First Impressions – Akatsuki no Yona

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You’ll forgive me if this feels like the real start of the Fall season.

OP: “Akatsuki no Yona (暁のヨナ)” by Kunihiko Ryo

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The new season of anime has certainly been in full-swing for a while now, but for me Akatsuki no Yona’s arrival takes it to another level.  Not only is it the first new series I’ve covered from the comforts of home (though I’ve only a one-day respite before the arrival of another American visitor) but it’s the first premiere of a show that I truly thought going in had a strong chance to be elite (Sora no Method probably being the closest so far).  Almost all of the premieres I’ve watched so far have fallen in the same middling range, but now this show starts the parade of series for which my expectations were highest.

You can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you like, but Akatsuki no Yona was indeed my favorite of the new shows so far this season – though I’d class this as a very good first episode rather than a great one.  It’s almost hard to imagine this material in the hands of anyone but Pierrot, so perfectly does it fit their zeitgeist.  That isn’t always a good thing, but in this case it works – there’s a natural synch between the content and the visual style that’s hard to miss.  The director is a first-timer (Yoneda Kazuhiro) but this is old-school Pierrot all the way.

15 year-old Yona (Saitou Chiwa – these roles are starting to be a stretch, but she can still just pull them off) is the pampered princess of the kingdom of Kouka, the spoiled only child of mild-mannered widower King Il.  Her childhood companion and sparring partner is Soon-Hak (Tomoaki Maeno), now one of her father’s generals and always someone Yona quarrels with.  But the love of her life is her cousin Soo-won (Kobayashi Yuusuke), three years her senior and the son of her father’s brother.  Told in flashback, the story begins when Soo-won comes for a visit in honor of Yona’s sixteenth birthday.

The first half of the episode is filled with shoujo tropes, and some of them undeniably fall flat.  But there’s ample evidence that this series will be much more than demographic or genre formula.  The art, for one, is more reminiscent of Watsuki Nobuhiko than any standard shoujo fantasy.  And there are elements of the epic in the scale of the story as set up by the instrumental OP (a sadly underused approach).  I don’t think the surprise at the end of the premiere will shock most viewers (I knew about it but I suspect I’d have seen it coming anyway) but it nicely sets up both an interesting love story and a political and military thriller.

It’s also notable that mangaka Kusanagi Mizuho has made this a pan-Asian rather than a Japanese story, but even more that the pan-Asian elements (bits of Chinese and Japanese wardrobe mixed in, et cetera) seem largely a veneer to keep Akatsuki no Yona from being labeled as a story set in Korea – which it obviously is in all but name.  Anyone who follows Japanese and Asian current events knows that both countries harbor considerable hostility towards the other, and that anti-Korean racism is rampant in the otaku community – though of course the fact that this is a shoujo may help some, and the fact that the show figures to be largely ignored by the otaku community even more so.  Japan and Korea share much historically and linguistically, and Korea makes a natural setting for manga telling tales of olden times given how much of Japan’s earliest recorded history traces its roots to Korea.

I applaud Kusanagi-sensei for choosing this path, though ultimately that’s far less important than the merits of the content itself, and on that score things are looking pretty good.  Unlike with Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii Pierrot has two cours to work with here, and should be able to do a representative job of bringing the manga to life (though not a complete one, as it’s ongoing).  The first episode of a series like this one is generally all preamble, and the real story begins now – and I think we’ll have a much better idea where things stand with Akatsuki no Yona after next week.

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ED: “Yoru (夜)” by vistlip

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21 comments

  1. r

    How about those The Twelve Kingdom vibes in the OP? Art style, instrumental only, epic scope.

    One of my favorite OPs yet this season, visuals and music together.

  2. For sure, with some Moribito thrown in too (especially the Korea setting).

  3. R

    I love instrumental openings. They remind me of RPG games or operas or movies, the Ines with an epic scope.

    Akatsuki no Yona had a relatively slow start, but it sure knows where the high gear is once it grabs t :)

  4. T

    I'm truly a sucker for instrumental music~~~ I can definitely say the animated the first chapter really well. I was worried about the pacing and how much story they will be able to tell in this 2 cour, but it seems that it will be ok. I should have more faith in the animators and enjoy the ride. Regardless of where they decide to end the series.

    About the episode itself its almost unsettling how different the tone is later on in this series then what was first presented in the early chapters. I liked we got the fluffy stuff out of the way quickly and once her hair gets short then our story truly begins. Soo Won is definitely a character that is hard to figure out and its tons of fun analyzing his motives.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it Enzo and I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

  5. K

    Nice to see a positive review of the series. On ANN all the reviews seemed to think they knew everything about the series from the first episode which I thought was a bit silly. Not that I think this was the best first ep ever but it was enjoyable enough and I think it shows a lot of potential.

  6. c

    Man, ANN were harsh, weren't they?

  7. E

    They were silly. Fixed that for you.

  8. T

    where is the link to that review?

  9. C

    So I'm not insane for immediately thinking "hey, it's fantasy Korea".

  10. H

    As a manga reader I wasn't super thrilled with this first episode, felt like the pacing was too slow and I'm questioning some of the art/music choices, but wow I have seen opinions on the show all over the spectrum. As Kim mentioned, most of ANN scored it low (but they all said "I didn't really hate it I just didn't like it?") and I've seen newcomers like you also really like it. Also laughing because I keep seeing people say things that are going to be completely wrong, nothing here actually but it's making me appreciate the manga more since I'm just now realizing how carefully the manga-ka has placed all of these little details in.

  11. T

    Really? I was worried it would be too fast because there is soooo much story in the manga. The fact that its 2 cour still kind of worries because it might not cover a lot of the arcs but for now I think the pacing is ok.

  12. H

    I felt like they over-empathized how bratty Yona was here, I was amazed that anyone at all seems to like her so far! XD

  13. T

    Well I think we tend to forget how she was like that in the beginning. Its funny I completely forgot how she used to be until this first episode. Its almost jarring how different she is in the future as opposed to her life in the palace.

  14. ANN is not a place to source reasoned, objective opinion in my experience…

  15. H

    Well, an objective (fact-based) review (write-up encompassing events and emotions) is a rather nonsensical statement to start with…. 😛

  16. E

    The OP attracts me right away.
    All her retainers seem to pretty cool guy.
    Although I hate how one of them has beast arm.
    It's such a turn off. LOL.

    Let's hope it has good story which can live up to the excellent art and character design.
    [I didn't read the manga]

  17. R

    Yup…am keeping this one. I'm not overly thrilled by the production values, but I'm waiting to see how the characters grow and how the story progresses.

  18. t

    I really enjoyed the 1st episode of Akatsuki no Yona.
    I think it was lovely and successfully brought what the beginning of the story should feel like. even when I knew what's gonna happen in the end, it was executed really well.
    having Pierrot adapting I had some worries, but they did Soredemo Sekai pretty good. and after watching the first episode, knowing this gonna be 2cour series, I am pretty sure it's gonna be a great ride.

  19. M

    This is already my favorite series. Fallen princess of historical kingdom trying to gain the throne back by gathering warriors is nothing new, in fact the whole episode is predictable, but it's my favorite plot of all time. That's why I love Saiunkoku Monogatari and Fushigi Yugi so much. And yes I can see how some might see Yona as very bratty, but to me she's acting like your normal teenage girl who wants to be with the person she loves.

  20. Z

    After Fushigi Yugi I kind of got my fill of these sorts of wish fulfillment set in an ancient land stories.

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