In 2008, a titular character came into my life completely by chance and imprinted her presence so magnanimously that two years later, I deliberately crossed country borders for a weekend just to catch her on the big screen in the neighboring country. I kid you not, just as I made a similar move this past summer to catch the concert footage of BIGBANG’s Alive tour in cinemas, in 2010 I pulled this feat just for… Noda Megumi, or fondly known as Nodame.
Nodame Cantabile, anyone?
A Brief Introduction
The live-action drama actually premiered in 2006 to great success and buzz but not being a 1) manga reader and 2) musically-inclined person, this show completely slipped past me until two years later, when announcements about the production and release of not one, but two specials (SPs) were made! It boasted not just the return of the original cast namely Ueno Juri as the endearing and wacky Nodame and Tamaki Hiroshi as the understatedly cool Chiaki Shinichi, but also that filming took place in parts of Europe, the birthplace of classical music. Not long after the release of the two made-for-TV SPs, a two-part full-length film was announced, then released – the first part premiered sometime in 2009 followed by the second one, a year later.
In my opinion, Nodame is one of the best, if not the best, live-action Jdramas out there. The casting is spot-on from our titular couple to the sprawling supporting cast and throughout its run of 11 episodes, two SPs and two full-length films, the show kept the original voice and tone of the manga: the zany, comic feel were felt both tonally and visually but balanced with just the right amount of earnestness and realism. The production team clearly went to great lengths to retain the original source and for that, I am forever thankful.
Nodame Cantabile is essentially a small story, particularly that of an eccentric, at times wacky but all-around musically gifted aspiring pianist Nodame who met and fell for the highly talented and polished pianist-turned-conductor Chiaki Shinichi. It is a story about two people bounded together by love for not only each other, but also the music that defined, anchored, and embraced them every turn of the way.
Nodame + Chiaki = Together Forever
Their first encounter was totally by chance, but totally fated. Being next door neighbors and given that she’s a tried-and-true slob, before long an unlikely camaraderie forms between the two – part friendship, part oddball couple, part musical soul mates and part caretakers. Almost immediately Nodame practically starts living in Chiaki’s place and he’d provide her meals, makes sure she cleans herself up etc and bless them, because this living arrangement continued to even more levels of cuteness in the Europe portions.
It is no secret that my favorite part about the show is the romance between the two – that’s been the sole motivator from day one which kept me tuned in and giddy with excitement for more, painstakingly counting down the days to the finale of the series in the form of the movie way back when. It’s also the same reason why years later, I still find myself inclined to give the movies a rewatch as I just did last night.
The strength of the romance lies not only in the cohesion of the storytelling which is let me assure you, tight from their first meet in the first episode of the live-action drama to the first of two-parts of their new life together in Europe and finally, ending it with such a satisfactory bow in the finale. Chemistry is something that these two possess in abundance with each other – in Jdrama-land where romance is often underdeveloped or frustratingly suppressed, here’s two people who are generally open and organic in their affection towards each other. My most favorite aspect however, is this: the maturity and growth of their relationship.
What makes the pairing of Nodame and Chiaki-senpai works – and thus on a larger spectrum, why the show itself worked – is the fact that underneath all that wacky and comic, there’s an unmistakable level of maturity to their relationship. It is that sense of realism – the world surrounding them may be fiction but the trust, affection and unwavering belief they have towards each other are all rooted in something realistic and tangible. Not only that, there’s also maturity in sexual tension and how both characters respond to that. Sure, the Jdrama and earlier specials poked fun and teased a lot on that front but the movie versions, in my opinion at least, didn’t try to hide the fact that they’re both adults who are in love, in a relationship and not foreign to physical displays of affection in and out of the bedroom. It’s understated but there’s definitely some friskin’ going on between them, is what I’m saying. This makes them all the more real, even if the premise they’re surrounded by can be tonally ten kinds of whack.
For instance, the hurt over the decision to be physically separate in the pursuit of their dreams, the betrayal and jealousy on Nodame’s part when Song Rui performed a piano piece with Chiaki and the clear as day “I miss you” emotions from both of them towards each other, better yet how they attempt to handle that through phone calls and brief, surprise visits. They’re just too cute for words alone.
It’s the dynamic push-and-pull between the two that makes the stakes in their relationship not only count, but also executed to feel incredibly real. It’s the inevitable elephant in the room when it comes to their uncertain future together, or their professional aspirations as they keep being on unequal footing with her still in school and him building a reputation of his own. Plus, the what-next question for Nodame if and when she finally achieves her goal of performing on the same stage as Chiaki.
It’s in the way they take care of each other through the musically challenging periods in life, spurring each other on through what else? The lovely melodies they create together, or their understanding of the men behind the tunes. It’s in the way they care for each other when the curtains fall – getting each other out of the funk, simple but hearty things like providing meals for each other and occasionally, a hug at the end of the day regardless whether it went by wonderfully with a brilliant performance onstage, or long and arduous because of a wrong tune.
It’s in the way they embrace each other’s eccentricities and flaws, not making a big deal about that as they keep each other in check. For instance, when he’d easily sling her back to the right track while walking together because she was too engrossed in her music book.
Or those moments he’d wordlessly hug her close when he realizes that she’s having a hard time and knows that it’s even harder for her to verbalize these feelings. Or when she gets him out of his funk through her goofiness and presence. Or perhaps even, when she wore the ruby heart-shaped diamond necklace he gifted to her for their first concerto together. It’s in the little details such as these – him turning the pages of her music book for her, or her trying to cheer him up by acting silly – that makes these two characters come alive, individually and as one-half of each other.
It’s in the urgency that’s clearly felt when they’re trying to meet halfway, frantically running across the city, or the frustration when one-half misunderstands the other and both are trying their damnedest to lay out the truth. It’s in the way they communicate – a pat on the head, a blanket over a sleeping shoulder, a phone call while away, being honest even if it’s not something the other wants to hear and just plain, adoring kisses simply because.
Finally, what I love most about these two is this: music will always be front and center in their lives together, complementing their presence and there is nothing more fitting than this fact, because these two? They practically live and die by music whether it’s created, felt or experienced. I thought this point was most aptly shown near the end of the show in part two of the movie-version: it’s when words don’t cut it, actions aren’t believable enough and tension runs high, they return to the music. They return to a room with two pianos, how it all began.
“Our first duet,” he said.
“But I am no longer the same person,” she responded wistfully.
“Neither am I,” he retorted back, sounding exasperated.
“What will this prove?” She asked, her voice shaking.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
Both of them stayed mum, facing each other. As if realizing that they are indeed at an engulfing crossroad in their relationship, uncertain if they could come to a mutual decision or the ground would just shake and disintegrate, irretrievable to each other from here onward.
He sat down on the bench of the piano on the left side and she did the same, crossing the room to the other piano. “You were first piano. I was second,” he reminded her. “Here’s the starting tempo,” he said before tapping his fingers to guide her along. Another pregnant pause and the air is thick with everything that’s unsaid, hanging right above them. And then… She tapped the keys of her piano. He followed suit; they played a duet together with him keeping up to her every beat. Slowly, the air lifted.
In voice over, he thinks to himself, “She’s not the same. But I’ll stay in sync with her.” They continued to play, occasionally glancing at each other, hints of a smile forming on both their lips.
“The smallest thing… Can alter everything. Like the way a tone is affected by a change in the weather. The two of us began… in a filthy room… with Beethoven. And then two people playing Mozart in a small practice room. No matter what struggles lie ahead… this joy… will see us through.”
The dimly lit room, the sound of their piano creating an enchanting melody that’s theirs alone and the peacefulness of the moment… So, so beautiful and absolutely, perfectly executed to capture the romance as a whole.
Which brings me to this: one of the other things I love most about the ending or in their term, the final score, of the show is that it feels narratively complete. Open-ended damn right, but complete.
The long journey they’ve taken and one we’ve witnessed for five (or three, in my case) years feels whole and as viewers, we know that their lives will continue and adversities will make appearances in the ebb and flow of life naturally, but most importantly we also know that they’ll continue to be there for each other.
It’s especially satisfying when the characters themselves have obviously matured and changed – by their surroundings, by recent turn-of-events and definitely, by each other. Take Nodame for instance who started off and remained for a great portion of the show as a woman-child but one who has matured through this long journey of self-discovery. There’s a kind of precociousness and internal peace to her in the last fifteen minutes – she’s no longer frenetic and wacky, like she used to be.
When she, bold and unabashed as always, said to Chiaki, “Senpai… I feel an incredible urge to hug you. Could this be love?” and did exactly that, it’s no longer in the voice of a frazzled woman-child but a woman who has taken the long way to finally settle into her own.
Their hug… Oh damn, that hug. It’s obvious they’re precious to each other.
Ack I can’t let them go, I don’t want to! They live on forever in my mind and screen.
To Nodame and Chiaki, thank you for such a poignant, heartfelt and realistic love story. Both of you are just golden in my heart and coupled with the love you have for each other and music? Your romantic, musical journey of love is a pure and evoking sonata – I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it!