Having stood on the podium of professional and community orchestras for nearly 20 years, I have a special understanding of the conductor’s role in shaping the music to his/her way of thinking. I can also empathize with the non-musical relationships that—sooner or later—ensnarl maestros and musicians of all orientations. Like any workplace, it’s usually a good idea to avoid “office romances” for the sake of the mental health of the principals and their co-workers alike.
Alas it’s near impossible to prevent human nature.
In Satoshi Kaneda’s marvellously paced and crafted take on a music-laden love triangle (Kô Akizuki’s novel has been given first-class treatment by screenwriters Rino Itaya and Shinsuke Hakoda) the stereotypical situations and characterizations are, thankfully, much more avoided than embraced. At the centre is not-quite-good-enough-to-go-pro violinist Morimura Yuki (rendered with just the right amount of “does he or doesn’t he?” and aptly boyish good looks by Shota Takasaki). He’s accepted his lot in life, teaching music part time, practising a saccharine-filled song of longing in the park (his neighbours threaten to have him evicted if he shares his art in their thin-walled digs) and feeding what little remains of his ego by holding down the position of concert master in the town of Fujimi’s B-rated, “chrome 2” orchestra.
The shy, nervous young man (whose large glasses kindle a curious resemblance to Harry Potter) is head-over-heels in love with principal flautist, Natsuko Kawashima (done up with a fine range of emotions and moods by Sayuri Iwata) who displays more courage and understanding than both men combined. Yuki’s bought the engagement ring (tying in nicely with the numerous Wagner references—notably during what appears to be a rape…) but hasn’t the balls to pop the question.
Entranced by Yuki’s outdoor serenade and instantly smitten with his angelic visage, hot shot maestro Tonoin Kei (Yûsuke Arai proves himself to be a model of arrogance, managing to beat time with conviction but unable to end a phrase) astonishes everyone but himself by offering his considerable services (currently an assistant conductor for one of Japan’s major ensembles) to the music-loving, technically challenged community orchestra, immediately upstaging Yuki’s leadership.
Kei’s first rehearsal sets up the narrative’s initial outburst of “Stop!” (all three leads are provided a turn) as the demanding music director insists that his awe-struck charges watch only him (instead of their parts) in order for the music to reach the next level. While this eruption works dramatically, it’s the onset of a number of inconsistencies compared with what orchestral life is really like (vrai maestros disdain speaking, preferring to let their bodies do the talking—if they have to yell “Stop!” to halt the music, they have no business conducting anyone).
Similarly, choosing Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) is a subtle metaphor for the pivotal encounter between Yuki and Kei in the desperately smitten maestro’s lair, but the original is for strings only; orchestrating it to include the winds (affording Kawashima the chance to stand apart from her bowed colleagues) weakens the music even if it heightens the plot. Kei’s music stand, apparently holding a single part rather than the full score, is at the wrong angle but few will notice, less will care.
All of that aside, there is so much more that lifts this production from a slight curiosity to some very fine cinema.
Whether intentional or not (one hopes the former) the orchestra really does have a community sound: wobbling winds, racing strings and some wrong entries by the cellos and basses that are exactly what a well-meaning band might produce before being whipped into shape by an exacting conductor. Throughout the film the improvement in the overall result is as welcome as it is noticeable. Takasaki does a commendable job “faking” as a violinist; his on-camera double (no face ever revealed) is the real deal in terms of vibrato, fingering, et cetera; like Yuki’s character, the long melodic lines are merely OK, “not good enough” indeed. (One can only surmise, then, that Kei’s infatuation was driven far more by Yuki’s delicate limbs than the siren call of his music making.)
After seeming to end on a surprising (for the genre, see above) note, Kaneda cobbles together a coda that discreetly turns the tables, provides long-awaited back-story and leaves viewers with a bit of homework regarding just what the relationship between the musical men will become. JWR