Japan (2015) Dir. Shôtarô Kobayashi
Music can mean many things to many people. For some it is a way of life, for others it is a universal language; some just enjoy the melodies and beats while others attach significant life moments to a particular song or tune. Ultimately, it is about expression – if you can’t something with your own words, music can do it for you.
It is this notion that roughly forms the basis of this live action adaptation of the manga by Akira Saso. Due to the recession, the celebrated Central Symphony Orchestra is disbanded with many of the musicians unable to be rehired. Out of the blue, most of these players were summoned to begin rehearsals at an old factory under the guidance of a conductor unknown to them, Tetsusaburo Tendo (Toshiyuki Nishida).
Tendo’s gruff demeanour and exacting methods do little to endear him to the orchestra, putting pressure on violinist and concertmaster Shinichi Kousaka (Tori Matsuzaka) to act as the middleman in finding a common ground. Yet, Tendo’s unorthodox ways not only improve the playing of the group but also brings them together on a personal level, putting them in good stead for their advertised concert just weeks away.
If this all sounds very “TV movie drama” then Maestro! is somewhat guilty as charged to a point, holding back from becoming overly sentimental just enough to not feel hopelessly saccharine, even with the rather predictable finale, whilst maintaining the focus on the music over the characters that make it.
Because there is quite the cast list with around twenty members of the orchestra, only a few singled out for individual attention, some more fleeting than others, but as we discover, this is for good reason. For example, the newest member of the orchestra is someone Tendo recruited himself, young flautist Amane Tachibana (Miwa), offering her the job after seeing her eat in a restaurant.
Amane has as tragic backstory (the young actress playing junior Amane is fantastic, probably the best performance of the whole film), which she recalls during a solo performance in which she wrenches every last drop of emotion out of her body and into her playing. Similarly, Tendo accosts elderly violinist Isao Murakami (Goro Oishi) at a train station and conducts him in an impromptu public performance to find his musical mojo.
Elsewhere telling a brass player to get his dentures fixed or bashing the bell part of the tuba player’s instrument as maintenance to restore its sound adds a little mystery to Tendo’s acute and almost spiritual connection with music, sound and the instruments. He may look like a beggar but his affinity with music is beyond reproach and gets results, even if his methods are a little unusual.
There is a lot of levity in the first half of this film, mostly through Tendo’s unrepentant eccentricities, but it soon dissipates in favour of light drama. Much of it reveals itself during the flashbacks, often serving as exposition dumps explaining Tendo’s relative obscurity to the orchestra and his connection to Kousaka, and oddly enough not as much through the conflict of personalities between Tendo and his players as you might think.
Yet we are quietly aware that Tendo is on some sort of personal mission, revealed at the halfway mark, but we wonder why he has to be on the offensive so much despite having a clear genius streak in him. Since many of the great geniuses in history were all a little unique in their own way, Tendo is beholden to this ideal but grounded by a poorly suppressed human side that tacitly drives his latest ambition.
But the music is the star and the most prominent pieces played are Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, the full run through saved naturally for the end. The key is in the performance rather than the piece themselves which excuses the minor cases of repetition as the players get up to speed to Tendo’s satisfaction, which may recall the brutal Rottweiler approach of Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash but with far less tears and no blood.
If classical music isn’t your thing, it is the journey of the cast that makes it a means to an end that you can live with for the 128-minute duration, another aspect it shares with Whiplash. Yet it takes a heart of stone not to appreciate it in the finale, and the symbolism of the perfect performances being the personal reward of the hard work and effort everyone put in.
The script isn’t that clever in making this a didactic message film and is intentionally devoid of allegory and other form of pretension, instead it wears its heart on its sleeve and allows the audience into its world, sharing musical secrets and the history of the players’ lives for that fully immersive and reciprocal experience.
Shôtarô Kobayashi’s direction is mostly on the safe side, saving his most daring work for the third act concert performance, which is a spellbinding few minutes of engaging synergy as passion and artistry coming together. How many of the cat were musically proficient is unknown to this writer, but on the whole the verisimilitude is convincing enough to pass muster.
Casting Toshiyuki Nishida as Tendo was a masterstroke, his rotund, surly appearance perfectly suited to the role of gruff taskmaster, but Tori Matsuzaka as Kousaka is a bit flat and one dimensional, showing the barest hint of a personality. Making her acting debut is pop rocker Miwa as Amane, switching her guitar for a flute, while sticking to the same upbeat role she usually adopts in her music videos.
An undemanding and inoffensive ride that serves to entertain and inspire us to find and nurture that inner calling and make it matter, Maestro! is that perfect light Sunday afternoon movie treat to lose yourself in for a couple of hours.