Sometimes when I’m iffy about a particular writer’s work, the strength of the cast is usually a decisive factor in my giving a drama a shot. Sakamoto Yuji’s dramas are hit or miss for me, but the opportunity to watch some of the best acting talents in the business share a screen for 10 weeks was not to be missed.
Four people cross paths unexpectedly in a karaoke place and decide to form a string quartet. The members – first violin Maki Maki (Matsu Takako), cellist Sebuki Suzume (Mitsushima Hikari), second violin Beppu Tsukasa (Matsuda Ryuhei) and violist Iemori Yutaka (Takahashi Issei) – retreat to Beppu’s family villa in Karuizawa during the winter and begin to take on gigs, performing as Quartet Doughnuts Hole. However, they have secrets they are hiding from one another…
It’s always interesting to compare actors who started out just a few years apart in their acting careers and were generally regarded as a great onscreen couple. Matsu Takako was in Long Vacation with Kimura Takuya, playing a supporting character. They then had a couple of hits together – Love Generation and Hero – but while Kimura kind of stagnated acting-wise (and has stagnated ever since), Matsu honed her craft well and is now considered one of the best actresses of her generation, not to mention a talented singer and songwriter. I also appreciate that she tries to choose a variety of roles and is not really typecast since she’s pretty versatile, while Kimura is forever stuck in a particular image that he seems to have little desire to break out of.
Quartet is an example of casting done right. It’s difficult to think of other actors who could have carried off these quirky roles with aplomb, and the cast gave life to a fairly decent script from Sakamoto, who was for once not trying to be too smart for his own good (Mondai no Aru Restaurant, anyone?). Matsu gave a wonderfully nuanced performance as Maki – standout scenes include her face-off with Suzume and Arisu, and when she revealed her backstory. There was always the sense that there was more to Maki than what she chose to reveal, and this required a fine balance that Matsu executed well. Mitsushima Hikari was lovely as the off-kilter Suzume who could sleep anywhere, but while she was great being offbeat, it was her more melancholic scenes that got me – in particular, that chat Suzume had with her grandpa boss, and her bonding with Maki that was unexpectedly strong in the latter half of the drama. Takahashi Issei provided a lot of laughs with his deadpan delivery as Iemori, while Matsuda Ryuhei was more strait-laced than I’d have liked as Beppu – I actually felt that Matsuda was shortchanged in this regard because Beppu was a rather dull character. Still, his earnestness around Maki was somewhat adorable.
The humour involved puns about food and everyday living, revealing little things about the various characters (for example, Iemori’s preference for no-pantsu, and that hilarious nitpicking over lemon on karaage and ignoring the parsley). Certain throwaway scenes that might seem irrelevant at first watch take on another meaning once you think about them – for example, Maki asks Suzume early on in the drama whether she had met and chatted with an acquaintance only to realise after 10 minutes that she didn’t even know the person. I do like that the humour was not in-your-face or forced, even if some of it seemed incredibly mundane or lame. The story was fairly well-paced, with an episode each dedicated to Suzume and Iemori, but although we got quite a bit of Maki (rightly so as she was the main character), Beppu’s backstory never quite got covered. It just seemed he existed to provide shelter for the other three and perhaps as the counter tale, the one who toed the line but ended up miserable for giving up his dreams – it’d have made more impact had it actually been depicted properly instead of Beppu relating it like he was talking about the weather. Still, the wonderful thing about J-dramas is that when romance is not key to the story, it usually does not overshadow the central themes – in this case, we got to see the blossoming of friendships and relationships between four misfits who are trying to find their place in the world. The ending is also reflective of real life where you just have to keep soldiering on despite the knocks.
There was a giant flaw, however, that took away quite a few credibility points. It was glaringly obvious the music didn’t match the actors’ movements on the instruments and I was constantly distracted by that. I understand the actors had a few sessions with real musicians to pick up playing techniques and whatnot, but this is not something a few lessons can solve. Nodame Cantabile is an example of how this was done right, but not so for Quartet and I couldn’t buy the characters as musicians because every time they played something, it was just jarring and somewhat off-putting. This is a pity because the drama featured some really lovely music. Sakamoto should have just chosen another profession where it wouldn’t have been so obvious the actors were just faking it. The ending theme song was nice but I could have done without the 1950s glitzy posturing.
Quartet is not a masterpiece by any means; rather, it is more of a case where the actors made the script work better than it probably would have otherwise. Still, it was easy to be swept along by the offbeat charm of the characters and worth the watch for the acting talent on display – in an age where we’re overwhelmed by half-baked folk hacking it as actors, we should be grateful for every opportunity to watch the quality ones in action.