Akatsuki no Yona – 04

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Akatsuki no Yona is definitely the WYSIWYG anime of the season.

There’s something incredibly honest about this series.  There are no shortcuts or tricks – merely a difficult story about peaceful lives being consumed by violence and betrayal, of the kind that epics of this genre often are.  We’re not told everything that’s going on and it’s clear that there are important things we don’t yet know, but what we are shown is straightforward and easy to follow, just as the emotions of the characters are.

That applies to the more technical side of the storytelling as well.  Pierrot is the studio everyone loves to hate lately (perhaps even having supplanted DEEN for that dubious honor) but the fact is, there isn’t another studio that knows how to spin shoujo fantasy the way they can.  Somehow series like Akatsuki no Yona and Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii are in their DNA – the results always feel very natural and organic, right down to the old-fashioned color palette and animation.  Having a decent budget (like Baby Steps and Kingdom clearly didn’t) certainly helps in terms of appearances, but even there Pierrot did a heck of a job telling the stories in ways that were faithful to the source material.

As I’ve watched the last couple of episodes of Akatsuki it’s struck me that a kind of “Rashomon Effect” seems to be at work here.  The reason why things we’re seeing don’t seem to add up is because so much of what we’re seeing is told from first-person perspective.  I’m becoming more and more convinced that Soo-won believes what he’s doing is right and necessary – that he believes his father was a good man, and that Yona’s father killed him.  How much of that is actually true I don’t know but I think Soo-won believes it is.  It may sound odd to reconcile that with my view that the series is straightforward, but I think it’s consistent – it’s not pulling any tricks on us here, just as Kurosawa didn’t.  It’s quite normal that people view events from their own selfish perspective, and that as a result what really happened can be hard to pin down.

As a result of all that, the Wind Kingdom comes off as a remarkably simple and unpretentious place.  It’s to the Wind capital of Fuuga that Hak takes Yona, and it’s immediately clear that this is not a place of tight discipline or strict formality.  Among the first Winders (Windies?) we meet is Heang-dea (Okamoto Nobuhiko) whose extremely casual manner around the Lord he hasn’t seen for three years (and remembers it as ten) is telling.  Hak instructs Yona to pretend she’s Rina, a castle lady-in-training, but she passes out almost immediately upon arrival and is cared for with extreme kindness by all, especially Hak’s little brother (also adopted) Tae-yoon (Kokoro Kikuchi, Takuma Aoto-Gonzales from Ginga e Kickoff).

There’s a great sense of impending tragedy hanging over events in Fuuga, of good and brave people being caught up in trouble they had nothing to do with starting.  Son Mundok is at the castle, having been summoned to a meeting of the five clan leaders (which is immediately seen as odd because Hak is the Wind Clan leader now).  And the old warrior predictably susses out that something untoward has happened with Soo-won, and that Hak is being set up as the scapegoat for the murder of the King.  Mundok refuses to sanction the ascension of Soo-won to the throne, the only leader that does – and rides off home after Soo-won announces that the coronation will take place in three days.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but it’s clear it isn’t going to good.  The Fire Tribe (whose leader is in-league with Soo-won, and perhaps not the only tribe whose leader is) is already trying to goad the Wind Tribe into a war so that their “rebellion” can be crushed – damming the river they depend on and ambushing the merchants (including the one bringing the asthma medicine Tae-yoon needs to live) they rely on for goods.  Hak is as usual playing the long game here, ordering his adopted grandfather to sanction Soo-won’s coronation and hide and protect Yona while he goes off into the wilds as a refugee from justice.  Son Mundok is predictably bereft at the notion, but seems resigned to following his clan leader’s orders, but clearly it isn’t going to end that way.

What a brilliant job Akatsuki no Yona has done setting up this impending disaster – a tragedy in the true sense because we know it’s coming and it’s still heartbreaking.  Everyone on the Wind Tribe side has proved to be stalwart, starting with the remarkably likeable Hak – direct, honest people who don’t look for trouble and will sacrifice for others (and Tae-yoon is the epitome of male moe, a truly kind and sweet child who I can’t help but note looks eerily like the child Soo-won – whether this is a matter of Adachi syndrome, intentionally ironic or something more I don’t know).  And while Yona has done nothing especially heroic or admirable yet, she’s certainly done nothing to deserve the cruel fate life has thrust on her.  Something is going to be the straw that broke the Princess’ back, the catalyst that turns her grief into rage and Yona into the character we saw in the flash-forwards – and perhaps it will be the attack on Fuuga that does it.

I hate to end on such a note, but it should be mentioned that Pierrot has been forced to add this disclaimer denying any resemblance to real people or places as a result of a backlash against the series because of its Korean setting.  I predicted that would happen, but it doesn’t disgust me any less because I knew it was coming.  This show was never going to be a big seller on disc anyway, but I certainly hope that the xenophobes behind the outcry are all people who would never buy the Akatsuki no Yona anime or manga anyway, because it would be a shame for such a well-written and humanistic series to have its limited commercial prospects damaged over something so desperately stupid and pathetic.

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  1. S

    What's the deal with Korea anyway? I mean, it's not like what's being portrayed here is especially typical, besides names and costumes (it looks like a pretty archetypical period drama – the same story with virtually no changes could be told in Edo Japan, or even in an European medieval setting. Hell, it could be a Shakespeare tragedy for all that matters!). Nor it is in any way anti-Japanese or explicitly clashing with Japanese morality, for what I can understand. Being enraged at this is like hating muslims for ISIS and therefore hating on Disney's Aladdin. Sounds dumb even by xenophobic standards.

  2. Yes, it is. But the hatred for all things Korean here defies anything a 21st-Century Westerner of modestly enlightened sensibility can comprehend. It's visceral. And the worst part is that it's socially acceptable in the way casual racism rarely is in most places. That's the dark side of modern Japan, a wonderful country that I love in most respects, this not being one of them.

  3. S

    Just recently there was this article in the New York Times about far right groups harrassing a small (Japanese) village to stop building a memorial for dead Korean forced labours:

    That this kind of behavior regarding its own WW2 past is "accepted" by society is hard to comprehend, especially to me as someone who grew up in Germany. I guess it is no surprise that unless Japan comes to terms with its past, it still fills the main villian role for many people from other Asian countries.

  4. c

    *huffs angrily*

  5. p

    At the risk of seemingly oversimplifying the issue discussed here, I think it's all comes down to brainwashing done through generations for this silly bigotry going on among the east Asian nations. Now it's mostly due to Japan's military occupation some 80-100 years ago, but this anti-attitude goes beyond that. It's similar rivalry in the same ethnicity nations like Croatia & Serbia or India & Pakistan.

    I don't want to generalize too much and it's quite clear on individual level, there are plenty of Japanese getting alone fine with Chinese and Koreans and vise versa. It'd be stupid to argue they all hate each other. But at the group/culture/nation level, there is lots of visceral hatred and bashing on Japan going even on youth culture in China and Korea as they've been brought up that way while on Japan's part, it's looking down/discriminatory attitude against those nations -albeit way more subtle than the counterpart.

    The real problem is mostly old people as they are the most vocal ones and ones doing the brainwashing. Those old enough to experience first-hand or know someone directly from the aforementioned occupation. While I'm sympathetic -after all, you can't just tell someone who was a victim from that era to get over it-, the fade of the anti-sentiment, at least to the point it mostly becomes a non-issue- will come once these old people who hold those views and won't ever change minds die off. Similar to the progress made in racism/homophobic in USA.

  6. And you reconcile this theory with the fact that any mention of Korea in anime (or use of, say, a Korean dish – not to mention the runaway popularity of stuff like Mahouka) invariably sparks a huge backlash among otaku how? Last time I checked, there aren't all that many otaku ojii-sans and obaa-sans.

    I don't deny there's a good deal of anti-Japan racism in other parts of Asia, which doesn't help tamp down racism here. But you know, a big part of the reason for that is that Japan is still mostly in denial about the atrocities it committed in WW II. Compared to the way Germany has confronted this issue, Japan comes up very short.

  7. S

    In my opinion the fading of "old" people as you mentioned is only going to fuel the problem even more in the future. Since younger generations would argue with why is it that their country is still being held responsible for things that previous generations have done. While simultaneously in other Asian countries this issue is dangerously being instrumentalized by their governments for securing a sense of unity among the population.

    The point is in my opinion, that some kind of symbolic gesture towards the crimes committed would be also in Japan's interest. Take Europe for example: After the second World War the German government and popluation took over the responsibilities and crimes committed by the nazi government. (And I am certainly realist enough to argue, that this was also done out of necessity for their own well-being, when former nazi officials or supporters suddenly turned democratic)
    Gestures of "Humility" like the "Warschauer Kniefall" left a strong impression on the population of other countries. What initially seemed like a "Weakness" portrayed by the head of government of a country, invoked in my opinion a sense of "Dignity" that helped former enemies coming to terms with each other in Europe. Otherwise, I hardly doubt that the European neighbors would have accepted a reunited Germany and their role in the European Community.

    The same would apply for Japan, you can easily imagine that while the dominant (military) role of China in Asia is viewed with suspiscion by neighbouring countries, a dominant Japan is also hardly acceptable because of having never coming to terms with its past.

    However, I imagine that the Government's perception regarding the necessity of having to come to terms with former enemies is different when the countries are more or less geographically separated and when you know, that a powerful country like the US are dependent on the partnership with you, to remain influencial in the pacific region.

    And seeing that the goodwill of that Japanese village for errecting a small memorial for (foreign) victims of the war invokes such strong repulsion from far right groups is simply a sad thing to read since I too have enough faith in humanity in order to believe that on a personal level Chinese, Koreans and Japanese and other ethnicities can get along just fine with each other.

  8. Well, you guys are certainly raising some interesting points but I'm hesitant to let this get too far off-topic – this is an Akatsuki no Yona post after all, and the series clearly wants no part of this kind of discussion. I'm therefore going to let it go here, though I certainly have many more thoughts on the topic…

  9. S

    Yeah it does seem weird discussing all this here, on the other hand I'm glad I got to know about the reason behind that weird disclaimer in this episode.

  10. w

    "Everything changed when the fire nation attacked"

    Lots of good stuff this week. I like how deftly they slip the comedy into serious scenes (take note, Kimi Uso). Also we've finally confirmed my suspicions that Enzo has a weakness for moe boys 😛

    I'll admit that I have a pretty low opinion on Pierrot, but visually this is the best I've seen from them in a long time.

    As for the disclaimer.. Yeah, it's rely sad. I remember when it was announced that it was getting an early private premiere. I was worried they were screening it to make sure it was 'safe for Japanese eyes' or something. Who knows, though? Maybe this one will defy all the odds and that controversy will turn into good publicity.

  11. Hey, I just call it when I see it. That moe is not gender-limited being the only point.

    Yes, as I was watching this I was also struck by how much more effective the comic intercuts are here than in Shigatsu. There's no science to it – it's just one series being way better at that than the other.

  12. T

    This one of the great things about Akatsuki no Yona that there is a lot not being told on the surface level and the viewer/reader is left to guess what events happened in the past that led to the present. The characters are complex and everyone has their own motivations on what is "right" thing to do. The tragedy is that Hak and Yona whom have done nothing wrong have to suffer the consequences of actions that were done in the past. Now they have to fight for their survival.

    The build up is great and the next episode definitely shows Yona is going take action soon and have an input on the decisions about her future instead of having everyone else decide for her.

    As for the xenophobic comments about the show sadly I'm not surprised. Even way back when this manga started it received backlash but Kusanagi handled the situation admirably and stated this just a story that should be judged on the content of the story-telling. The manga has done really well and now look where we are, this series has a 24 episode anime that is allowing it to tell its story despite the intense xenophobic backlash against the series.

    The only thing we can do as fans is support the series both in Japan and aboard which is what you have been doing wonderfully well Enzo. I can only hope after the anime ends you continue following the series and buy the manga ^_^ It saddens me that the water tribe won't be animated since it has a lot of good character moments. I can't have everything.

  13. c

    It gives me savage glee to see that THIS is the shoujo fantasy anime that not only gets a bit of Pierrot's best but 24 episodes of it. Took a quick peak into the 2ch discussion board and good god was it petty. May this be the most Korean non-Korean fantasy epic yet.

    Soo-won-to-be-Heika (ha!) had this tiny moment on the balcony when thinking about Old Man Son that totally killed me. I love the layers of characterization in this show, straightforward as it is. The talk about protecting from invaders also makes me think that the reason the Fire Tribe, at least, has been conspiring with Soo-Won is due to this real fear. IRL Korea was near-constantly under attack from invaders so this would be a fitting motivation.

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