One way to spot a good anime, I think, is when it’s able to accomplish a whole lot without all that much seemingly happening. A series doesn’t have to be able to do that to be good, of course, but I’m hard-pressed to think of many examples of ones that could that aren’t good shows. It requires subtlety, a trust in the audience and a sense for pacing, and Akatsuki no Yona seems to have all three. Given that we’re dealing with a first-time director in Yoneda Kazuhiro it seems like a good bet that at least some of the credit goes to the manga itself.
Superficially, at least, this was a much more deliberate episode than last week’s. Much of it was in fact spent on flashbacks from the childhood of the three leads – and I think at this point one has to include Soo-won in that category – much of it told from Hak’s perspective. This wasn’t chronological in nature, as it started in the more recent past and worked its way back to the distance echoes of a happy childhood.
This wasn’t some simple recollection of happier times now lost, though – along the way we learned quite a bit about every major character, including the now-dead King Il. Hak is really the star here, both as an adolescent and as a child – he’s the one who speaks his mind to everyone around him and is seemingly iron-willed, but willingly sets aside his personal interests for the sake of the two people closest to him. He resists when King Il entreats him (with a manju) to be Yona’s bodyguard, but it’s he who steps in when the overly aggressive heir to the Fire Tribe, Kang Tae-jun (Sakurai Takahiro, so I assume he’s important) refuses to take no for an answer to his invitations for Yona to “play” with him.
This scenario is interesting as much for what it doesn’t spell out as for what it does, which I sincerely appreciate. The fact that Hak is not the biological heir to the Wind Tribe is obviously an important component in his character – he lacks the sense of entitlement the nobles around him share, though in effect he’s one of them (but doesn’t see himself that way). As well, the fact that Son Mundok (Sasaki Katsuhiko), the leader of the Tribe who insists on Hak calling him “Grandpa”, has hand-picked Hak to succeed the leadership speaks volumes about Hak’s character. And then there’s King Il, who acts calmly and decisively – and painfully – to end the dispute between Hak and Kang before it can begin.
Things are no less intriguing when the clock shifts even further back, to a snowy day when the three leads were perhaps ten years old. We see a relationship of absolute trust and unvarnished affection between the three of them – Son-woo and Yona are obviously proto-flirting and Hak leaves that arena to them, but all three of them are in love with the camaraderie they share (when Hak scolds Yona that she’ll get “even more ugly” if she doesn’t eat, she doesn’t even react). When a cold leaves them all bedridden it’s a joyous event, though initially painful for Yona when the still-grieving Il doesn’t come visit – being stuck in bed together is great fun for the three children. Watching them as kids, it’s hard to reconcile this idyll with the events we know will come later.
There’s so much more to this situation than meets the eye, and I love the fact that Akatsuki no Yona doesn’t beat us over the head with that or insist on revealing everything now. Soo-won’s story about Il having killed his father and his coldness towards Yona and Hak don’t make sense, based on what we know – so there’s obviously something important we don’t yet know, though we may have seen hints of it. It’s certainly clear that King Il was far more than the affable but cowardly triviality so many in his court dismissed him as, but was he a man capable of murdering his brother? Was Yu-hon in fact a genuine threat to his brother’s place on the throne, perhaps prompting Il to take his life?
All of this, presumably, will come to light in good time. For now Yona is still deep in shock and virtually helpless, and Hak is showing remarkable patience in trying to coax her into fighting for her life and her legacy. Leeches and poisonous snakes are only the beginning of their troubles, but for now at least Son-woo has (perhaps sentimentally?) called off the dogs and the fleeing pair will find respite with the Wind Tribe and Sol Mundok. That’s where, presumably, Yona’s real journey – both material and spiritual – will begin.