At this rate, folks are going to have to start being thrilled when Pierrot is announced as the studio for adaptations. I mean, look at the last year or so – Kingdom, Baby Steps, Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii, Tokyo Ghoul, and now Akatsuki no Yona. Admittedly the animation for the first two shows on that list was subpar, but I don’t think we (myself included) are giving enough emphasis to the artistic choices a studio makes – what material they adapt, and their storytelling choices. All of these shows have been faithful and adroitly adapted, and in fact Ghoul and the two shoujo fantasy series have been quite good visually – especially this one. I think the art and animation (and the soundtrack) for Akatsuki is outstanding.
At heart, though, why I’m coming to love this show is because of the writing. It’s patient, it’s subtle, it respects the audience. In short, this is an anime that narratively speaking plays like a novel – which is why it’s so unsurprising that the anime it puts one in mind of are mostly adapted from novels. It’s so bloody refreshing to see a series where the characters aren’t fully-formed in the first episode but change, slowly and unevenly as people do, over time. Where what people say isn’t necessarily what they mean. And that doesn’t explain every mystery or grind the story to the halt with clumsy exposition, but lets the audience pause and consider what they’re seeing, and what it might mean.
I liked the way Yona’s transition from passive heroine to proactive participant was handled in the first part of the episode. Seeing Hak pushed to the brink of death clearly pushed her past the breaking point – but she didn’t emerge on the other side of the divide as a super-soldier. She was emotional to the point of panic, clumsy, desperate – but what’s changed is that she’s no longer willing to stand aside as her fate (and Hak’s) is decided. She snagged Tae-jun’s sword (perfectly believable as he would have been utterly taken by surprise at her resistance) and cut off her own long hair to free herself from his grasp. Swinging the sword wildly she rushed to where Hak was hanging off the precipice by his fingertips, but wasn’t strong enough to lift him up herself.
The symbolic nature of the act of cutting off her ponytail won’t have been lost on anyone with a working knowledge of Bushido – it’s a theme we’ve seen repeated many times in anime (and Avatar the Last Airbender). Yona is throwing away her status and her title, embracing the life of a ronin and a fighter struggling against the new centers of power. She’s certainly helped here by the fact that the last thing Tae-jun wants is to kill her, which makes this a difficult situation for his men – but when they approach to try and wrest her away from where she’s holding Hak’s hand, they both fall over the precipice.
If there’s an element of this episode I was even a bit dubious about, it was Hak and Yona surviving that fall – though of course they had to. Judging by the visuals that’s pretty unlikely, trees or no tress, but be that as it may survive they did – discovered by “passing bishounen” Yoon (Junko Minagawa). His self-deprecation about what he’s done for them is pretty obvious – this was no simple act of healing. Yoon, it turns out, lives with the Priest Son Mundok had mentioned, Ik-soo (Kanemaru Jun’ichi). Are these two a pair of the “Dragons” we’ve heard so much about? In any event it’s clear the next phase of Yona’s journey is fully underway now.
As good as all that was, what was going on back at Hiryuu Castle on the eve of the coronation was possibly even more interesting to me. I really find the whole Soo-won storyline and arc a fascinating one, because the numbers just don’t add up. Watching the B-part play out, more than ever the sense I got was sadness – that this was something good and beautiful turned tragic and violent, and that everyone involved understands that. It really appears that Soo-won genuinely loved Yona and Hak, and that Hak genuinely wanted to see Soo-won and Yona marry so that he could serve at Soo-won’s side. And now, here we are, with Tae-jun bringing Soo-won Yona’s ponytail and announcing that she was dead (a la Chagum from Seirei no Moribito).
Looking into Soo-won’s eyes in that moment, it’s clear that he’s feeling the full impact of this. He’s realizing that it was his actions – his decisions – that directly led to the death of Yona (they didn’t, but he doesn’t know that). And not just Yona – he clearly loved Hak as well, and the fact that Yona and Hak won’t be at his side as he rules grieves him. Yet I also sense that even had he known this would be the end result, Soo-won would have accepted that price. Why? What drove this seemingly gentle and kind boy to murder his Uncle and put the lives of his two closest friends in play, to seize the throne for himself? Yes, he blamed Il for his father’s death – but there’s surely more here. More that Soo-won knows – or believes he knows – than has been revealed overtly to the audience.
It’s a really fascinating scenario Kusanagi-sensei has created here, with so much internal and external conflict. Soo-won comes to power fully realizing the depth of the challenges he faces, but it’s clear he’s both smart and driven – and equally clear that while King Il may have been liked he wasn’t necessarily respected. Many in the population preferred the strength and pugnaciousness of Yu-hon, and see the coronation of his son as a chance for the Kingdom to be restored to its former glory. It’s not just personal choices and their cost that are on trial in this story, but political ones too – and we’re still a long way from seeing all the evidence being submitted.