I remember having a neutral impression upon finishing the Nodame Cantabile anime adaptation (2007). It was a cute romance with some at-times-uncomfortable slapstick, but at least the classical music was good. So when I heard that Crunchyroll picked up the live action drama (2006), I decided on a whim to check out one episode, only to finish all 11 of them. This show had no business being this entertaining.
Nodame Cantabile is based on a manga of the same name by Ninomiya Tomoko. Taking place at a university of music students, it is a story of friends and acquaintances pushing each other towards their musical ambitions. The titular character Nodame (Ueno Juri) is an uncontrollable free spirit: learning and improvising her classical music by ear, never caring about tidying her room or maintaining personal hygiene, and falling headlong in love with her neighbour and upperclassman Chiaki. Chiaki (Tamaki Hiroshi), the co-lead, is in many ways her opposite. Uptight and organized, coming from a well-to-do family, he dreams of studying conducting in Europe but is prevented by a phobia of planes. The story follows their journeys of seizing musical opportunities, making networks of friends and acquaintances, changing each other, and pushing each other towards their respective dreams.
Disclaimer: I will admit to not having watched many dramas, and being unable to comment on acting and cinematography and such, so this piece will focus more on the narrative elements.
Nodame Cantabile is hindered by a string of quirks that might discourage viewers from watching. The story cares less about plot holes and more about giving characters convenient new challenges and opportunities for growth. The slapstick borders on abuse. And at times the show can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. The last two quirks stood out to me the most, telling me I have no business liking the show.
Early on, Nodame’s one-sided crush on Chiaki borders on obsession, and Chiaki in response keeps her violently at arms length. This, while played for slapstick comedy, still carries enough overtones of an abusive relationship to make me uncomfortable. Even in the live action drama, where I thought it would be harder to portray cartoonish violence, there are still a few sequences of Chiaki knocking Nodame around in comedic slow motion. To be clear, these sequences are not malicious: when there is abuse, such as in a flashback where a strict piano teacher beats a child, the show condemns it by the showing the emotional scar left on the child. Nevertheless, it is still jarring to see violence being almost trivialized, even if played for comedy.
Secondly, the tonal shift between comedy and solemn drama can sometimes be far from graceful. The most obvious example is the reveal of Saku Sakura’s backstory, where the comedy and the pathos are superimposed in the same scene (WARNING: minor spoilers for a small character arc near the beginning of the story). To give a bit of a background, Sakura is a bassist in Chiaki’s orchestra of misfits. She works multiple jobs due to family debts, leaving no time to practice, and is ostracized for dragging down the bass section. Chiaki, who has never had to worry about money, inconsiderately suggests that she lacks the motivation to practice and should quit music if she doesn’t care. A few days later, Nodame and a few orchestra members drag Chiaki to Sakura’s house to apologize. What follows should have been, in any other show, a watershed moment of Chiaki’s growth towards empathy and a resounding critique of socioeconomic disadvantage leading to dreams cut short. Instead, the show seems to actively undermine its serious tone. We enter Sakura’s house—a mansion—and learn that her family’s debt owes entirely to her father collecting expensive violins because his dream was for his daughter to play violin. As father and daughter confront each other over the collection, we are given the opportunity to explore the harms of projecting one’s dreams on to others. Instead, amidst the dramatic background music, Sakura passionately declares her love for the double bass “because it’s the biggest and it looks badass!” And, with that, the dramatic tension is obliterated, and I am reduced to sighing and giggling at the absurdity of the scene.
I think this scene convinced me that the show doesn’t take itself seriously at all. Instead, if you play along with its silliness, there’s a lot to love about Nodame Cantabile.
The show cares about its characters. Most are kind-hearted people, who, when given the chance, help their friends achieve their ambitions. Stresseman, the comedic pervert of a conducting teacher, genuinely cares about Chiaki and gives him chances to pursue his goals. Chiaki learns to care about his orchestra members and inspires them to improve. These results are seen in Sakura and in the rebellious rock violinist Mine, who improve their craft to keep up in Chiaki orchestra, and in Mine’s case take on a managerial role. Nodame, too, fears that Chiaki’s successes may push him out of her reach, and changes her musical goals to keep pace with him. The show becomes an interconnected web of friends and acquaintances helping each other towards their ambitions, which is a truly heartwarming sight.
If Nodame Cantabile is a show about friendships and ambitions, then nowhere are the themes most poignant than in the concerts and the after-parties. The show is divided into several arcs, each featuring one or more characters with a goal to achieve and obstacles to overcome. Each arc culminates in a concert, where the beautiful classical music blends with the viewer’s emotional investment to create a memorable experience. The giddy joy continues into the moments after the concert: it’s fun to see the members goofing off together, knowing everyone has supported each other, basking in the beauty of making something as a group, even if it’s as fleeting as a performance.
I think Nodame Cantabile has become a sort of guilty pleasure for me. There are enough flaws and problematic elements that could drive viewers from the show, but I personally loved the ridiculous humor and the uplifting camaraderie. And I’m willing to enjoy this show despite its flaws.
Nodame Cantabile (the live-action drama) is available for free legal streaming on Crunchyroll.