Nodame Cantabile (live action version)

Genre: Drama, Romance
Length: 11 x 45min, plus specials
Score: Good

Chiaki and Nodame * are both piano students at a classical academy, but are complete opposites: he’s a brooding bishie, she’s a cheerful klutz; he’s strict, tidy and hard working, she’s relaxed and messy; his music is note-perfect while hers is flexible. Chiaki aspires to join the academy’s elite orchestra, A-Oke. When a famous conductor arrives at the school he confounds everyone by setting up an alternative: S-Oke, the ‘special’ orchestra, consisting of misfits, losers and truants. Through various circumstances, Chiaki finds himself the conductor for S-Oke, while Nodame is its mascot.

The live action J-dramas I’ve seen often have a certain shakiness to them: the acting is exaggerated, the special effects are cheesy, the plots are invariably ridiculous, and there’s usually some painful Engrish. Nodame is the same, but there’s one place where the budget and effort have clearly been spent: the music. Beyond being merely correct, the performances are tuned to the plot, the characters and their moods – which with an orchestra of a hundred odd people (some odder than others) is impressive. A piece played by Chiaki in a public concert is repeated by Nodame the next day in a completely different style, in ways that are really relevant.

This series is good fun. It’s clearly a romance, but they also both have lives to struggle with. Chiaki’s ambition is to return to Europe, but his fatal (and comically overplayed) fear of flying prevent him. Nodame just wants to be a primary school teacher, but others see in her the potential to be a great musician. Nodame hangs onto Chiaki, but before he can accept her, Chiaki has to get over his distaste at how sloppy, emotional, unpredictable and clingy she can be.

As for genre, I’m tempted to classify this as ‘sport’, along with Hikaru no Go. It’s about people trying to succeed in a given medium, and understanding each other and their world through it. In Hikaru you understood characters through the way they played Go. In Nodame you understand them through the way they play music. The way people find themselves through their work is a common Japanese theme that’s well played here.

* Her name is a host of puns. Her real name is Noda Megumi, but everyone calls her Nodame. When she travels to Europe, she’s assumed to be called No Dame (Dame means incorrect or no good).
Watching the same story in two different formats is always a bit jarring. My initial reaction coming from the live action is that the anime characters didn’t look right – but I imagine it would have been true the other way as well. The live version felt the need to be more cartoonish, with shaky special effects (this is normal for J-dramas), while the anime version felt it needed to look more realistic.

The music is excellent in both. Rather than have mediocre animation of musicians playing, the anime chooses to mix two separate modes – one uses stills to merely show the scene, while the other is fantastically animated – and I’m told, by somebody with more talent than me, entirely accurate – footage of people playing their instruments.

But what about the story? They’re basically identical. The live version does miss out a few parts (such as Chiaki’s cousins, one of whom is key in telling Nodame that she isn’t suited to being a teacher), but it does already have the Paris story at the end – the anime of which is going to be coming out later this year.