I know this series is confirmed for two cours and that the manga it’s based on is ongoing. But even so, it’s quite refreshingly deliberate in its pacing. As I’ve said before this is a very novel-like story in narrative terms, and the anime it’s most reminiscent of are almost all adapted from novels. As such it’s not so much concerned with checking off genre and demographic boxes as it is with telling a story where all the elements matter – action, world-building, character interaction, back-story. I’m awfully glad of that now because it makes Akatsuki no Yona a great watch, though, I’m not sure I’ll be glad of it when the last episode rolls around. We’ll see.
When Akatsuki started, a number of folks commented that they mistook it for a shoujo love triangle based on the premiere. Well, based on this ep you might just mistake it for a harem – or perhaps a slice-of-life (if you ask the bandits, anyway). In truth this episode was entirely concerned with developing the dynamic between the four main cast members – which is good for me, as I closed last week’s post by saying “What’s going to be interesting is seeing how the new four-way dynamic of the Yona party breaks down”. I love the fact that the writer realized what was important at this stage of the story, and unhurriedly let it explore itself. There was a battle here, sure, but one of the least suspenseful you’ll ever see – it, too, was almost entirely concerned with the character dynamics and what light it could shed on them.
So how did the four-way dynamic break down? Well, one of the questions I asked in that final paragraph was whether there would be any romantic tension between Yona and Ki-ja, and whether that would cause conflict between he and Hak. I think the answer is a tentative yes, though Ki-ja’s infatuation could as easily be attributed to hero worship as romantic love, and the tension between he and Hak to straight-up alpha male dogfighting. In truth, there are three young men here traveling with a beautiful 16 year-old princess, so it’s hard to think there wouldn’t be some measure of romantic tension with all of them.
Ki-ja’s main concern, for now, is fitting in as the new member of the group. He’s acutely aware of Hak’s close relationship with Yona, and of Yoon’s unquestioned status as the brains (and mother) of the group. Ki-ja is a curious mix of arrogance and raw insecurity – he’s the most sheltered of the bunch, a “rich kid” as Yoon derisively calls him. He’s never slept outdoors, he’s terrified of bugs, and he can’t bear the thought of eating sansai (never mind mushi). I think the worst part for him is seeing that Yona is unexpectedly not his ally in this – she’s already shed her reliance on the comforts and trappings of royalty, and seems well along on the journey towards becoming a rough-and-ready itinerant warrior. All this makes Ki-ja that much more the odd man out, and he knows it – and his irritatingly vague guidance on finding the next dragon (the blue one) doesn’t make him feel any more useful.
That’s where the aforementioned bandits come in, and in effect they arrive at a most convenient time. This is a chance for both Hak and Ki-ja to show the other just how strong they really are, and even for Yona to try out her archery skills in a real fight. She does so with a lot of help from Yoon, who is as she says a good teacher, but bemoans that he can’t hit anything on his own (and also has to endure hiding while the two alpha males are kicking butt, and being called one of the “two girls” doing so). I don’t think Hak and Ki-ja are any less competitive with each other, but at least neither can now deny the other’s power – and Ki-ja at least has a reason to feel like a valued team member. As to whether they actually killed all those bandits I’m not sure, but (as the episode jokingly points out later) this is not a group doing an especially good job at not calling attention to themselves.
I also mused last time about how Yoon would stay relevant in the presence of these two mythical beasts, and indeed his role is an interesting one. Obviously Yoon does have many skills the others lack – his knowledge and strategic insight is critical. But it’s interesting to see someone so intrinsically averse to physical conflict contrasted with those basically born to it – we rarely see that portrayed to starkly. Yoon seems quite content with his niche, but one wonders if that’s not in part a front. He does rail at Yona “treating him like a kid” when they’re only a year apart, and he could actually be argued to be a better match for her than either of the beast-protectors – yet it’s clear that no one would take that possibility seriously at this point. Given that Yoon is in fact a teenager and not a young child, it’s hard not to wonder if he’ll start to chafe at being so obviously deferential to the other two (and even Yona) in all things overtly physical.
Put it all together and you have a very interesting group dynamic here, which makes me a little sad that we won’t have more time to observe it. The Blue Dragon will be joining the cast next week, and I’m sure that dynamic will be interesting too, but this quartet was too short-lived. There’s an awful lot to be sorted here – in addition to Ki-ja and Yoon, it’s easy to forget that Hak is carrying around a secret love for the girl he’s sworn to protect himself. He covers well, no doubt, but his snarky exterior is definitely a cover – he even admits to Ki-ja (who, in the end, can probably understand him better than the other two – and vice-versa) that he’s “conflicted” over seeing Yona become stronger and more self-reliant. He’s sworn to be her protector, but part of him enjoys seeing her have to struggle and adapt – because of course, though it’s unsaid, it forces her to grow. That’s a fascinating place from which to approach their fascinating relationship, which is only one part of a fascinating series.