Hi everyone! I’ve never written anything for the blog before, but I had some things to say about Tomorrow Cantabile, so here I am!
First, let’s start with a little background on me as a drama watcher. Let’s just put this out there. I am generally not a rom-com watcher. I am not the target audience for anything billed as “romantic comedy” or even “romance”, for that matter. For whatever reason, I’m generally pretty immune to “romance” in general, so if a story is primarily a romantic one, there had better be some other stuff going on to keep my interest. The most important factor in my enjoyment of a drama (or movie, or book) is how I feel about the characters. There has to be at least one that I connect with on some level, and preferably there will be more than one. Fortunately, this drama is brimming with relatable, likeable characters. Tomorrow Cantabile is a romance, lack of kiss notwithstanding, but there’s plenty to like despite that. *ducks tomatoes*
Going into this drama with a modest amount of familiarity with the source material and adaptations (watched the jdrama, but only the main series; read a random volume of the manga (vol. 2, lessons 7-12); watched exactly one episode of the anime), I was excited to see what this version would have to offer (other than the obvious *ahem*).
The theme of “learning” is a major one, unsurprisingly, as the drama is set at a music academy. However, most of the learning that takes place is of the personal realization variety. Characters (and not just the students) learn from one another, grow and change, help each other and learn to accept help. I appreciated the drama’s low-key vibe. You will find no screaming, hysterics, killing or revenging here. But it’s also far from boring. Not only are the characters some of the most likeable you’ll find, the touches of comedy are always there at just the right moment to lighten the mood.
Tomorrow Cantabile is a sweet, light, fast-paced drama about a group of young adults learning, changing, and facing their fears. Gorgeous cinematography, generally solid writing, and excellent acting all make this drama well worth watching. It has its flaws, but on the whole, it’s a refreshing, funny, and surprisingly affecting watch.
The detailed review
NOTE: The rest of this review will contain some spoilers. Read at your own risk. Although with a show like this one, save for the result of a competition here or there, there’s not that much to spoil in terms of big cliffhangers.
Most of the major storylines revolve around the interactions between the following four characters. I’ll give a brief, largely spoiler-free introduction for these four characters, and introduce the others as they appear later.
Main characters (the four most important, as I see them):
Cha Yoo Jin is a piano student nearing the end of his time at Haneum Academy. Son of renowned pianist Cha Dong Woo, Cha Yoo Jin is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. It seems generally accepted that he will become a concert pianist who will be known internationally. However, his dream isn’t to be a concert pianist—he wants to conduct. Regardless of the career path he chooses, there’s a problem—he is unable to travel outside of Korea due to his phobias of both water and flying. Therefore, he cannot study abroad, an essential step in the career path of most musicians. Few seem to know his secret, as Yoo Jin tends to keep to himself, but the time is coming when he will have to either overcome his issues, or make a big change in career plans.
At the outset, Yoo Jin doesn’t have many friends. He has his mom, with whom he has a bantering, teasing, relationship, with just the slightest hint that mom might feel a little guilty for not always being the world’s greatest mother. He also has his soon to be ex-girlfriend, Do Kyung. They’ve known each other for a number of years, and have had an on and off relationship for some time. Other than these two, Yoo Jin seems used to living a mostly solitary existence. His solitude is intentional and, we learn, self-imposed: since he always expected to study abroad, he didn’t see the point in getting to close to anyone. Either Yoo Jin is an eternal optimist, or he’s in some serious denial, because it’s been several years, and he’s made no progress in his therapy sessions.
From the moment he encounters Nae Il (and he doesn’t even know it’s her yet), his life begins to change.
Seol Nae Il is a piano student who is traveling a rather unique path for a music student. The other students find her odd, and she doesn’t have many friends. She spends her private instructional time not preparing for piano competitions, but composing and practicing a children’s song. She intends to find a job teaching kindergarten when she graduates. However, she is quite talented, and has the ability to learn even very difficult music just by listening to it. She has a pure love of music, but an aversion to competitions.
The question is: does Nae Il really want to teach? Or does she really want to pursue piano? We see many instances of Nae Il playing by herself, which she certainly could do even if she didn’t choose to be a professional musician. However, the moments when she lights up with inspiration are those moments when she feels driven to master something. It’s for that reason that I believe that her teaching “dream” is mostly an avoidance mechanism. Something in her life must inspire her to push through what’s stopping her from pursuing her true dream. Enter duet partner, Yoo Jin.
Yoo Il Rak is a violinist who favors rock over classical. He plays what he feels, and doesn’t listen to his teachers. Son of a doting single dad, IR is under great pressure to be a successful violinist so as not to disappoint his father. However, he is secretly afraid that he isn’t good enough to be a successful violinist.
The pressure Il Rak feels is not, however, from an overbearing father figure. Il Rak’s dad is nothing but supportive and loving, and needs his son only to breathe to make him happy. In Il Rak’s case, it may be more about his own fear of disappointing people rather than anyone really being disappointed. His love of rock may be totally sincere, and there’s nothing wrong with being classically trained, and then deciding that a career based on performance of classical is not for him (Andrew Bird (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySoOkE92KlY) and Owen Pallett (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SYkGfv1QZU) are good examples). The question is whether he’s clinging to this defensive attitude of rock vs. classical because he believes it, and that’s what really inspires him, or if it’s because he’s scared that he can’t make it in a more traditional classical career path. I tend to think that it’s the latter, or at least a mixture of the two. Music is music. So, like Nae Il, he’s created a convenient excuse.
Lee Yoon Hoo is widely acknowledged as one of the best cellists of his generation. He is a student at Juilliard, but returns to Korea harboring a secret and armed with a list of things he wants to do—visit a water park, watch movies all day, date a strange girl. He is taking a break from school and music, but why? When he overhears Nae Il playing at a music workshop, he devises a plan to return to music and enroll at Haneum, but all is not what it seems.
Writing and general thoughts on the drama (and this review)
Tomorrow Cantabile was pleasantly fast-paced, with a loose storytelling style. It’s written as a very character-driven drama, almost to the point that the overall story didn’t seem to matter that much. It may be a strange thing to say, but thinking back, it’s difficult for me to say what really happened in this drama. What sticks out to me are the character arcs, which I recall as a series of specific moments.
For that reason, I’ve chosen to write about the drama in terms of these interactions and moments. Therefore, I won’t introduce things in any particular order, and there’s no blow-by-blow account of everything that happened in the drama. I think the plot can basically be summed up pretty simply anyway: students learn about music, friendship, love, and life. (And: orchestras form, and face pressure and conflict both internal and external.)
(I honestly have trouble keeping track of which orchestra conflict is which anyway, so for the whole story, you’re just going to have to watch.) I hope by focusing on the character moments that struck me as interesting and thought-provoking, I can do justice to this drama. But as a result, parts of this review may not make perfect sense if you haven’t seen it.
The setups in TC are fairly obvious in a general sense: each main character is unhappy and struggling with some things both on a musical and personal level. We know we’re being set up to resolve these issues, but even knowing what was going to happen, I still was surprised at times at how things happened.
The pairing of YJ and NI may be at the heart of TC, but this drama is filled with thoughtfully written character interactions. Characters learn and grow in a realistic way, through observation of and conversation (and sometimes conflict) with friends, parents, peers, and teachers. These “growth moments” are the highlight of the drama for me. It takes skill to make mundane life struggles compelling, but TC did it. I can understand that this type of low-key, low-drama storytelling wouldn’t be for everyone, but I found it very enjoyable.
Tomorrow Cantabile also has what I would call a “comedic streak”. It’s not pure comedy, and sometimes swung pretty wildly between comedy and drama. Although the beginning of the drama had a higher proportion of funny scenes than later episodes, the writers never completely forgot the comedy, and I was thankful for that. I would have been sad to see a week go by without Yoo Jin fighting one, two, or all three “idiots” off him at least once.
Overall, I had the distinct impression that this drama was planned out in advance. Granted, there is pre-existing source material to draw from, but that by no means guarantees a well-written drama. The writing felt assured, which seems to be somewhat rare in my drama watching experience (especially towards the end of a drama…). I’ve only read some small portion of the manga, so I don’t know for sure, but the writing in the drama gives me the impression that the drama writers did their homework, and created a world based on the source material, but with its own distinct k-drama flavor.
However, k-drama flavor often comes with a heavy dose of stock characters, clichés, and familiar tropes. Some of the characters would even be easily adaptable to some of those stock characters: we’ve already got a rich, distant hero and a poor but cheerful heroine, right? But thankfully, the writers seemed determined not to let these characters fall into those molds so easily. It was interesting to see several subtle subversions of k-drama tropes throughout this drama. So our hero is something of a loner, but definitely not a jerk, even at the beginning. Wrist grabs are employed, and then warned against, and finally, an outright declaration is made that women are not things. A love triangle is introduced, and then only used for character growth (for all involved), not to push our lovers together or apart in some forced way.
The flipside to making changes to an existing work, of course, is that some elements of the story may not work as well as others. In this case, I only have two quibbles on the writing front. The first is that the school board members and other people in authority positions got more screen time than they perhaps needed. I started feeling like there were a few too many orchestra conflicts in a row, and too frequently, the conflict was because of some arbitrary school decision or rule that no one knew about or something of that nature. There were plenty of conflicts to be mined just from the interpersonal relation side of things, so why spend so much time with tyrannical school board lady? Oh well.
A similar argument could be made about the Dean and Stresemann scenes, but I do think it’s important that we see those characters together, since they really are the schemers behind a lot of the (positive) changes that the school and students undergo. It’s her dream to have the academy be a place for students to be free to explore music in their own ways, and it’s her doing that Stresemann’s there at all, but it’s a shame that their scenes seemed a little aimless at times. Their romance could have been handled with more subtlety, or at least with less screen time devoted to it.
The second writing matter that bothered me a little was the writing of the character Yoon Hoo. Yoon Hoo was a character that, as I understand it, was a composite of several manga characters with a splash of original content. I don’t know if that has anything to do with my issues with that character, but he’s the only major character that’s not straight from the source material. I do think it’s possible that since the writers didn’t have fans to answer to, they may have taken too many liberties with the character, making him the go-to character for some conflicts later in the drama. As a result, he came off as a bit inconsistently written. All this has nothing at all to do with Park Bo Gum’s acting, which was very good. The problem was that I had difficulty reconciling what felt like totally different characters at times: the glib gentleman, who always says and does the right thing, and the scared kid who is facing losing the biggest part of his life thus far. I don’t have a problem with either one of these existing separately, or even together in one character, but his limited screen time and lack of a sounding board (and the fact that his character kept switching between the two extremes, often episode by episode) made him difficult for me to understand. However, when the writing kept the focus on his motivations and passions, his scenes were among my favorites.
So in a nutshell: I wanted more of the character moments that the show did so well, and less of the orchestra and school politics back and forth that I tuned out pretty much the whole time. However, likeable characters and lots of sweet, cute, funny, and touching moments make up for the more weaker elements. The overall storyline and conflicts may be a little on the simplistic side, but sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity. Like Yoo Jin said of Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1, “The music [that] taught me that simplicity can be plentiful.”
Random thoughts on directing, cinematography, and music
First, and perhaps most obviously, the setting of this drama is absolutely gorgeous. The sets and filming sites in combination with the scenery (with the added bonus of autumn colors throughout most of the drama) made for some lovely scenes.
Director Han Sang Woo seems to have a tendency towards letting background elements play a rather large role in some shots. The fall colors, which I already mentioned above, are just one example. I noticed right from the beginning that reflections were showing up in scene after scene. I want to ascribe some sort of symbolic meaning to the reflections (Music is a reflection of the person playing it? The reflections symbolize characters’ moments of self-reflection/realization?), but it’s possible that they’re just there to add visual interest.
Which they did, clearly. It was also a way to visually draw parallels between characters. In episode 11, when Yoon Hoo, Yoo Jin, and Nae Il all face very personal crises, they each spend a moment in their respective dressing rooms looking at themselves.
There is a lovely contemplative, even moody, tone to this drama that I think is a combination of the direction and the music choices. Not just using appropriate music, but knowing when NOT to use music, served certain scenes very well. Well-placed silences can allow the acting to truly shine, and when the music does kick in, it can build on the emotion already generated, rather than trying to use music to generate emotion on its own. Which, I admit, does work—but only sometimes. But I’m sure we can all think of drama scenes where the music is almost drowning out everything else, so I appreciate the restraint shown here. My favorite example of this is the scene between Yoo Jin and Yoon Hoo in episode 11:
The only sound at the start of the scene is the wind rustling through the leaves and birds chirping, which only heightens the feeling of tension and desperation. When Yoon Hoo starts to tell his story, and the music starts (Schumann’s Fast zu Ernst (Almost Too Serious), from Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood)), it’s absolutely perfectly placed in timing and in tone. Acting, directing, cinematography, and music all come together to create the mood of the scene. I think it’s no coincidence that this particular music was chosen to soundtrack a scene in which Yoon Hoo tells us about his childhood.
Interestingly, a different movement of Kinderszenen was used for the conversation between Nae Il and Professor Ahn in episode 5 (Träumerei (Dreaming)):
“Nae Il, you can’t be a kid forever.”
It shows up again in both of the scenes where her younger self makes an appearance. It’s little things like this that make me sure that the music choices were intentional.
In addition, there are more obvious examples of music adding a layer of meaning to the scene in the form of voiceovers during the performance of many pieces, or characters explicitly stating what a particular piece means to him or her. Yoon Hoo and Nae Il each assigning their own meanings to their duet piece, Fauré’s Sicilienne, is one example that comes to mind.
Yoon Hoo: I made you play a requiem… That was my last passion that I was going to burn off…I thought of it as the last music for my cello.
Nae Il: Sunbae, this is not a requiem. It is Nae Il’s Sicilienne. It’s music for a new beginning. Whatever that may be.
In other cases, a specific piece of music is used as a theme for a particular storyline. For example, the drama used the same music to bookend one of Yoo Jin’s major story arcs. The first time we see him playing piano, it’s the Grieg Piano Concerto in A Minor with Professor Do. It doesn’t appear again until episode 8’s performance with A orchestra. This time, though, Yoo Jin is a different performer than the one we saw in episode 1. Since then, he’s switched piano teachers (to Professor Ahn), and become the conducting pupil of Stresemann. In episode 1, it’s a performance full of confusion and frustration, and in episode 7/8, it’s one of passion and seduction. Which, in a way, seems to be exactly what Yoo Jin was searching for in episode 1 when he was railing against Do’s play-to-win-the-competition teaching style. That performance is the last we see of Yoo Jin at the piano, and the moment when Stresemann lets him “graduate” to conductor status.
Another example is Holst’s Jupiter as the RS orchestra theme music. Before RS orchestra exists, or even has its name, Yoo Jin envisions his dream orchestra to the sounds of Jupiter. During auditions for RS orchestra, as Professor Do slowly realizes that it’s the S “leftovers” that he’s impressed with of the students that chose to audition? You guessed it; it’s Jupiter again. Later, when the orchestra members finally set aside their differences and show up as a united force at the board meeting in episode 15, it’s Jupiter again that soundtracks the moment. It plays for the last time as the audience applauds RS orchestra’s performance, as Yoo Jin’s voiceover says, “Now, my job is done.” RS orchestra has become the dream orchestra Yoo Jin wanted from the start.
I know specific music is mentioned in the manga, but I’m not sure how much of the music used in the drama was drawn straight from the source material, and how much was the creative vision of Tomorrow Cantabile. Either way, it shows a measure of thought and attention to detail that’s pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, the original score/BGM used in the drama couldn’t quite compete with the classical music. Most of the time, the BGM was also used effectively, and it did work quite well in some scenes. I did still find myself wishing that they had stuck with classical music rather than the original score/BGM for more scenes, but only once or twice did it actually annoy me enough to consciously distract me from what was going on in the scene. Not all music has to have a deeper meaning, and even when it does, the meaning is not why it’s there—it should enhance the mood. In my opinion, there were too few original compositions to choose from to work with all the scenes they were used in. (Or it’s possible that I just prefer the classical to the original compositions.)
Another bright spot, musically speaking, were the performances. The performance scenes were the highlight of many episodes, which is expected, but is never a given in fictional works based on music. In this case, though, the show got the necessary emotions across while keeping the editing smooth enough that there weren’t many noticeable switches between actor and double. Or maybe I should say: I didn’t notice too many glaringly obvious cases because the show did well enough with the acting, directing, and music that I just didn’t care. I was more absorbed in the music and the characters than the technical details. Which is a good sign.
I did wish that some of the performance scenes were allowed to go on for longer, since a few of them were quite short, and sometimes a little choppy. But mostly, I just wanted them to go on for longer because I enjoyed them (also a good sign).
Shim Eun Kyung as Nae Il: The first couple of episodes were definitely different from the later episodes. But it does work in the context of the drama: she lets go of the child version of herself, falls in love for the first time, and makes the difficult decision to pursue music seriously, even if that means having to do unpleasant, frightening things sometimes. In short, she grew up. I never thought the early episode version of the character was too over the top, and the fact that she was wackier than the other characters didn’t bother me much because there is supposed to be a contrast there. She’s the weird one! The only thing that threw me a little was the child-like voice she used sometimes. By the same token, though, it still felt true to the character when she stopped being so obviously zany in later episodes. I’m not sure how much of the child-like behavior would have been in the original plan to retain anyway. In either case, the change in her character works well with the story, so I don’t think she has anything to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite, really: she commits fully to the comedy, and is totally believable in the more serious moments.
Joo Won as Yoo Jin: Again, with his portrayal of Yoo Jin I realize that Joo Won really is good at being the character that shoulders some burden or secret alone, wants on some level to connect with someone, and trust that person enough to be able to share, but can’t for various reasons. Okay, I also know that describes a whole slew of male drama characters and their stoic man-pain. The difference here is that Ma Jun, Tae Hee, Kang To, and Yoo Jin (and even Shi On, to some extent) all fit this type, but they feel so very different. I wondered in the early stages of this drama if I’d see a trace of Tae Hee, or perhaps Ma Jun, in Yoo Jin. There are some similarities in the characters on paper, but never on screen. Each is distinct, and I think that’s an achievement in and of itself.
One thing that’s always true, though, is that Joo Won is just so very expressive, even when no words are spoken. And it’s not just the serious moments—his faces in the more comedic scenes often make the scene.
As for the rest of the cast, there were remarkably few weak spots for such a large ensemble cast. Especially with so many lesser known, or even rookie actors, it would be understandable if there were some acting flaws. However, there’s not much to complain about, and a lot to praise. Go Kyung Pyo nailed the fiercely loyal, slightly dim Il Rak. Bae Min Jung (Jung Shi Won), Do Hee (Choi Min Hee) and Jang Se Hyun (Ma Soo Min) had much less screen time but made the most of what they had. Park Bo Gum, as I’ve already mentioned, was quite good as Yoon Hoo. The veteran actors brought some memorable characters to life as well. Baek Yoon Shik’s Stresemann was a little bewildering at the beginning of the drama, but I quickly started to appreciate his more understated take on the character. Kim Yoo Mi (Chae Do Kyung) is a rookie actress, and that was noticeable at times, but she did a good enough job with Do Kyung that I can’t criticize her too much.
Once I started writing this review, I realized that I had thought very little about the jdrama and specific comparisons between the two versions after the first couple of episodes. It wasn’t a case of telling myself to forget the jdrama and just focus on what was in front of me; it was just something that happened. For me, Tomorrow Cantabile established itself as its own entity early enough that the jdrama just never really crossed my mind again as I watched (except in a few very specific scenes).
I love when there are so many characters to like in a drama. There were so many, in fact, that some of them barely even appear in my review. I loved the relationships between both YJ and his mom and IR and his dad. Both of those relationships are of types rarely seen in dramas. Another type rarely seen in dramas: the character of Shi-won. Straightforward and kind, driven and affectionate…IR chose well. Shi-won and NI are both strong female characters in their own ways, with their own opinions and goals, and that’s a great message to send.
And yeah, I didn’t even touch on the more overtly romantic scenes. I swear that it wasn’t intentional. I guess I just got caught up in the music.