You know the drill with this series if you’ve been watching, so this episode won’t have surprised you. It’s just good, week after week – patient and nuanced and emotionally accurate, and this ep was really no different. But this content in particular is such a rare thing in anime these days that it makes me especially glad to have this series around. I think we appreciate shows like this which give us something so simple and meaningful, because they make us realize how rare that is in anime.
In structural terms, this was a side-story episode, basically – the back-story for Ik-su and Yoon. Both (especially Yoon, it seems) are important characters, but at first glance one might have taken it as a pleasing diversion. But it was absolutely essential, most obviously because really elite stories take the time to fully flesh-out all the major characters, and none of them are used as props. But in a more subtle sense it points up that shoujo can get away with things shounen – or whatever demographic label you attach to the main body of LN (and manga trying to be LN) adaptations – simply cannot.
It’s a matter of expectation, really. On the most recent RC podcast Kairi, Samu and I were talking about why this show isn’t more popular, and they theorized that it bears the stigma of being shoujo and worse, a reverse harem (which it isn’t). The ones attaching that stigma of course are the ones who buy most anime Blu-rays (though not DVDs) these days, and thus effectively control the creative direction of the majority of the anime industry. It’s only because Akatsuki no Yona is a shoujo that it can devote an entire episode to a cute and likeable boy rather than a cute and likeable girl, and to his (effectively) father-son relationship with his guardian.
You’d think father-son relationships would be common grist for the anime mill, considering who the biggest block of the audience is – but they’re almost entirely absent. And normal, healthy ones – driven by love, empathy and a bit of moody tsundere from the teenage “son”, and where emotional attachments are openly acknowledged – are virtual dinosaurs. Make no mistake, most mainstream shoujo isn’t nearly this good at depicting relationships, much less father-son ones, and there are some truly execrable shoujo that fall into depressing traps like heroines obsessed with abusive bad-boy leads. But in shoujo, at least, Ik-su and Yoon can happen, even if it rarely does – and I don’t think it can happen in anime aiming for the biggest target audience (males) any longer. Thank goodness for Akatsuki no Yona, and for really good shoujo.
All of the cast of Akatsuki no Yona has been interesting, including the antagonists, and most of them likeable. And these two are certainly no exception. As expected, the favor Ik-su asked of Yona at the end of Episode 7 was to take Yoon with her when she and Hak left. Why? Because Ik-su wants Yoon to see a world that he can’t see stranded in nowhere’s back yard with Ik-su – the world the eight year-old Yoon said he dreamed of seeing when the two first met in the Fire Tribe’s arid land. Their backstory is straightforward: Yoon is a starving orphan, and Ik-su – then as now too kind for his own good – travels about, giving all the alms of gold he receives to needy children (apart from the sizeable percentage he has stolen from him). The desperate Yoon introduces himself with a stone to the back of the head, but the priest hasn’t a flake of gold dust or a crust of bread on him. And seeing what his attack has done to Ik-su, Yoon orders him to stay behind and treats his wound.
It’s an odd meeting, but in context quite believable. And simple as it is, the two have a great chemistry. The smile on Yoon’s face when he says “I learned something!” after Ik-su teaches him to weave straw sandals (at which Ik-su himself is helpless) is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Ik-su is generous to a fault (literally) and Yoon soon proves himself to be frighteningly quick. He can memorize and understand a book in one reading (he’s already shared this with Yona). Ik-su has little to give Yoon but he long to see the boy’s mind have a chance to flower, and when he tells the boy he’s going off to live a life in solitude Yoon – who only after Ik-su entered his life realized how lonely he was – insists on going with him. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So why, then, should Yoon leave now? Ik-su’s motivation is genuine – he knows Yoon can never reach his full potential chained to the helpless priest who trips over his own feet – but there’s also an element of knowing Yoon can be a vital ally for Yona, whose quest he’s acknowledged as vital. It’s all the more heartbreaking because both of them know full well that Ik-su is pretty much helpless without Yoon, but Yoon ends up agreeing mostly, I think, because he realizes how much Ik-su wants him to live a richer life. Self-sacrifice for the one you love – the essence of a parent-child relationship, and so beautifully and eloquently portrayed here.
I was glad the camera caught Yoon’s true feelings in the end, even if he managed to hide his face from Yona and Hak when he revealed them. As hard as this is for him, though, surely he’s thrilled on some level, given his insatiable curiosity and ability to learn. And I don’t think there’s any doubt he brings things to the table Yona and Hak desperately need – he’s a healer, and quite clearly also very clever and innovative. Yoon’s mind is going to prove crucial to Yona’s success and very survival, of that I don’t think there’s any doubt. But I hope that at some point down the line the story (in the manga if nothing else) shows us the moment when he’s reunited with Ik-su. They both deserve that much.