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
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.
ED: “Yoru (夜)” by vistlip