tokyo, I did make another effort and actually got through it. I gave up a few pages into the sequel, however, even though a Japanese colleague had recommended that I read the lot, 23 volumes, because it would help me understand Japanese images of Western classical music.
But then I discovered that the live action drama was available on Youtube, and was hooked. The music had a lot to do with it, especially Beethoven’s 7th, the first symphony I played after joining the Collegium Musicum as a student at Bonn University. The story gripped my too. It is true comedy, meaning that all (or nearly all) the comic effects are intended - and how many comedies do you know that have classical music as their main theme? The live action drama begins with the childhood memories of Chiaki Shin’ichi, 4th-year piano student at Momogaoka Music College, who spent his early years in Europe. In Prague he was befriended by the famous Italian conductor SebastianoViera. Now he dreams of returning to Europe as Viera’s student, but unfortunately he is terrified of both airplanes and boats. Many laughs result from poor Chiaki’s dilemma.
A brooding, obsessive character, Chiaki supposedly shares traits with Beethoven, his favourite composer. He has nothing but contempt for Momogaoka College of Music and the feeble efforts of his fellow students. After falling out with his regular piano teacher, he is relegated to the teacher for the “losers,” who pairs him off to play Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D major (KV 448) with Noda Megumi. Nicknamed Nodame, her genius and childish ways are reminiscent of Mozart (as portrayed in the play by Peter Schaffer and the film by Milos Forman). Thus begins a stormy relationship, in which Nodame love is at first entirely unreciprocated. Chiaki is both exasperated and moved by Nodame’s wayward playing, and her messy habits drive him up the wall. Even so, the violence with which he sends her flying and uttering weird noises should be taken with a pinch of salt; it shows the live action drama’s indebtedness to its manga origin, as do the animated hears floating around, pastel purple fluid oozing from Nodame’s trash bags or mushrooms erupting from her dirty laundry.
Luckily for us violinists, the story includes violinists among the characters, most importantly Miki Kiora and Mine Ryûtarô. They represent two different types. Miki Kiyora, the haughty female concertmaster of the college’s elite A-orchestra, seems all set for a career typical of many Japanese violinists in the last few decades; freshly returned from studies in Vienn, she plans to return there after graduation, enter competitions and enjoy a solo career abroad. Her playing is technically flawless. Mine Ryûtarô, on the other hand, seems modelled on the Japanese pop violinist NAOTO http://www.naoto-poper.com/pc/index.php , right down his trademark peroxide-blond hair (NAOTO actually plays the violin for him in the film). Initially he prefers to play rock music on his electric violin and with his band. Like Chiaki, he feels contempt for his fellow-students, but for different reasons; obsessed with classical music and getting the notes right, they ignore the variety of music outside the college and don’t seek to express themselves.
Predictably, Mine is converted to the joys of playing classical music through his encounter with Nodame and Chiaki. He has to play Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata” for his second attempt to pass the end-of-year exam. In his desperation to find a pianist who is prepared to partner him for the exam, he collars Nodame. There is a wonderful scene in Episode 2 where the two kindred spirits play the sonata in a way guaranteed to make purists climb every wall in the studio. Mine is ecstatic; at last someone who can match his style. “We were even together in the mistakes,” murmurs Nodame.
Fortunately for Mine’s exam, it has to be said, Nodame is too ill to play on the day, and Chiaki, who increasingly finds himself in the role of her minder, reluctantly substitutes. Actually, Chiaki, an awful know-all, popular with the girls, multilingual, can not only play the piano, give erudite lectures about composers and their music and cook fancy foreign dishes, but is also a whiz-kid on the violin. He has already tried to reign in Mine and Nodame after hearing the two rehearse in Nodames flat, next door to his own. But as in the piano duo with Nodame, Chiaki rises to the challenge of following Mine’s flamboyant, but not exactly accurate playing. Thrilled, Mine ditches his electric violin (not for good, one hopes, but for the rest of the drama) in order to embrace classical music.
There is a clip of the exam scene here (English subtitles; not that many are needed, as it's mostly music):
Chiaki’s real ambition is to become a conductor, and he gets his lucky break when the world famous conductor Franz von Stresemann appears on the scene. A character combining in him all the worst traits detailed in Norman Lebrecht’s “The Maestro Myth”, he at first prowls about incognito, taking pictures of students. Those he likes are invited to join the “S-Orchestra” – “all the losers,” as a jealous member of the elite orchestra observes, full of disgust. Mine Ryûtarô is the concertmaster and even Nodame is assigned a role, as “mascot”. But Streseman soon abandons the orchestra to Chiaki, while he enjoys himself at the hostess club “One More Kiss.”
Chiaki has a hard time with the “losers’” orchestra. Among the problems he has to contend with is the tiny double bass player Sakura Saku, who always beetles in late, her enormous instrument on her back. Her playing is behind too. Her father’s antique business is doing badly and she has to work to feed herself leaving little time for practice. When she doesn’t turn up at all, Chiaki and Mine visit her home and discover that her father hoards a collection of priceless violins in a secret safe. “Listen to the tone”, he demands, and proceeds to produces the most appalling screech, because he can’t play. Needless to say, this particular storyline has a happy ending; Saku’s father finally accepts Saku’s love for the double bass and sells the fiddles so she can pursue her calling.
Finally, of course, boundless, enthusiasm, teamwork and love for the music win the day. Mine has the benefit of patronizing advice from Kiora, concertmaster of the A Orchestra. He carries his flair for showmanship over into spectacularly choreographed performances of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Here “S-Orchestra’s version of the Rhapsody:
And here is the Beethoven (Spanish subtitles, but then it’s mostly music anyway):
Have a look for yourself! There are 11 hour-long episodes, and then 2 live-action movie sequels, set mostly in Paris. Although Stresemann hails from Germany, the supposed true heartland of classical music, it presumably seemed more in the spirit of a comedy to have Chiaki and Nodame continue their studies in Paris, because of the “dark” and “serious image Germany has for many Japanese. Chiaki and Kiora both enter international competitions.
Here are clips of Chiaki conducting the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (with a doting Nodame in the audience) as his final piece, and Kiora performing Brahms in her final round.
Japanese fans of the drama include musicians who say that the depiction of student life is convincing. Like all good comedies, NODAME CANTABILE addresses serious issues as well. Perhaps the overarching one is how to do justice to the music, and how to reconcile adhering faithfully to composer’s intention as represented by the score with individual expression. It has become a stereotype that Japanese musicians (and Asians in general) are fixated on technical perfection at the cost of musicality. Discussion threads on violinist.com show that the question of expressing emotions does not preoccupy only the Japanese, but presents food for thought for all musicians in the Western classical tradition. While the depiction of the tension between the following the score and following one’s heart in NODAME CANTABILE might appear cliché-ridden, the experience for many musicians seems real enough. Perhaps enjoying this light-hearted take on the subject might even prove inspiring.
Here are links to Episode 1 (in 4 instalments, English subtitles). The links worked as of 11 June, but locations on Youtube keep changing, because copyright infringements mean that they are regularly removed (for true fans of Japanese TV dramas there are better sites).
More entries: March 2012
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