It was a quiet week in Kouka, not my home kingdom. But with this series that doesn’t mean important stuff didn’t happen, both in terms of character and plot. Akatsuki no Yona doesn’t have a whole lot of wasted energy – everything is directed towards something, even if it’s simply filling out our impressions of a character in the ever-growing cast. It wasn’t the most exciting episode so far, but it was certainly a thought-provoking one.
Perhaps most thought-provoking was a short, “don’t blink or you’ll miss it” pre-OP look-in at Soo-won and Kye-sook (nah, this isn’t Korea at all…) back at the castle. This is about all we’ve been getting of Soo-won lately, but with every glimpse his character grows more fascinating and perplexing. Here we see Kye-sook bring him the news that, as Soo-won suspected, a corrupt official has been plundering the treasury for his own gain. Several things are interesting here – first, that the man was “dismissed” (rather than, say, killed or imprisoned). Second was Soo-won’s reaction – “King Il was a kind man, and kindness is not a crime. But sometimes it awakens the greed and selfishness in others.”
Does this play as the interaction of two sociopaths, or even villains? Not to me. Rather, it further cements the impression of Soo-won as a man who’s become cold and hard, perhaps, but in pursuit of what he sees as noble goals. Soo-won is not a raving lunatic – he’s calm and rational, and he’s done what based on what we know seem to be terrible things. Why did he feel such deeds were necessary? I love this element of his character, which makes him one of the most compelling antagonists we’ve seen in anime for ages. As a bonus, he’s also looking at the story of the Four Dragons, which Il had forbidden anyone to read – though Soo-won seems skeptical of its veracity. If indeed Il forbade anyone to read it, does that mean he knew what his daughter was, and was trying to protect her from the dangers implied and the burden of her history? That would synch with the image of him as a man who sought to avoid conflict to the point of disfunction – which seems in large measure to be the reason Soo-won murdered and deposed him.
I got two paragraphs out of the first 45 seconds of the episode and it easily could have been more – that’s some fine writing the series displays here. But there was indeed other stuff going on, as we rejoin Yona and Hak on the road, now with Yoon in tow. I rather like the three-way dynamic of this group, though it seems as if it’s going to be quite short-lived. Yoon easily slips into his role as both the “domestic” and the strategist, but he’s keenly aware of his own vulnerabilities as a fighter. Both he and Yona are fully cognizant of the extent to which they rely on Hak to survive, and so is he – and I think it makes all three of them uncomfortable. But the alternative makes Hak even more uncomfortable, as he passes up the opportunity to purchase a lightweight “self-defense sword” for Yona, instead reiterating his intention of doing the protecting (which was a rather careless slip in front of the weapons merchant, I thought).
In many ways this part of the journey has been about Yona’s awakening desire to assert some control of her own life, so it’s inevitable that she’s going to declare her desire to learn self-defense sooner or later. When she does, Hak relents only to the point of agreeing to teach her archery – he won’t show her the sword (yet). She can shoot from a distance, concealed, while he fights – but in addition to her strength and skills, Yona is lacking something else in the use of the bow and arrow. There’s a very revealing conversation between she and Yoon, where he admits that he’s skilled with the weapon himself (sasuga) but reluctant to wield it. Why? Because when you pick up a weapon you have to be prepared to kill, and all the more when you’re “weak” as the two of them are. Hak can afford to hold back because of his fearsome strength – people like Yoon and Yona have to know how to exploit fatal vulnerabilities, or try and win a battle of wits.
This is a really intelligent, incisive analysis of the situation – as you’d expect from Yoon, and as you’d expect from Akatsuki no Yona. As far as Hak’s training of Yona he proves (again, as you’d expect) to be a poor teacher, as those naturally gifted at something often are. But Yona proves that she’s willing to pay the price in sweat and blisters once she sets her mind to a task, and she does improve – though she still lacks the final piece that Yoon referred to. Hak actually challenges her to try and his him as he moves, and he dodges easily – it’s only when he mentions Soo-won that she fires with intent and draws blood. “I hate this side of you.” she says tearfully, but declares her willingness to “sacrifice someone” in order to protect him. “Don’t say you’ll protect me.” Hak mumbles. “It stirs my desire.”
That’s great stuff right there, but events are catching up with the character arcs by this point – the trio have arrived at the mysterious “village hidden by mists” where Ik-su has told them the first of their Dragons may be (the only one whose location he can guess at). And Yoon – who Hak sent ahead while he engaged Yona in target practice – has been captured. This is something like a ninja village, seemingly, and its inhabitants quite willing to kill outsiders to maintain their secret existence. But that all changes when they see Yona’s red hair, and it’s obvious that we’ve arrived at the point where the first of the Four Dragons will make their appearance – the White Dragon the village is protecting. And with that, Akatsuki no Yona will seemingly enter another new phase in its narrative arc.