The unique and wonderful thing about Nodame Cantabile is that characterisation is not only shown through action, it is also reflected in the use of music. It might not be obvious at first glance, but Nodame Cantabile is a drama that stands up to repeated watching and each time it brings new insights. When Nodame and Chiaki played the Mozart piano duet, the character growth was largely on Chiaki’s part. While Chiaki went on to learn how to better work with an orchestra, piano-wise it was not until the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 that we see not only a major breakthrough for Chiaki, but the stirrings of one for Nodame as well.
I. Chiaki & Rachmaninoff
The Rachmaninoff piano scene is one of my favourite Chiaki piano solo scenes (the other being the Bach piano concerto in the first film). It’s a little ironic that while the piano has never been among Chiaki’s priorities, the key times that he performs on the piano are also the times where Nodame feels her inferiority complex setting in as she watches him play. The piano serves, among other things, as Chiaki’s inspiration via Nodame and a source of conflict with Nodame. It is during the Rachmaninoff piano concerto that Nodame begins to realise the musical gulf between her and Chiaki, set into motion by Stresemann.
Until Nodame and Stresemann, Chiaki never engaged the piano seriously. As conducting has always been his dream, Chiaki wasn’t too bothered when he fell out with Harisen and was even prepared to change schools when Stresemann first refused to accept him as his pupil. So it’s interesting that once Chiaki passes his first conducting test with the S Orchestra, Stresemann makes him work on the piano. It’s not enough that Chiaki learns to work with an orchestra as a conductor, he must also learn to work with the conductor as part of the orchestra and overcome his resistance to the piano. Most of all, he must learn how to truly feel the music.
Chiaki is resistant and it shows, even when he realises Stresemann is making a real effort to teach him. When he first starts practising the Rachmaninoff piece, his playing is competent and attracts Nodame’s attention – in a lovely parallel, she hears him practising and goes to the music room where he first discovered her playing Pathetique. She is transfixed by his music, even as Chiaki seems almost unmoved despite this being a very emotional piece about the composer’s journey through and triumph over depression and writer’s block. At this point, Nodame still admires and is in awe of Chiaki’s talent, with no thought of how she measures up against him in piano terms.
During a practice session with the A Orchestra, Chiaki is thoroughly schooled by Stresemann for not throwing himself into the music. Chiaki’s reason is that he isn’t the type to exaggerate in order to show that he’s engrossed in the music, but that’s not what Stresemann wants. He wants Chiaki to seriously face the music, face the piano, instead of just skating by half-heartedly. More importantly, he wants Chiaki to break through the emotional barriers Chiaki himself had put up. Chiaki doesn’t understand and ends up really frustrated as he continues practising – I think anyone who’s done music before can empathise. There are always pieces where, no matter how you practise, you just don’t “get it”, until something happens and everything clicks for you. So it isn’t until Chiaki attends the S Orchestra’s concert and derives inspiration from their performance, with Stresemann’s words about leaving after the A Orchestra’s concert acting as catalyst, does he really understand what the maestro is driving at.
The essence of the Rachmaninoff piece, for me at least, is in the piano. The journey from depression to recovery is a triumph over adversity, both for Rachmaninoff and Chiaki. Rachimaninoff battled clinical depression, while Chiaki was weighed down by his fears, fragmented childhood, and perhaps even his own brilliance and neuroticism. This is why in the manga, J-drama and anime, Stresemann had Chiaki play the piano (as Rachmaninoff himself did when he performed this piece). In playing the piano for this concerto, struggling to immerse himself in the emotions as Stresemann wanted, Chiaki was struggling to overcome the emotional block he had imposed on himself due to his fears. He had never seriously engaged the piano before meeting Nodame (despite working really hard and becoming the best in piano at Momogaoka), and even then, he remained fairly detached – he is technically accomplished, plays according to the score and respects the composer’s intentions, but there was always distance between him and the instrument until this piece. His performance, therefore, signifies the breaking of at least some of those barriers, finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
I’ve watched the Rachmaninoff scene any number of times, and it always strikes me just how powerful it is. The music starts off soft and builds up into a frenzy of notes and emotions, as Chiaki throws himself wholeheartedly into the music and Rachmaninoff’s world, feeling the emotions the composer did, coming out of it drained and exhausted as though he’s fought a long battle, but feeling vindicated on all levels. Not only has he broken some of his own emotional barriers, he has silenced a few critics along the way. For Chiaki, this is both a personal and musical triumph – he played the way he wanted, faced the music seriously and produced a performance befitting his genius and talent. It was heartfelt, emotional and intimate. For probably the first time, he has opened his heart to music without reserve, without the strict rules on interpretation he’d set for himself, and allowed himself to truly feel. It is also during the performance that Chiaki admits (in his mind) that there are still so many things he wants to learn from Stresemann. Chiaki always seems to be losing teachers (Vieira sensei, Harisen and Stresemann’s jet-setting lifestyle) and it is something he feels keenly, which is why Stresemann’s words about leaving struck a nerve and aroused in him deep-seated emotions that served to elevate his playing to another level.
Tamaki Hiroshi was riveting at the piano and I love this Rachmaninoff scene so much. Earlier on in the Mozart piano duet, he was awkward and his inexperience on the piano showed, but by the time it came to the Rachmaninoff, he’d improved so much that he was utterly believable as a genius pianist undergoing his personal transformation – everything from his posture, demeanour, focus, confidence, intensity, emotional engagement… Tamaki had it down pat and it was gorgeous to watch. I absolutely love the tempo at which this was played and thought it fitted the whole segment so well. Rachmaninoff himself played it quicker and with some sense of urgency, which was brilliant, passionate and stirring, but for this drama Chiaki’s rendition was pitch-perfect. In particular, I liked how it emphasised the piano – I’ve heard pieces where the orchestral accompaniment would drown out the main instrument featured (for example, the piano, violin, cello or oboe), which for me defeats the purpose of featuring said instrument. So I really liked that the piano could be clearly heard in the drama – after all, that’s the point of having Chiaki play the piano so he could show off his skills.
II. Nodame & Rachmaninoff
The depressed mood of the beginning of the Rachmaninoff piece fits perfectly with Nodame’s gloom as she is lost in thought trying to digest Stresemann’s words that she and Chiaki can’t be together in her current state. She only shakes out of her stupor when Masumi comes running to get her to Chiaki’s concert, and by the time she reaches the auditorium, the music is getting good and she is immediately hooked.
Nodame is transfixed by Chiaki’s playing but begins to realise there is something different about him. It’s not the first time she’s seen him play the piano, but this is a Chiaki she doesn’t quite recognise, a Chiaki who is beginning to feel far away on a musical level. Stresemann’s words had planted that seed of doubt about her own piano ability, even if she doesn’t realise it in those terms as yet, but the visual contrast couldn’t have been starker: Nodame is standing at the back of the auditorium, half shrouded in darkness and in her mongoose costume, while a smartly dressed Chiaki is bathed in bright light, playing the piano as she’d never seen him do, totally immersed in the music and with the orchestra backing him up superbly. He is so at home on the stage that it is obvious he belongs there, in tune with the orchestra while at the same time standing out as the solo pianist. When Nodame enters the hall, the concert is already halfway through. This has echoes of their respective musical paths – while Chiaki has already spent the past seventeen or eighteen years studying music seriously (he began learning the violin and piano when he was three), Nodame in her third year of university hasn’t even begun to realise that maybe her carefree approach to music needs revising.
Chiaki’s performance arouses in Nodame a desperate urge to play the piano, replicate his sound and play with an orchestra the way he did. It’s telling how insistent she is on this – she is skipping several steps ahead but has absolutely no clue that this is a process that can’t be rushed. This getting ahead of herself would characterise her struggle with music in the rest of the Nodame Cantabile franchise. At this point, Nodame naturally doesn’t understand, despite both Stresemann and Chiaki telling her it’s not possible because she can’t harmonise with the orchestra given the way she plays and her inability to follow the score. Chiaki is possibly the only one in the world who can harmonise with Nodame off the bat because given the way she plays, it’s incredibly difficult to do so properly (Mine failed, his violin trying to keep up with her piano instead of the other way round, while Kuroki would probably have bombed the Roux-Marlet audition had he asked Nodame to accompany him on the piano).
To get it out of her system, Chiaki hauls her off to school where they slug it out on the two pianos on which they did the Mozart duet. I find it interesting that both times Nodame takes the lead while Chiaki accompanies her, this time pretending to be the orchestra – possibly one of the rare times where he takes a backseat musically. Her start is forceful, urgent and frenzied, almost angry, as though she’s unleashing all the frustrations and confusion that had been building up thanks to Stresemann’s cryptic words. Her pounding nearly drowns out his accompaniment, but despite his misgivings about this erratic yet arresting playing, he decides to properly harmonise with her and it’s just beautiful how their two pianos come together. Even though Nodame’s playing is sloppy and unpredictable, Chiaki is so in tune with her that classmates think they must be dating for them to be able to play like that. I always think that while Nodame has raw talent and incredibly good hearing, Chiaki is truly a fucking genius for being able to harmonise with her – no matter how well he knows her playing habits, for someone who plays as unpredictably as Nodame, who is apt to compose at will and veer off track as and when she feels like it, reacting to such playing on the spot to effectively produce a harmonised sound without being thrown off at any given point requires a very high calibre of musical understanding. This Rachmaninoff is raw, bruising, and really lovely. It is the melding of two different approaches to music and playing styles, of Nodame’s little journey from musical frustration to release and satisfaction at a job well done. She has overcome a personal hurdle – she has managed to play with an “orchestra” after all and that is enough to revive her spirits.
As they harmonise, Chiaki’s piano grows louder but never overwhelms Nodame’s sound, for he knows this is her show. It does reach a point where you can hear both pianos as one, yet at the same time producing distinct sounds. I love that for the first time, Nodame looks at Chiaki and smiles at him – twice at that! – while playing, finally realising his presence and actually enjoying this duet with him. Chiaki smiles back at her; he too is clearly enjoying the experience and it’s so gratifying to see that little exchange. Chiaki always steals glances at Nodame whenever they play together, so to see her responding in kind, even if it’s just once or twice, is just awesome. There is never a “eureka” moment for Chiaki where he realises he cares for Nodame more than he would a friend, but I’d like to think this special moment contributed to faint stirrings that he may not even be aware of. I mean, there’s got to be a reason why he loves playing the piano with her, right?
Even before I knew Ueno Juri had piano experience, I’d always thought she pulled off Nodame’s intimate connection with the piano with aplomb. Every time she played the piano, she was so immersed that Chiaki being the one able to break into her little world took some doing and hence was special. Moreover, Nodame’s playing had the ability to touch hearts, even if she didn’t have the right technique or finesse, and that’s something more precious than the most polished but clinical performance that leaves one cold. Ueno pulled that off superbly and that’s the hallmark of a talented actress. Moreover, I felt she was able to lead Tamaki into the playing mood, and that was important since he had no piano experience, so they were able to work off each other and their music scenes looked and felt real.
Even though the growth for Nodame isn’t obvious after the Rachmaninoff and she continues to do things with Chiaki in mind, it’s also her single-minded determination to keep up with him musically that she begs Harisen to train her for competitions. I do like that she’s taken this step forward and the roots of that can be traced back to the Rachmaninoff duet – had she and Chiaki not played it, Harisen wouldn’t have heard them and decided to coach Nodame. And while I like Tanioka sensei a lot, ultimately I feel Harisen is the better teacher for Nodame because he pushes her to improve and she reciprocates in kind in part to keep up with Chiaki, in part because she just won’t give up once she’s set her sights on a goal (and also because Toyohara Kosuke is hilarious and awesome as Harisen). For Nodame, who has always found it difficult to seriously face the piano, it’s a definite step up and in the right direction.
Of course, Nodame will find out that doing things for oneself and doing them for someone else are two very different matters…