Revisiting Nodame Cantabile, A Special Ode to the Timeless Cantabile.

Nodame Cantabile (2006)

It is such an interesting and meaningful experience, watching Nodame Cantabile six years later, since I first discovered this gem of a show in 2008. This time around I watched it in completion, from its live-action drama that premiered in late 2006 to the European specials that was released in early 2008 to the first part of the movie special in mid-2009 and at long last, the show took a bow with the release of the second and last part of its movie special in 2010.

I’ve watched the movies about half a dozen times by now, but this is the first time that I properly revisited the drama that spurred everything and brought us here in 2014, still madly in love with the titular Noda Megumi or fondly called Nodame, and her maestro-in-the-making, Shinichi Chiaki or just y’know- everyone’s forever beloved senpai.

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I waited until the recent Korean remake, Tomorrow Cantabile, wrapped up earlier this week to be fair to the Kversion.  The moment I finished that one though, I immediately turned to its original and not even two minutes into Nodame Cantabile, I realized that I was mistaken about Tomorrow Cantabilehonest-to-God, it pales in comparison.

I still think that on its own, Tomorrow Cantabile isn’t a lost cause, but that’s exactly it: on its own. Against its Japanese counterpart, it’s true that the Korean version never stood a chance, because it barely scratched surfaces and depths that Nodame Cantabile did- if one delved deep enough to retrieve its golden nuggets and quiet wisdoms, that is. Despite being critical and apprehensive about the remake, I’d relaxed my judgment on the Korean version when it premiered, thinking they’re comparable in terms of heart and sentiments (feels) but huh, I was wrong. Definitely mistaken.

I’m really writing this to correct myself: nope.

Re-watching the drama for the first time after six long years, I realized I’d actually forgotten how important and central each character was to the overall development of the story. How Nodame Cantabile wasn’t just the story of growth for Chiaki and Nodame, but also its side characters. Take Kiyora Miki for example, who conceived and birthed Rising Star alongside Chiaki, or Mine, who protected not just the orchestra, but the friendship circle.

What’s even more satisfying and affecting is how the original Japanese version never resorted to petty internal fights and woe-is-me conflicts – the whole story carried an optimistic tone despite its varied themes of coming-of-age, growth, friendship and love, with characters who are so endearing and genuinely love each other. Like with Masumi for instance, whose ‘otherness’ was never made a big deal, rather affectionately embraced and accepted by everyone. Or how about how they’d cheer each other on, everyone? Sending faxes all the way from Japan and all the little things they do for each other. Above all and what I believe Nodame Cantabile still does best though, is to hold its story together through music. At the core of the show and within each character, main and sides, music carried and embodied the spirit of the show throughout its run.

I can’t believe I didn’t remember this; shame on me.

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Then there’s Nodame, who is totally not Seol Nae Il. Or maybe it’s more like now that there’s a direct point of comparison, those special golden flecks that make Nodame who she is really, really sparkle. Again, here’s where I’m in the wrong, for remembering Nodame from the movie specials because I usually rewatch those – that’s a slightly different Nodame because of growth and maturity, and because the movie versions focused heavily on her relationship with Chiaki. But you know, in the drama, Nodame was Nodame before Chiaki happened and I love that girl she was before he came along; her spunk and heart are all hers, for sure.

One thing about the Korean version that I had a hard time accepting was the show’s interpretation of Nae Il’s autonomy to think for herself but unlike that version, in the original Nodame stood up for herself several times without anyone needing to prompt her. She did her own saving, thank you very much. For instance, early in the drama she’d punched Stresemann when he bargained a kiss from her and later, she counter-attacked Eto-sensei because she didn’t like his teaching methods, or even more awesome was that scene in the European SP where she literally jumped on Chiaki for chiding her as not being serious with their then-ambiguous relationship.

(and let’s face it, he was a jerk who didn’t properly define the relationship for a while)

What it ultimately comes down to though, I think, is that sure Nodame is peculiar and eccentric and strange, but she’s not a child. I mean, I never thought she was one but I guess I remember her having a lot of childlike qualities and this is also often cited by people whenever Nodame is discussed, but you know, I don’t think that’s true. I think it’s more accurate to say that she has the innocence and purity of a child, a naïvety maybe, but she never behaves like one. In my opinion, the irony is that although Chiaki may be the one who’s supposedly more of an adult and uh normal, it’s really Nodame who acts like one when it comes to relating emotions with actions. Her emotions are always expressed crystal clear and unambiguous; when she’s in love, she goes all out and when she’s happy, it’s a literally an out-of-body joyous reaction.

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But really, I think one of the main take-aways I picked up from this re-watch experience is how much Nodame Cantabile is actually all about Chiaki, that it’s always been more about him than her. The drama began with him and heavily focused on his arc of the story throughout its run – Nodame’s arc was always inserted alongside his but was never the main focus until the last movie, but of course because their growth complement each other, their arcs converge time and again.

But you know why that’s particularly interesting? Or at least I thought so, because again I never noticed this before, and it’s that the story’s always been told from Chiaki’s point-of-view. It’s not only narrated by him but it’s really Chiaki’s lenses that we’re borrowing in our glimpse into their world and well, frankly, Chiaki does sometimes act like such a typical man. When he isn’t (or actually particularly in those moments when he is), he’s quite the jerk. Which is why it’s not a surprise that Nodame’s growth is always shoehorned with his or almost always after his own, because Chiaki is all about himself before anyone else. He’s not cocky per se, but he obviously thinks highly of himself; his initial nonchalant and frequent use of ore-sama is telling enough. Also funnily, despite having watched the last movie of the live-action half a dozen times (actually, probably more) by now, it’s like after watching the show in completion do I now finally understand why the ending played out the way it did. It took Nodame a full-length drama and three specials to finally have Chiaki’s full attention to see her, truly and literally, on a visceral level and to gage what she feels and has felt all the while; to actually see her in a spectrum that’s one level above even music.

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Okay, I don’t know if I’m making total sense with my above analysis about their relationship, but what gutted me hard while completing my re-watch and one I consider my gravest mistake is declaring their relationship equal. Re-watching it now, I realized that no, it wasn’t because Nodame was constantly chasing… not so much after him – it’s more accurate to say that she was chasing to be on par with him. To stand on the same stage not just literally, but also to be on the same level with regards to their musical aspirations and professions.

I’d failed to noticed (forgotten, largely) to notice that. So you know, it’s no wonder things unveiled the way they did in the last movie – that wasn’t just Nodame burning out because music kept slipping past her but it’s about her reaching her breaking point about loving him; why isn’t her love alone towards him enough? Why isn’t it enough to love music the way she does, and have him love that version of her?

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I thought it (finally) made total sense why the theme of facing the music was so frequently explored in Nodame’s arc. Why Stresemann kept stressing that and sometimes chiding her about it, and why Auclair-sensei tried to guide her to that point where she can finally answer the question of “Why do you do music?” without Chiaki appearing as part of her answer. There’s no doubt that music, for the both of them, remains central in their lives and spirits, but I thought the question above was particularly important – why couldn’t Chiaki just love and settle for the Nodame that practices music in her own (small) way, away from the glitz and glamor of the stage? Because that’s exactly why Nodame did what she did, chasing after music for him. Unlike Chiaki, I think for Nodame, he came before the music they’re both so passionate about, which is why it scared her so much that he kept soaring to higher skies, seemingly no longer within her grasp, before she eventually became frustrated and angry. It’s the frustration of realizing that not only does his world – going professional – not seem to accept her, but she’s already stretching as far as she can to catch up with him – even moving abroad for goodness sake! – and still, she keeps falling short or more frustratingly, the target keeps advancing ahead with little regards for her.

 Why is it not enough to stay and be with him because she loves him, without having and needing music to define that love?

…I think this question was what propelled her to ask for his hand in marriage towards the end of the movie, and also why that was her last straw. Before this, no matter how many times I watched that scene, I never quite understood why she suddenly proposed, but I feel like now I finally get it. At the heart of Nodame, I think it was… love. Not music like I always presumed, but earnest love. Love for Chiaki and music yes, but the former actually trumps the latter – a huge deal, really huge deal – and so why it was necessary that she understood her love for music is separate and distinct from Chiaki.

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I know I wrote this write-up about them – still my favorite drama-related write-up to date, too – but now I honestly feel like that was a terrible mistake because of the narrow interpretations I had of their relationship. Some aspects are still true, like how they complement each other musically and personality-wise, but I think I missed the key point, the true significance, of that last scene of the two of them in that sunlit room with the two pianos- back to how it all started for them. In my mind and heart there’s no doubt that Nodame and Chiaki are still meant to be, but I wish I didn’t give Chiaki so much credit like I did before because where Nodame needed to pick up lessons about her love for music, Chiaki needed one about returning love in earnest.

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What’s amazing about Nodame Cantabile and just why the Korean version ultimately pale in comparison and can’t stand on par with its Japanese counterpart is because stripped away from all that candid humor, candor and manga feel, Nodame and Chiaki are actually two of the most realistic characters I’ve come across and amazingly, they come to life with each watch. There’s very real depth to them and their journey isn’t merely a journey – it’s really an incredibly realistic and relatable growth experience, that as individuals and as two people in a relationship.

The show’s tone definitely varied with each movement beginning from the drama, which was more down-to-earth and centered around everyone in general, to the European SPs that was more slapstick and lighthearted, to the movie installments which went for a more understated overall feel and really focused on Nodame and Chiaki. I do think this thrice tonal shift affected the overall flow of the story and influenced my interpretations of Nodame and Chiaki too, but one thing I’ve to hand to them is that I think it’s crazy – amazing, really – that their story’s able to withstand the ebb and flow of physical time with sentiments that resonate as richly and heartrendingly like it’s the first time, every time. Now that’s what I call true storytelling.

Nodame Cantabile, without a doubt, is a masterpiece.

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8 thoughts on “Revisiting Nodame Cantabile, A Special Ode to the Timeless Cantabile.

  1. Wow thanks you for this. That part of Nodame’s center being love more than music is a striking point. I think it’s time I do a rewatch too… Unlike you, I’ve only seen it once, when I was like 14? 7 years ago dear me!

    1. Yup I last watched it six years ago myself! Totally different lenses to be honest and I think now that we’re at the ages they are (kinda, I’m closer though haha) definitely gives a different insight behind their intentions and actions – most notably that there’s a lot more beyond the cute and funny that we often remember and associate with the show. There’s actually a lot more I thought of and wanted to write about when I watched it in entirety, but somehow this write-up turned out this way haha. But to sum it all up, basically I think Nodame Cantabile doesn’t get enough credit as a story well-grounded to authentic growing pains and genuine struggles about trying to meet halfway in a relationship …so I wrote this :)

  2. Lovely analysis, and I’m glad your rewatch brought new insights. I find myself doing that each time I revisit Nodame Cantabile, how it is a story about both Chiaki and Nodame (even though we see things mainly from Chiaki’s point of view). Their growth, both character-wise and musically, is arresting and heart-rending, you feel for both of them as they struggle through things at the various stages of their lives. And yes, despite the manga-esque humour, they are really very realistic characters – I daresay any viewer who’s had a brush with music lessons would understand and sympathise with Nodame’s difficulties on just why she does music, and Chiaki coming to terms with his reinterpretation of music and what it means to him and those around him. I also love that everybody was weird in Nodame Cantabile, and even Chiaki, who seemed relatively normal, was losing his sanity bit by bit the more he hung out with Nodame. It was such a fun and crazy world.

    Growing up is painful, and some people have found the tonal shift (particularly in the films) difficult to accept, saying the series was no longer fun, but I thought it was wonderfully done and realistic. In part, I blame Stresemann because he was the one who enlightened Nodame about the musical disparity. I know he means well, and Nodame herself comes to realise what it all means ultimately, but boy was the development process painful. That said, I love how she realises at the end (on her own, and with a little help from Chiaki) that she is both independent of and complementary with Chiaki, and that the two can co-exist. I still feel that a little part of her remains very conscious of just how she can measure up to Chiaki (and that’s only normal because he’s so goddamn brilliant), but at least she’s learning to let go and develop on her own, for herself. I like that about Nodame, that no matter what, she has that autonomy about her even if at times it looked like it could never be found.

    The writing was excellent and the actors threw themselves into their roles wholeheartedly, so much so that I could never imagine any other who could pull off Nodame and Chiaki as Ueno Juri and Tamaki Hiroshi did. The supporting cast was awesome, from Mine and Kiyora, to Stresemann and Masumi. The music selection complemented the characters’ growth really well and each piece had relevance and significance to the character in question (I love, in particular, Chiaki’s Rachmaninoff and Bach piano scenes, not to mention his conducting of the Tchaikovsk 1812 Overture).

    I skimmed the k-version and gawd it was awful as a remake.

    Sorry, I seemed to have rambled! But Nodame Cantabile tends to get me to do that, heh.

    1. Hi Junny, thanks for your comment! No worries about the length – have you noticed the typical length of my entries? Hahaha so yeah, no worries at all :) In fact, I really wanna say thanks because you touched on points that never really crossed my mind and/or had me chewing on some points again.

      You know, when you said this: “I daresay any viewer who’s had a brush with music lessons would understand and sympathise with Nodame’s difficulties on just why she does music, and Chiaki coming to terms with his reinterpretation of music and what it means to him and those around him.” I realized that part of my fascination with the show and the two of them is probably because I’m not a musical person, so the struggles and passion they have for music is a universal thing for those of us who love what we love, but maybe part of my fascination is cos I have to focus 2x more to really try to dissect a scene and tie-in the music to it etc. Adds an extra layered depth in my interpretations- didn’t realize this, so thanks for pointing this out :)

      Now that you pointed it out, haha I also love that about Nodame Cantabile and how Chiaki just kinda took everything(everyone) in stride and lived with it. That’s also what I mean about Masumi and the gang accepting him, not making a big deal about it too and in fact I remember Mine complimenting Masumi for his Victorian dress costume during the S-oke performance for the festival. It’s like everyone’s just peace-lovin’- LOVE.

      Everything you said in your second paragraph – ABSOLUTELY. I especially loved that bit about Chiaki being so goddamn brilliant because yup, let’s face it – totally. “I like that about Nodame, that no matter what, she has that autonomy about her even if at times it looked like it could never be found.” And this – yes yes yes, a hundred yes. It’s why Nae Il in Tomorrow Cantabile, while endearing, sometimes frustrated me (though it’s really the fault of the writer for interpreting Nodame and therefore writing Nae Il this way).

      Tamaki Hiroshi sported a number of rather funky hairdo throughout the live action and became visibly thinner in the movie versions! But his conducting performances were also SO engaging and like you could see the passion that burns inside Chiaki – basically I’ve no doubt the actors lost themselves to their characters haha. And about the rest of the cast/character, I actually didn’t remember Kiyora much for instance, beyond remembering she and Mine maintained a long-distance relationship, so I was pleasantly surprised how central her character was in the drama (and the same can be said about Mine). I can’t comment on the music since I know nothing about that, but I will heartily and happily take your word on it :)

      I ended up spending some time last night rereading the manga (at 3 AM, no less!) and le sigh, it’s like a book with so much subtleties and hidden nuance – reading between the lines and images etc (and helps that Nodame in the manga is even spunkier, love that!)

      Really, thank you for this very engaging comment :)

      PS I just went to your blog and omg, I’ll be coming back and be around there for sure :p

  3. Heh, always glad to discuss more with a Nodame fan XD I also like your take on the marriage proposal scene, that had me puzzled for a while but I think your interpretation sounds pretty logical. At that point, Nodame felt she was losing Chiaki musically and the only thing they shared was their love, so it was like a last-ditch effort to assure herself that things would be okay between them (also key was that scene right before, when she hugged him and he was wondering if she could be trying to overcome some obstacle in her own odd way). I found Chiaki’s reaction to the sudden marriage proposal to be perfectly normal, but I give him minor props for realising rather quickly that something wasn’t right (it usually takes him a while, haha).

    As for the music, it took me a few watches to realise just how well done the selection was and how each piece was chosen to fit the character’s particular development at that point in time. The Mozart piano duet was one (and nicely bookended the series), while the Rachmaninoff was another. I thought the use of the Rachmaninoff was brilliant in the J-drama (I have a post planned on this), but very poorly tacked on in the k-version (which I found to be pathetic overall). The music selection is, admittedly, a bit more skewed towards Chiaki’s development, but I think the series redeemed itself in the films for Nodame (Mozart really suits Nodame), especially her piano concerto with Stresemann where she was totally not enjoying it. Overall, I can’t applaud the selection enough, since I enjoy the works of most of the composers featured.

    I only skimmed the manga (it’s really not my kind of medium), but I’m glad to know that Nodame is even spunkier in it. She certainly was pretty kick-ass in the J-drama!

    Yes, Tamaki Hiroshi lost a lot of weight between the specials and films – he did it for a film role in 2009, so he was really skinny. Still, I thought he was mesmerising when he was conducting, at times it really felt like he was a real conductor! I love how Chiaki always surveyed his orchestra before he started conducting, it was just so cool. And yes, he had some weird hair in the specials, but I liked best his hair in the drama and films (especially when he was all suited up, omg). As for Mine and Kiyora, yes they were really awesome in the drama, I really love their pairing too. Kiyora obviously wore the pants in the relationship, but I love how Mine was so supportive of her and she recognised and appreciated it too. And I love Mine’s bromance with a reluctant Chiaki, especially the kotatsu episode where he kept trying to be Chiaki’s “radar”, hahaha.

    And thank you for visiting my blog!

    1. I love everything you said here! And so I’m just putting it out there that you know, if you write about the music selections and how they tie in to the show (or specific scenes/key moments) I would LOVE to read that! Hehe :) I really have zero musical background haha, which is why I loved that Chiaki would narrate about Mozart etc to bring the selections into context – but I think you’re getting somewhere real good and interesting there, would love to hear the whys on these: “The music selection is, admittedly, a bit more skewed towards Chiaki’s development, but I think the series redeemed itself in the films for Nodame (Mozart really suits Nodame), especially her piano concerto with Stresemann where she was totally not enjoying it.” :)

  4. I agree with the ‘On its own’. Cos i liked it, but i didn’t compare it to the original, and I felt like it was very much its own drama; plus, I didn’t love the original as much as others did. I liked it of course, but didn’t love love love it. So it was easy for me to just forget about it. And if we don’t compare them, Naeil’s Cantabile isn’t a bad show. It’s very Korean though. Do you remember how they buggered up Hana Kimi when they remade it as To The Beautiful You and Koreanised it, which basically meant taking out the things people liked about the original Japanese version and just making it pretty and love triangley instead? I feel that at least in Naeil’s case, they didn’t bugger it up as badly as they could have; except the ending, because what Korean drama doesn’t have a terrible ending, lol. But I liked the characters, I liked how Yoo Jin changed, i liked the little side romances and friendships. The writers realised that they’d made Nae Il too ridiculous so they toned her down, which was nice. And for me, I loved the fact that the things they didn’t bring across from the original were the things I didn’t like anyway. Like, they got rid of the slapstick, and the multiple men that kept falling in love with Nodame, and the fact that Chiaki never admitted to his feelings until the very end. They actually got rid of the things I didn’t like, so that was a big plus for me. But you’re so right, that Naeil’s Cantabile can only be taken on its own, otherwise it’d never survive.

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