Nodame & Chiaki: Sonata for Two Pianos

Nodame: Senpai's playing is so accurate! It was really according to the score! Chiaki: ......

Nodame: Senpai’s playing is so accurate! It was really according to the score!
Chiaki: You’re just too sloppy!

As I revisit episodes of Nodame Cantabile, I always find something interesting and new about the relationship between Nodame and Chiaki. I love that a huge part of their relationship is about the piano. It’s a very special instrument, the piano, with its black and white keys and the wondrous, crisp music it produces. I’ve always loved piano music above all else, so watching Nodame Cantabile and having the two lead characters be this intimately involved with the piano was an absolute delight.

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It all began with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor, Op. 13 “Pathetique”  – the second movement, Adagio Cantabile – but I love the build-up to this and how the drama has taken care to ensure every scene is relevant to the storyline and characterisation. Chiaki has been down in the dumps about not being able to be a conductor, and after a spat with Harisen, he’s heading home feeling completely pissed. As he walks out, he hears Pathetique being played and initially dismisses it as being sloppy and pathetic. But as the music builds, he is stunned and revises his assessment – it’s messy and the tempo is faster than how it would normally be played, but it’s not wrong. He then dashes back into the building to find the source and chances upon Nodame (her back is to him) in the music room playing it. Chiaki is transfixed by her interpretation and is about to enter the room, but is interrupted by Saiko and loses his chance.

I’d gone into this drama for Tamaki Hiroshi (who is divine as Chiaki, yum), but the use of Pathetique as the piece that attracts Chiaki to Nodame’s playing is arguably what sealed the deal for me, because it’s one of my favourite piano pieces and I love that it becomes that special piece for Chiaki and Nodame. Chiaki is a Beethoven guy (he was even pounding the keys with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata prior to the spat with Harisen) and throughout the franchise, has played and conducted Beethoven, so it’s only natural that he is drawn to a piece by the composer. I love that he recognises the pianist’s talent despite the different interpretation and, unbeknownst to him, is the start to rekindling his passion for music. It’s worth noting that it is not any other orchestral piece that drew Chiaki to Nodame, but a piano piece, and a Beethoven one at that – and piano was not really among Chiaki’s priorities at that point in time.

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It’s also key that this piece is used, because after Chiaki gets drunk and is dragged into Nodame’s apartment, he wakes up to her playing the same piece. In voiceover, he says her playing is as though a song is being sung, which is the cantabile style – reflected in the name of the second movement and also how Nodame plays. It also neatly explains the title of the drama. Without this scene, this piece, the essential initial connection between Chiaki and Nodame would be lost. Also, I think it’s a piece that suits Chiaki’s mood at the moment – the Adagio Cantabile is generally heavy and melancholic, and thus feeds into Chiaki’s despair, but Nodame giving it a more cantabile feel, with the tempo picking up, actually relaxes him (like how she gently blew into his ear when he was drunk) and indicates that there could be light at the end of the tunnel for Chiaki.

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Which is why the choice for the piano duet, Mozart’s Sonata in D major for two Pianos K 375a (K 448), is interesting. It’s a light, quick and happy piece, very unlike Chiaki and definitely more suited to Nodame. It’s also a character-building piece, as is revealed at the end of the episode – to play this piece, teamwork is needed and Chiaki learns not only to work with another person (Nodame), he also begins to appreciate music again. Again, the build-up is crucial. When Chiaki learns he has to do this two-piano assignment with Nodame, he is initially annoyed that she isn’t playing “properly” and his whole effort is directed at making sure she is playing according to the score. When she fails to get it time and again, he blows up at her. Nodame, to her credit, doesn’t do stupid things like throw a tantrum or bite Chiaki’s hand – instead, she just stares despondently at the piano and listlessly pokes at the keys. Chiaki is stunned to realise he’s doing to her what he disliked about Harisen’s abusive style of teaching, and feels guilty. He recognises that she’s putting in effort despite her sloppy playing and dislike of practising. I find this whole scene pretty powerful, especially coming on the back of the dinner fiasco with Milch – Nodame wouldn’t have been so persistent about playing the duet with Chiaki had she not witnessed him in one of his low moods (the Pathetique makes a wonderful return, this time in all its slow, melancholic glory emphasising Chiaki’s despair), and she knows there’s something not quite right in the way he brushes her off saying he doesn’t really care about the duet assignment.

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Finally, Nodame gets it right and Chiaki “rewards” her by shampooing her hair and blow-drying it – a guy who does that (and cooks for you) is a keeper, I tell ya. It’s particularly satisfying, however, when Chiaki sees how stressed Nodame is on the day of their duet, reading the score and trying to get the fingering right, and he tells her that she is actually free to play as she likes. This is a huge concession from Chiaki and I love that he calls her Nodame while telling her that – he acknowledges that she is his duet partner, recognises and appreciates her effort. But he also understands that it’s important to let her play without restrictions, otherwise her music loses that special quality that first attracted him to it. What I find particularly intriguing is how Chiaki is always more aware of Nodame when they’re playing than she is of him – she is completely lost in her music and almost never looks in his direction, but he is half the time casting glances her way. He’d always explain it away as him needing to accommodate her style of playing, which is partly true because you need to be aware of what the other person is doing to match up, but I think at the same time, he’s also trying to figure out, through her playing, just what makes her tick and how he too can harness it for himself. It’s also a neat reversal, because Chiaki’s always going on about Nodame needing to listen to his playing so they can be in sync, but in the end she’s the one taking the lead and he has to listen to her playing in order to keep up with her.

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Through their duet, Chiaki begins to feel again a flicker of his passion for music (the flashback to little Chiaki and Vieira sensei complements this well) . And after they’ve finished, arguably it’s Chiaki who looks the more pleased by how smoothly the duet has gone – he knows Nodame’s playing habits and has managed to accommodate her style of playing without hurting his own. Best of all, he’s felt that tingle again. This is a lovely turnaround because he’d been so close to giving up on music, on himself. Nodame perhaps sensed that in the aftermath of the Milch dinner fiasco, which would explain her persistence. I also like the little follow-up where Chiaki asks why she bothers practising piano when she doesn’t want to join competitions and Nodame says she wants to become a kindergarten teacher because it’s her dream. He looks surprised at that and then resolves to work towards his conducting dream once again – unknowingly, Nodame has inspired him again, and I love little beats like this, especially when he looks at her as she skips away, seemingly impressed, saying in voiceover to Vieira sensei that there are amazing people in Japan after all.

And all this is just part of episode 1! When storytelling is done well and you have actors who bring that out and more, characters can easily become relatable and much can be understood about their motivations and personalities. I could already feel the chemistry between Tamaki Hiroshi and Ueno Juri in their first few scenes, and that was important in establishing their offbeat relationship. Even with the manga-esque humour (which really cracked me up and I felt was a lovely touch), the music and their learning journeys ground them in reality. When a good drama makes you feel, it really does go beyond the warm fuzzies.

junny@2.04am

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