A few months ago, on the basis of strong recommendations from several trusted sources – imouto-chan included – I dipped my toe into what was then for me the alien world of Japanese live-action television dramas. But instead of quickly pulling out my foot in disgust (which pretty much sums up my initial expectations), I ended up falling in and getting hopelessly sucked under.
August 2007. I now have four titles under my belt and two under consideration for active viewing. Not an impressive tally by any means, but it’s enough of a track record for me to include the occasional J-drama write-up on this blog. To start things off, I shall publish a series of posts in which I’ll briefly describe each of the four series I’ve actively followed so far. Today the spotlight falls on Fuji TV’s Nodame Cantabile, originally broadcast in October-December 2006.
In each of the four posts I will supply links to websites with additional information. Although Wikipedia is an excellent general resource, the best specialised reference site for East Asian drama series in general (and J-drama in particular) is probably DramaWiki. In addition to the usual synopses and cast lists, DramaWiki articles include some interesting details like viewership ratings, original broadcast/ timeslot data, records of awards won and relationship charts.
Out of the four J-drama series I’ve followed so far, this sprightly comedy is easily the best of the lot. High production values, strong performances, a wonderfully engaging story and (of course) some of the best music I’ve heard in a Japanese series of any kind, live action or animated, make this series an absolute must-see.
Chiaki Shinichi is a musical genius. An accomplished pianist and violinist, the third-year student at Momogaoka College of Music yearns to become a world-class conductor like his idol Sebastiano Viera, whom he met in Prague as a child and who at that time promised to become his mentor in due course. The trouble is that a powerful phobia keeps the now grown-up Chiaki firmly stuck in Japan and unable to take Viera up on the offer. So the arrogant, multilingual perfectionist stays in his native land, showering his disgust (in private) on the less talented and nurturing his secret ambition whilst studying the piano under a harisen-wielding professor.
Noda Megumi – also known as “Nodame” – is a fellow Momogaoka student with an amazing gift for playing the piano. She wants to become a kindergarten student and teach music to children. She is also hopelessly filthy. Her flat is packed with so much rubbish that mushrooms have started to grow on her unwashed clothes, foul-smelling goo oozes into a neighbour’s balcony and the bed lies unused under mountains of garbage. Her unique style of piano playing is equally messy: she prefers learning a new piece by ear to reading the score and taps it out on the keys in a mix of faithful reproduction and wild improvisation that sets the teeth of more than a few people on edge.
As fate would have it, the two cross paths – and the result is a J-drama symphony of massively entertaining proportions.
Based on the manga of the same name by Ninomiya Tomoko, Nodame Cantabile was also turned into a 23-episode anime series that ran from January to June 2007. I tried out the manga about a year or so ago and found the story interesting, although I ended up dropping it after several chapters because I didn’t like the character design. Then I followed the anime for three or four episodes before setting it aside for the same reason. Finally, I gave the J-drama version a go, thinking (correctly) that since they were using real people character design would no longer be an issue.
Now I realise how close I came to missing out on a real masterpiece. I can’t even begin to describe how much of a draw the story was for me; that’s something you’ll have to see for yourself. The characters (including the many supporting figures) were true individuals, each with his or her own circumstances and several receiving a decent fleshing-out in the course of the 11-episode series. As for the music – well, one can’t beat the likes of Beethoven and Mahler, can one? There’s more classical music in this series than a lot of people have probably heard in their entire lives, with significant sections of many major pieces being played in their entirety. I credit this show with resurrecting my dormant love for the old masters – and I blame it for forcing me into a weekend-long search for a missing CD just so that I could listen to the Dies Irae of Verdi’s Requiem and confirm whether it was the piece played during Chiaki’s phobia-related flashbacks.
Detailed episode summaries and screencaps are available on Memento (the link will take you to the entry for Episode 1). Needless to say, the summaries are spoilery by nature so click at your own risk.
My Overall Rating: 10/10