I keep promising myself I’ll stop reading anime forums, because as I find my perspective growing more and more remote from the mainstream of anime fandom it’s an increasingly frustrating experience. But it’s always fun to watch the mass of viewers react to an old-school series like this one, which is especially disinterested in following any of the ever-more narrow band of allowable prescriptions for appealing to today’s audience. Most viewers choke on a series like this one and spit it out, and that’s why fewer and fewer of them are getting made and the ones that do rarely succeed commercially.
In many ways it doesn’t get more old-fashioned than Akatsuki no Yona. A shoujo fantasy coming from Studio Pierrot? Yeah, good luck with that, Marketing Department. The thing is, though, that this fusty old relic if following in the well-worn footsteps of some excellent series, and doing a pretty darn good job of it so far. I think the first two eps have been engaging and well-paced (this one especially flew by) and did an excellent job acting as the prologue to set-up the real story (which of course only a multi-cour series has the luxury to provide).
One element I want to mention right off the bat is the music, which I think is a vastly under-appreciated part of the series’ appeal. It too, is resolutely old-school, starting with the instrumental OP. It and the background music come from the pen of Ryo Kunihiko, the composer for the likes of Tegami Bachi, Emma and (of course) The Twelve Kingdoms. There’s not an ounce of concession in choosing Ryo-san for this soundtrack, as his style of cinematic orchestral compositions are rarely heard in TV anime these days. Music helps paint a picture, and in this case it’s of an Asia (in this case Korea) of long ago, an almost-forgotten time that somehow lives on in the imagination.
One undeniable element of this series is that Yona is so far the ultimate helpless female protagonist – spoiled, sentimental, utterly dependent on males first for her happiness and then for her life itself. This is all for a purpose, of course – I haven’t read much of the manga but even the anime has made it clear that Yona’s transformation is one of the major themes of the series, and the more passive and weak she is now the more stark that transformation will be. I think it’s also important to recognize that in the historical context Yona’s behavior is quite realistic – she’s led an utterly sheltered and protected life, and in an age where women were expected to depend entirely on men for their safety and security. It’s certainly easier to initially bond with someone like Nike (a wonderful character) and her “just do it” spirit, but she’s a different kind of heroine for a different kind of story.
There are several interesting elements in this episode, in which events inside the castle played out largely as expected but were presented in a vastly entertaining way. First off is the revelation – or is it a claim – by Soo-won that King Il (Akagi Susumu) killed his father, the King’s older brother. If indeed this is true it certainly casts Soo-won’s actions in a greyer light, especially if his description of his father as a loyal and brilliant warrior is true. There are really two separate questions here – is what Son Woo says true, and if not, does he believe it to be true? It seems that the answer to the second question is yes (though it’s too soon to say for certain), but I’m withholding speculation on the first one.
Also of note is the heroism of Min-soo (Yamamoto Kazutomi) the mild-mannered servant who was clearly in love with Yona. While Hak’s heroism in saving Yona from Soo-won (it does seem as if he was willing to see her killed) is obvious, Min-soo’s humble sacrifice is the quiet headline of the episode. It’s his making himself the target of the traitors’ fire that buys Hak and Yona the precious seconds they need to escape into the mountains, where Hak’s experience and rugged upbringing will play to their benefit. It’s hard to imagine him surviving what’s happened (this isn’t Aldnoah Zero), but the last few moments of the episode make it clear that Min-soo’s sacrifice wasn’t in vain (though we really wouldn’t have had a series if they had been).
If things follow the expected course for this sort of series (and I would guess Akatsuki no Yona will do that more often than not) it’s about time we start meeting the other members of Yona’s party, whose appearance was teased in the flash-forward that closed the episode. But it looks as if we’re first going to look back again, towards the shared childhood of Yona and Hak. That too makes sense as it’s their relationship which is the obvious center of the series, and thus far we’ve explored it only on a superficial level.