Cantabile Tomorrow: Episode 1
Is it too early to say that I’m in love with a show? I’m both excited and relieved, because while I was hoping for the best, I was certainly aware that Cantabile Tomorrow comes with a lot of baggage, and that even in a good-case scenario, it was fighting an uphill battle. The original material is so loved that it would be difficult to measure up to its standard of excellence, much less dare to surpass it.
I always want a drama to succeed, but I approached with both optimism and hesitance, and not just because I really enjoyed the previous versions of the series (anime and J-drama; I haven’t read the manga). I will argue that perhaps the cult surrounding the show may exaggerate just how good it is, so I would encourage new viewers to go in with as open a mind as possible; there’s always a risk that the pre-existing hype may color your opinion against a show just as easily as it might color it in favor of it.
But on top of the problem of hype, I was concerned for the way in which Nodame Cantabile fundamentally tells its story differently than K-dramas usually do; it’s quite loose and character-based, letting simple plot points carry on for multiple episodes, and gives music a much bigger presence than many typical dramaland viewers have patience for. I recall watching the anime and thinking that I was essentially watching seven minutes of Rachmaninoff being played with no story advancement, and yet I was enthralled the whole time. I wasn’t sure that the same thing could work in K-drama.
I can happily report that not only does Cantabile Tomorrow honor that aspect of the series, it may even enhance the effect. Is that blasphemous to say? The plot beats were almost beat-for-beat replications of the original, and yet I still felt stirred and swept up, and felt that perhaps this version even added to the emotional depth. I’ve always loved the characters, but this drama gave my heart an extra twist, and I’m excited for what that means.
So let’s get right to it.
SONG OF THE DAY
Mozart – Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448 [ Download ]
LESSON 1 RECAP
A young boy runs through the streets with a violin on his back, while his older self narrates, musing on how thoughts of his childhood always take him back to the streets of Europe, so full of classical music. As the son of a pianist, he had traveled widely in his youth and seen numerous performances, “But the greatest performance of my life was in Korea.”
That boy watches an orchestra perform, transfixed by the movements of the conductor. “The moment he moved his wand, I knew,” he narrates. “That this man would be my lifelong teacher.”
So the boy, CHA YOO-JIN, sneaks into the rehearsal hall to watch the orchestra practice, displaying his musical precocity by pointing out that a violin’s out of tune. The conductor, Sebastien Viera (cameo by Israeli conductor Yoel Levi), takes a liking to Yoo-jin and takes him under his wing, and a year later it’s time for them to part ways. Yoo-jin’s crushed, but Maestro Viera hands him his conductor’s wand and assures him that he’ll take Yoo-jin on as a formal student if he comes to study in Europe.
But when we catch up to the adult Yoo-jin (played by Joo-won), he’s not in Europe. Holding that wand, he wonders, “Teacher Viera, what am I doing here?”
Yoo-jin walks across the campus of his school, Haneum Music University, where his arrival causes a stir among his many admirers. They’re full of praise for him, but he’s got only irritation for the cacophony of mistake-ridden playing around him, as his ears pick out every little error. His forehead furrows further to read a notice announcing a conducting student’s selection to study in Berlin. He scoffs, not impressed with the student’s abilities.
The guy happens to by nearby and takes the opportunity to gloat, throwing in Maestro Viera’s name just to make it sting a little extra. It stays on Yoo-jin’s mind as he plays fiercely in his piano lesson; he envisions himself in a dream-like sequence, wandering a forest while calling upon his teacher for help. He asks, “What should I choose? It feels like I’ve lost my way.”
Yoo-jin’s teacher slaps his head with a fan, barking that he’s letting his emotions run away with his playing. The teacher’s name is Do Kang-jae, but the students refer to him more commonly as Buchae (Fan), per his method of discipline.
Teacher Do notices a score mixed in with Yoo-jin’s piano music, and that explains Yoo-jin’s curious lack of interest in competitions and indifference in his lessons; his interests must lie elsewhere. Yoo-jin argues back that he’s never been wishy-washy about his playing, though he does disdain Teacher Do’s cookie-cutter teaching style—it’s designed to get a student to win competitions and nothing more, as though he’s collecting students and their awards for his personal glory.
Furious, Teacher Do throws him out and threatens to have Yoo-jin expelled. Yoo-jin doesn’t look too devastated, and in fact fills out a voluntary withdrawal form afterward.
As he does, the sounds of a Liszt piece (Liebestraume No. 3) waft out from a studio, catching his attention. “Not bad,” he thinks. He wonders who the pianist is and heads inside to find out, but before he can, he’s interrupted.
Meanwhile, the pianist, SEOL NAE-IL (Shim Eun-kyung), continues playing, totally caught up in the music. She looks joyous, and when she finishes, she sighs, “Ah, it’s so good!” I’d laugh at her lack of modesty if only I didn’t totally agree.
Then she’s reminded that she has a part-time job to get to, and dashes off to a kindergarten class, where she plays the piano along to a funny story she tells to the class.
Meanwhile, Yoo-jin has a drink with his girlfriend, CHAE DO-KYUNG (Kim Yumi). She rips up his withdrawal form (“That again?”) and tells him to make up with Teacher Do, since he’s the best and therefore his best path to personal success. Or, he can transfer to the conducting department. Or, if he’s so keen on studying with Viera, he can go to Europe.
But it’s not so simple for Yoo-jin, who relives the horrific plane ride he endured as a child, a massively traumatic event that still plagues him to this day. He shakes off the memory and asks Do-kyung to spend the night with him since he doesn’t want to be alone, but she’s tired of him (“When did you get so weak?”) and breaks up with him on the spot. Grimly, he keeps drinking.
That night, Nae-il arrives at her building and stops short at the unexpected sight in front of her door: Yoo-jin, slumped on the ground, dead drunk. She calls out “sunbae” (so she must recognize him) and tries to stir him awake. That doesn’t work, so she looks for alternate solutions.
In the morning, Yoo-jin hears the sounds of a piano—Liszt again—and dreams of being in a peaceful, sunny field. But when he wakes fully, he screams in horror, because he’s sitting in a mountain of garbage. And he’s shirtless! When did that happen?
It’s not a dump as he first thinks but Nae-il’s apartment, which is stuffed to the gills with trash. Old wrappers, half-empty food containers, flies buzzing everywhere. And in the middle of it all, incongruously, is a grand piano.
Nae-il greets him happily, and her comments about what happened last night sound unsettlingly suggestive: “Do you really not remember, or are you just pretending not to remember?” Yoo-jin stammers that nothing could have happened, then freaks out as roaches skitter by (Nae-il: “Hi, cockroaches!”). He runs out the front door—and now realizes that his own apartment is the one right next door.
Yoo-jin tries to wash away the creepy-crawly feelings and, recoiling at the insinuation that something happened that he forgot, he wills his brain, “Don’t remember!”
At school, Teacher Do rants to the staff about expelling Yoo-jin, which the other teachers are reluctant to act on—he’s their number one student and the son of a famous pianist. The diplomatic dean, Song Mina (Yeh Ji-won), steps in to finagle a compromise—they can transfer Yoo-jin from Teacher Do (the best) to Teacher Ahn (…not the best). At the very least, it’ll send a message to Yoo-jin.
Yoo-jin arrives on campus a paranoid mess of nerves, telling himself nothing happened with Nae-il. And then, a voice screams, “Sunbaeeeeeee!” and he recoils to see her racing towards him, limbs flailing.
She pouts (loudly), “Why did you leave so suddenly in the morning! I was sad.” Oblivious to the crowd they’re drawing and the obvious misinterpretation of her words, she presents him with his freshly washed shirt. Yoo-jin tries to feign ignorance, but that just makes Nae-il try harder to jog his memory.
The eccentric Teacher Ahn checks with Teacher Do that he’s fine giving up the school’s most talented pupil. Teacher Do is done with Yoo-jin, though, and washes his hands of him. Teacher Ahn sees Nae-il off in the distance chasing after Yoo-jin and muses that he’s got “a very special student” and wonders if the could put them together in a duet. Do scoffs that Yoo-jin wouldn’t do it, so Ahn proposes a wager.
Teacher Ahn has a reputation for teaching the worst students but he’s got a good nature, which may make him the perfect fit for Nae-il. In lesson, he gamely goes along as she puts together a song about farts—they’re really two peas in a pod. Yoo-jin, on the other hand, observes his new teacher from the window and grimaces to see what he’s going to be working with.
More characters! Bleached-blond YOO IL-LAC (Go Kyung-pyo) is roused from bed by his father, restaurant owner-cook YOO WON-SANG (Ahn Gil-kang). Il-lac dresses like a rocker but plays the violin, and while he’s not without skill, his wild, emotional playing has his teacher in fits. She fails his exam, and when he begs for a second chance, she consents to a retest with an accompanied piece.
Il-lac protests, not wanting to mix his free-spirited violin playing with those stuck-up piano egos, but those are her terms. Take ’em or flunk. So he bursts into the piano department and announces that he will give a lucky student the opportunity to work with his exalted self. Heh.
At home, Yoo-jin sits back with a hypnotherapy recording, which tries to prove its efficacy by making him believe an onion is a delicious apple. It isn’t, and Yoo-jin declares the hypnotherapy to be hogwash. He steps onto the balcony for some air, but it’s not quite as fresh as he’d like; peering over to the adjoining balcony, he gags at the mound of garbage sitting there and the mysterious ooze leaking out from under the door.
Yoo-jin pounds on Nae-il’s door and bursts inside her den of filth, too disgusted not to do anything about it. He arms himself with cleaning supplies and gets to work, even as Nae-il intervenes, trying to argue for keeping everything, down to the days-old sludge passing for food. (Meta joke: There’s moldy bread in there from Kim Tak-gu’s place; Joo-won acted in Baker King Kim Tak-gu.) Finally he shoves her outside so he can finish uninterrupted, and one back-breaking day of cleaning later, her place is pristine.
Nae-il taps away happily at her piano, and while he balks at her description (it’s a love song based on their relationship, she says), he tells her to keep playing. Already she’s forgotten how she played it before, since she’s prone to improvising, but even as he corrects her wrong notes, he smiles and thinks, “She’s playing completely her own way, but it’s not bad.” He enjoys her playing, his hand starting to flick back and forth as he starts conducting along, silently.
Dean Song Mina sits in on a rehearsal of a student orchestra, and while not much happens in the scene other than this, I am always happy to listen to some Dvorak. (The longish musical performances were a favorite of mine in the original, so I’m happy to see that they’ve remained.) She’s cooking an idea in her head, because next she takes a proposal to her staff: to cultivate an orchestra to become their school’s brand.
Teacher Do is skeptical, pointing out that the students will want to focus on their individual goals like school and competitions, but Dean Mina’s plan is already underway, and she has recruited a formidable ally in her cause: world-famous conductor Franz Streseman. We see him landing at the airport, and while he’s supposed to be German, I’m rather glad to see that they’ve allowed actor Baek Yoon-shik to look like his normal self without employing strange wigs or colored contacts. He does speak Korean in a cutely stilted way, though, with a foreign accent.
Almost immediately, they lose Streseman, who either misses or evades the school’s escort and asks a taxi driver to take him away—to any place with “good water” (i.e., lots of hotties). Ha. Pervert Maestro is back!
Too bad the taxi driver takes him to a place with literal good water, and he ends up at a scenic riverbank. LOL. Streseman concedes, “Well, the water is good.”
Yoo-jin is summoned to meet with Teacher Ahn, who introduces Nae-il as his duet partner. He’s appalled at the idea, and listening at the window is Teacher Do, who was expecting a tantrum and is miffed that Yoo-jin isn’t being as difficult as he was with him.
Yoo-jin isn’t interested in the duet, though, and gets up to leave. But Teacher Ahn has a few tricks up his sleeve, saying that Yoo-jin has already been ditched by one teacher—does he want to be ditched by another? That’d earn him quite the reputation.
Yoo-jin asks, “Are you blackmailing me right now?” Teacher Ahn cheerfully replies, “Yes.” And then he dangles an irresistible carrot: If Yoo-jin complies with the duet, he’ll let him out of the rest of his lessons with an A+ grade.
So Yoo-jin agrees to the deal, and gets to work with Nae-il on Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. It’s a mess right from the start, and worse than Nae-il being a sloppy player is that she hardly even knows that she’s messing up. Furthermore, she’s not very good at reading music, learning everything by ear instead.
They work all afternoon and into night, until Nae-il is complaining of hunger and whining to end the session. Yoo-jin is tired too but forces her back onto the bench, since her reading difficulties means she has to memorize it entirely. And in the moment that he forces her hand toward the piano, Nae-il flashes back to a memory—of her hand being shoved to the keys, a stern voice ordering her to continue.
Something snaps and she barks, “I said not to do that!” and then CHOMP! She bites down on Yoo-jin’s forearm. Crying, she gathers her things and leaves the room.
Violinist Il-lac, meanwhile, is still on the hunt for an accompanist for his test. He’s been looking up the students in the piano department and corners Yoo-jin on his way out of practice, making his case to a distracted Yoo-jin.
So while Il-lac busts out his violin to prove how awesome he is, Yoo-jin barely registers his playing. He’s too busy wondering about Nae-il’s outburst, and now the frustrated words he threw her way clang unpleasantly with similar words barked at him by Teacher Do. That’s an unpleasant parallelism. Yoo-jin walks away deep in thought, leaving an insulted Il-lac to roar that he’ll find a better pianist, harrumph.
Yoo-jin comes home and bangs on Nae-il’s door, but gets no response. So he sets out to cook her dinner, and when Nae-il arrives in the hallway and sees his door ajar, she can’t help but follow her nose to the smell of delicious food. The plate is laid out for her on the counter, and she falls for the bait—no sooner does she chow down than Yoo-jin appears.
She’s ready to bolt so he promises not to be mean or force her to practice, and Nae-il digs in, practically drooling when he offers to make her something even better tomorrow… if she does the duet with him. She’s reluctant because he was impatient with how slowly she was memorizing the piece, so he promises not to get angry and adds that he recorded her part to help her learn.
So he sits her down to listen to the recording—but then recoils, horrified at the smell of her dirty hair. Nae-il doesn’t see anything wrong with her two-washes-a-week regimen, while he tries not to gag too hard. It’s off to the bathroom with her, as he furiously shampoos away the filth while she insists she’s totally clean.
Maestro Stresemen, meanwhile, arrives at the Haneum campus but keeps his presence on the downlow. He surreptitiously watches students in practice sessions and lessons, which is frankly a clever way to draw our attention to our supporting cast. There’s our rocker violinist with the disregard for classical conventions, the tiny contrabassist who’s smaller than her instrument, and the timpanist who seems to be a bundle of nerves; he goes around snapping photos of them, apparently keeping tabs.
The duet is progressing for Yoo-jin and Nae-il, and while he still issues instructions at her left and right, Yoo-jin’s temper is no longer an issue. Their proficiency is better, but he thinks to himself in dissatisfaction that the feeling is flat: “The playing is more accurate, but what’s gone wrong?”
Streseman makes his unofficial rounds of campus and stops to see Dean Song Mina in the distance, his gaze softening. His memory takes him back to their younger days, when Mina was a piano student and he’d been taken with her beauty and her talent. He thinks to himself that she’s as lovely as ever, “and you make my heart race just like always.” He doesn’t approach, though, choosing to admire from a distance.
Trying to figure out the root of his dissatisfaction, Yoo-jin opts for a new approach and tells Nae-il to play the way she wants to. She’s only too happy to, but reminds him of his instruction that a duet requires cooperation. So he replies that he’ll adapt to suit her, and encourages her to play however her heart dictates.
Teacher Ahn arrives for their lesson just then, and Yoon-jin says with a smile, “Let’s have fun.”
So with a fresh burst of joy, Nae-il begins the piece, and Yoo-jin plays along while thinking, “I knew from the start—that this kiddo’s playing was special because she played her own way. I know all your habits, so I’ll match you. Only I can match you.”
His eyes remain on Nae-il as they play, predicting where she’ll flow, where she’ll hold back, “And here’s where she flies. Cantabile. Like singing.”
Now he’s thinking of his childhood learning under Viera, remembering a key piece of wisdom imparted by his teacher: “The toes are the first to feel moved. The toes, unable to cope with the rising feelings, start to wriggle.”
On the other hand, Nae-il looks over at Yoo-jin and thinks of his promise to match her, no matter what she does. She may have been goofily crushing on him before, but now she’s good and smitten.
As they play, Streseman pauses outside the practice room to watch.
Yoo-jin revists his earlier vision, where he’s tearing through the forest, lost and uncertain. He reaches the empty field of reeds, peaceful and sunny, and begins walking through it slowly, until he comes upon a clearing. In the middle of it is Nae-il, seated at a grand piano, playing her heart out.
Yoo-jin’s narration echoes his opening voiceover, of how his childhood thoughts turn to the music-filled streets of Europe. He’d considered that place, Maestro Viera’s domain, to be the only place for “real classical music”: “In this insufficient place, I’d thought I could find no meaning, joy, or value in playing music.”
But now we see Yoo-jin in the throes of the same joy that embodies Nae-il, looking positively inspired. “Teacher Viera,” he thinks. “Perhaps even here, there’s something I could do. My heart is fluttering.”
In Yoo-jin’s dream-vision, he arrives at the clearing and approaches Nae-il at the piano, playing that Liszt song again. She turns to face him and smiles. He smiles.
I’ll be the first to admit that I was apprehensive about a Nodame Cantabile remake, while being simultaneously excited at the possibilities. I’ve gone through so many thwarted expectations and flopped adaptations that I knew better than to expect the best, and yet the best was always the hope. And with this premiere of Cantabile Tomorrow, I’m allowing myself to feel the hope of maybe getting that best after all.
I say this as a fan of the original anime and drama, a lifelong fan of classical music, and a fan of almost every single principal in the cast. That’s a lot of fandoms to potentially disappoint. There was always a greater probability that hopes would be disappointed than met, and I was prepared for that. So you can imagine how relieved I am to find Cantabile Tomorrow hitting exactly the sweet spot of what I wanted from this show—to be true to the original, but not a soulless scene-for-scene carbon copy. That’s an incredibly tall order to demand, but it’s what I wanted—for it to be not too much, not too little, and just perfectly in tune with my hopes.
On most of the major fronts, this drama met my expectations or exceeded them. I will (reluctantly) concede that one of my greatest hopes is not quite living up to its potential, which is Shim Eun-kyung in the Nae-il role, because I find her acting a bit too broad and exaggerated for what this drama is—introspective, poignant, and as thoughtful about its silences as it is about filling those beats with music. It could be that Ueno Juri was just so good that everything in this premiere episode feels like an attempt to re-create her Nodame, so I’m going to withhold judgment until we get to know her. I actually find Shim Eun-kyung more effective in the quieter, less comedic moments, and I’m hoping that the show will draw out those beats more as the story continues to gel.
(Just as a note, I don’t want to spend the rest of Cantabile Tomorrow comparing it to Nodame Cantaibile because ultimately, this drama needs to stand on its own feet, but I recognize that in a first episode some comparison is inevitable. But going forward, I’m going to make every effort to keep commentary to this drama alone, because it deserves to be evaluated on its individual terms, particularly since I’m sure a swath of the viewership will have no acquaintance with any forms of Nodame.)
I was actually expecting to love Shim Eun-kyung and felt wary of Joo-won, so it’s with surprise that I find myself completely sucked into Joo-won’s portrayal of Yoo-jin, which stirred an emotional response in me that I wasn’t expecting. I loved the Chiaki character and thought Hiroshi Tamaki was wonderful in the part, but for whatever reason I enjoyed Nodame without necessarily feeling an emotional tug. In this episode, I was caught off-guard with an actual tears-pricking-my-eyelids sensation, and this makes me excited for what’s to come.
The show is also little less manga-esque and slapstick, and while that was fine with me in the previous versions, I’m perfectly fine to see them gone here. This drama is less broad and more true-to-life, and if that means a lessening of the quirky manga-esque violence, I am ALL for it! I know that the punching and kicking and knocking over of Nodame were meant in the name of comedy, and that the series wasn’t actually promoting our hero knocking around our heroine as his personal punching bag, but it was one element that made me uncomfortable in the live-action J-drama, so I’m happy to see those beats neutralized. There’s still some element of shoving-in-the-name-of-comedy, but at least he’s not punching her in the face.
This is the third time I’m seeing this story unfold, and most of the large points are being repeated from previous versions, yet each iteration brings a new aspect that adds to the world, rather than piling on redundancies. I look forward to seeing how this production expands on its interpretation.
(Question: I toyed with the idea of compiling a list of the classical pieces being used in the drama, but there are actually so many that I wonder if it’s quite necessary or feasible. Let me know if this is something you’d like to see here, and especially if you’re willing to help identify songs and keep a list updated!
UPDATE: List is here!)
- Joo-won gets drunk on music for Cantabile Tomorrow
- The laughter begins in Cantabile Tomorrow’s second teaser
- Cantabile Tomorrow’s light, sentimental first teaser
- Campus meetings and musical instruments in Cantabile Tomorrow
- Oh Snap! Shim Eun-kyung is Nae-il (aka Nodame)
- Joo-won takes up the conductor’s baton for Cantabile Tomorrow
- Cantabile Tomorrow has its Masumi character
- Nodame renames itself Cantabile Tomorrow
- Go Kyung-pyo joins Nodame Cantabile remake as rocker violinist
- Shim Eun-kyung confirms Nodame Cantabile remake