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.