This series really doesn’t miss a trick. Every base is covered, no one is unimportant, and no detail is too small to matter. It’s no exaggeration to say that not only was this my favorite episode of the series so far – and I’ve loved a good many of them – but it was one of the best anime episodes I’ve seen in the last year. What a textbook example of how to tell a meaningful story about superbly crafted characters – elegant, simple and powerful. Bravo, Pierrot.
Here, in a nutshell, is why this ep worked so beautifully for me. You’ve got a screen full of characters who’ve been lovingly, patiently and believably developed with no shortcuts taken. You place them in a compelling situation, and they behave in a manner that’s completely consistent with who we’ve come to understand them to be. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Yet – as any survey of the anime landscape tells us – it’s very difficult indeed.
There’s much more to the charm of this episode and this series, of course. I’ve come to see it as a kind of homage to human kindness – a tale of those who overcome their own frailties and manage to be good and decent people in spite of them. Of those who’ve strayed from the path of kindness, followed a track they knew was the wrong one for what they thought were the right reasons. A celebration of the seeming miracles kindness can wrought in the lives of others – of its power to reach into the darkest lives and shower them with light. And no character’s arc is a better example of that than the Blue Dragon’s.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Akatsuki no Yona, is that its great with origin stories. Yoon’s and Sinha’s have been the best, but they’ve all been at least solid. I find Seiryuu an incredibly easy character to relate to because his circumstances are so much in conflict with his nature. If Yona needs him in order to fulfill her destiny, it seems to me that Seiryuu needs her even more to free him from the prison in which he’s lived his entire life.
In terms of “action” all we really got this week was two sides digging towards the other, but so much was revealed about the characters in these 22 minutes. That includes the villagers, who in the end seem more scared that anything else – certainly not evil. It was fear that drove them to the foolish and cruel acts they perpetrated against Sinha and his predecessors, but their fear is its own punishment – they’ve lived cold and uneasy lives as a result of it. For the members of Yona’s team it’s a simple matter of courage and determination – to save the Princess, and on her part, to save the others. Including Seiryuu, of course, who she would have worked just as hard to liberate from his cage even if he hadn’t been fated to serve her cause. Fittingly, though, it was Hak who broke through the wall first – his love is stronger and more desperate even than the others in Yona’s party, although he’s not part of any prophecy.
The B-part of the episode acts as a sort of coda to Seiryuu’s story, but it’s much more than that because every character is important in this story. Seiryuu casts off his bells and symbolically frees himself as he joins Yona, at the same time bidding farewell to the man who’d raised and loved him. He shows his gratitude by silently diving into a river and catching a fish to nourish the poorly Kija, who’s just declared the two of them to be brothers. And then, there’s an absolutely wonderful conversation between Yoon and Yona where he asks if he might do what Seiryuu did – call her by her name, Yona.
Truthfully, I could wax on about the reasons why this is a wonderful moment for ten paragraphs if I let myself – it’s so emotionally true, so subtle and so insightful. First off, Yoon is a fantastic character – quietly proud, resourceful and very noble in his way, but vulnerable. But there’s more here, because the topic of names is a complicated and important one in Japanese culture. For Yoon, to call Yona by her name is to express true closeness with her – to acknowledge that he’s accepted her despite his biases against royalty, and that she’s accepted him despite his low birth. We can see that in some ways, Yona is already closer to Yoon than anyone – he’s a confidante in a way the others (even Hak) are not.
This is a huge gesture of intimacy between Yona and Yoon – yet when Yona asks that Hak continue to call her “Hime-sama”, it’s an expression of an even greater intimacy. It reflects that Hak and only Hak is a part of the life she’s left behind – that he’s a bridge that connects her to the memories of her father. I made note of the fact that Hak prayed to King Il not to take Yona away in last week’s episode because it seemed a significant moment, and it felt so right to see it brought full-circle here. What a deep understanding of these characters is on-display here, so much emotional accuracy – and it’s almost breathtaking to see that kind of thing in anime.
Finally, the loop is closed – both on the theme of names on on Seiryuu’s introduction – with a note-perfect final sequence that sees Yona give him a name at last – Sinha (“Moonlight”). For starters this scene is gorgeously drawn and animated, with Seiryuu and Ao in a field or reeds under the gaze of a full moon as fireflies surround them, a haunting new background theme playing. But more than that, there’s great beauty in the moment itself – as we understand perfectly just how powerful it is for Sinha, and what it means for everyone in the party. Again, I see this as a testament to the power of kindness – and that’s a profoundly beautiful thing around which to build a story.