Akatsuki no Yona – 11

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Akatsuki no Yona is acting like a series that’s going to be around for a lot longer than 24 episodes.

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.

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  1. K

    It's officially described as a "historical fantasy romance" but I always thought of it as an adventure first, then action/comedy, then heavier on politics later on, then drama/fantasy, and lastly romance.

    I recently read a lot of period/fantasy shoujo, and AkaYona is the one I grew the most attached to since it's the only series one of them that features a proper adventure. Why are shoujo adventures so raaaaaaareee…

  2. S

    Yeah, I don't really get the complaints of those who instantly labelled this a "reverse harem". Sure, you could say the basic elements are there, but really, what usually earns a series the demeaning "harem" label for me is having hollow, stereotypical characters who all fall in love with the protagonist out of plot convenience rather than genuine, believable motivations. And this doesn't really apply here. Is it a princess fantasy? A bit, but when your princess has her father killed, her status denied, and her lifestyle toned down to wandering in the woods and eating weeds (and candidly admitting she just hasn't gotten used to eating bugs "yet"), well… I'd say it's hard to see her only as a straight-up self-insert.

  3. A

    There is nothing strange about people labeling this as a reverse harem. It may lack the featureless protagonist bit, but everything else fits in. Whether the author has a talent for storytelling, character writing or a sense of humor is besides the point.

    This is still a story about an innocent girl suddenly becoming the center of the world surrounded by all kinds of attractive bodyguards looking after her. It'd be stranger if people didn't get the wrong idea.

  4. R

    I don't think the term reverse harem should be an inherently bad thing.

    Are there bad reverse harem series? Hooooo boy I'd be here all day if I tried to list them all. But as far as I'm concerned, the only requirement for a harem is, well exactly that, a harem. A person surrounded by a group of attractive members of the opposite sex. Whether or not that devolves into romantic hijnks or whatnot is another story. It's a story initially written to appeal to a female audience, so I don't see anything negative in appealing to the crowd.

    Now, the fact that it's a very good story with a great cast and main character is a plus, and why it's a good series in general. But being a reverse harem isn't a mark against it

  5. S

    Yeah, that's why I talked about a "demeaning" harem label – that's how these people usually use it. What I mean is, either you use harem as a demeaning term for empty, badly written wish-fulfilment series, and then it doesn't apply here, or you consider it a genre, and then you don't use it as an insult (which people usually do when talking about Yona).

  6. This is indeed largely a question of definition. In my view, a series is only a harem/reverse harem (and really, that's a pointless distinction) if romance is the central or at least a primary focus. Others feel that any time you have a gender-unbalanced cast, it's a harem. Semantics, I suppose – but by that looser definition you could probably call about 30% of the shows out there harems if you wanted to.

  7. T

    I loved kija throughout this entire episode ^_^ it's so funny to see him be so awkward around his new surroundings and yet he is also trying to find an identity for himself with his new comrades. Its so easy to tease him since he hates bugs and had no idea what bandits are LOL The guy clearly has a lot to learn. I don't know what else to say but it was tons of fun watching them all interact with each other even though nothing new happened in terms of plot, but getting good character development these days is so rare. Its also great you caught on that Yun is basically the mother of the group and everyone respects him for what he has to contribute to the team.

    Its fascinating to see how Hak has an internal conflict going on with himself about wanting to protect Yona, but also enjoys seeing her become the strong woman she was always meant to be. I can imagine its going to get harder for him to keep his feelings in check as this journey continues I mean he has been in love with her for a long time even he will have times when he will falter or let his feelings be known. I'm so excited that seiryuu is coming up next!!!!!

  8. E

    Fascinating read of a fascinating post from a fascinating Enzo

  9. r

    I definitely think the production team made the right call with regards to pacing. If the goal of the anime is to try and gin up interest in the manga, then better that they take their time to really tell the story well, so people will be motivated to seek out the manga when the anime ends, than race from Plot Point A to Plot Point B without properly fleshing out any of the characters. This is especially true for a series like Yona where the character development is the main attraction, and not stunningly animated fight sequences or detailed worldbuilding. The fun, like Hak says, lies in watching these characters struggle.

    Not that I'm not also vexed though. IMHO, the most unexpected and challenging authorial choices all take place after Yona has assembled her team. So … we're probably not going to get to any of it …

    Romantic tension … sure … but really, there's only one serious ship in this series. I mean a lot of the male characters make Yona seem worldly and "with it" by comparison.

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