Today’s Webtoon is not the first television series with a plot derived from the manga series Juhan Shuttai! by Naoko Matsuda. If you’re familiar with the realm of Japanese media, you may have heard of Sleepeeer Hit!, the feel-good, slice-of-life drama about a weekly manga magazine. Today’s Webtoon takes a similar approach, but adds its own flair to this classic story by transplanting it into the world of Korean webtoons.
SBS’ latest series stars A Business Proposal’s Kim Se-jeong as On Ma-eum, once a judo prodigy who is sidelined after an injury. She worships her favourite webtoons and idolises their artists – nearly all of her possessions are bedecked with imagery of the treasured San-ha from the fictional series Princess Gumiho. Ma-eum is harmless and even naïve with her childlike fascination with animated worlds and mythic high-stakes adventures, but once she scores a part-time gig as security personnel at a webtoon event, the sharper edges to her character emerge as she devotes herself to protecting the artists from crazed fans.
The screenplay to Today’s Webtoon recalls K-drama tropes where a bubbly female lead ends up inspiring those around her and changing it for the better – cheesy motivations, juvenile humour, viewer enjoyment highly dependent on the geniality of the leading lady. Like Kurosawa Kokoro in the first Juhan Shuttai! adaptation, Ma-eum’s effervescent disposition lands her a producer job in Neon’s webtoon department, and is also what eventually tides her through the department’s hardships as it faces the possible disbandment in a year’s time if their performance doesn’t improve.
Upon hearing this news, Ma-eum is understandably crushed – after floundering through various part-time jobs and finally getting a foot in the door of a field she’s passionate about, the opportunity could very well be snatched away from her. This, thankfully, isn’t just a convenient plot device; the webtoon department is threatened with dissolution only because its staff and artists have grown complacent.
Ma-eum makes headway as a true asset to the team, challenging status quo and offering new insight. Kim’s portrayal of the character is multi-faceted: she’s astute and compassionate in spite of her near-constant positive outlook. She has her quiet moments too, and is not completely spared from disappointment and self-doubt. She quickly becomes a character to root for, which is testament to Kim’s spirited yet grounded performance. The viewer feels moved to care not just for Ma-eum’s growth, but for those of the lives she touches as well.
Ma-eum finds a remarkable mentor in assistant editor Seok Ji-hyung. Actor Daniel Choi shares an unrivalled on-screen chemistry with Kim as Ma-eum re-ignites the jaded editor’s love for webtoons. Ma-eum also finds an unexpected ally in Goo Joo-young (Nam Yoon-su), who at first comes off as stoic and sometimes uncooperative after getting transferred to the department against his wishes, but later finds his place in the world of webtoons.
But Today’s Webtoon struggles with what to make of its own premise, other than to recontextualise Sleepeeer Hit! for the Korean audience. As the second adaptation of a well-loved manga classic, the series had some shoes to fill and a need for a distinct voice so it can hold its own. Apart from playing to the current popularity of web comics within East Asian nations as well as implementing an overarching storyline to replace Sleepeeer Hit!’s original episodic format, Today’s Webtoon doesn’t do much else to add substance to a familiar story.
There are empowering, heartfelt moments where Ma-eum goes above and beyond to ensure the Neon artists are able to complete and upload new chapters of their stories on time, or where she convinces Joo-young to remain part of the webtoon team despite the belittlement of their colleagues (“There’s no paradise for you to escape to,” as she puts it). But these moments are mostly undercut by the series’ loose pacing – there is no consistent momentum at which events unfold. At times, Today’s Webtoon stretches out select moments of friction between characters or circumstances. At others, it glosses over points that could underpin significant character development.
While four episodes are not nearly enough to write off Today’s Webtoon as an entirely futile facsimile of Juhan Shuttai!, significant improvements are needed to make it worth viewers’ while. The show’s potential lies in its phenomenal cast, who bring nuance and life to characters we’ve seen before. Today’s Webtoon is much like the many office dramas before it, but the unbridled confidence, optimism and faith of Ma-eum in both herself and her team so far makes it a convincing entry.
New episodes of Today’s Webtoon are available every Friday and Saturday on South Korean cable network SBS and on Viu in select countries.