In the immortal words of Azuma Yuhei, this is getting complicated.
OP2: “Akatsuki no Hana (暁の華)” by Cyntia
There’s lots happening in this week’s episode of Akatsuki no Yona, but let’s start at the beginning – there’s a new OP (and a new ED too), presumably delayed from the start of the cour because they weren’t ready. The new OP song is perfectly fine and the animation excellent, though I was a huge fan of the old orchestral one and I think it’s better suited to the mood of the series. Shikata Akiko’s ED, however, is a sensational one – the animation is simple and understated, but the music is majestic and ethereally beautiful.
As for the show itself, while this episode didn’t match the sheer emotional perfection of the last one, it doesn’t try to – and of course any series would be foolish to try and hit that note every week. Once again we see an episode split down the middle into two stories, but this time the entire setting and cast of characters changes in the B-part. The A-part serves as a kind of coda to last week’s episode, as well as setting the scene for a very interesting change of theme.
I’ve said from the beginning that I admire Akatsuki no Yona’s stubborn refusal to paint-in the entire picture for the audience, in primary colors or otherwise. Again and again we’ve seen that the truth is far more complicated than the initial impressions we (or the characters on-screen) might draw). This certainly applies to the reign of King Il, as witness the events in the desolate Earth Tribe village Yona’s party encounters as they begin their search for the Green Dragon. As is often the case it’s the sensitive and well-informed Yoon who fills in the blanks, talking of the way the village was stripped of its men – sent off the train for the military – and left to fall into ruin in the arid interior of the Wind Nation. The party gives some aid and comfort to a dying villager (Yona against Yoon’s warning to avoid him for fear of infection), who speaks of the disdain who hold for the late Il – who he describes as a “terrible king”.
This is yet another really brilliant scene in a rapidly growing list of them. Yona excuses herself, obviously unwilling to let the others see the anguish the man’s words cause her. But Yoon notes that he, too, didn’t hold King Il in high regard – that his professed desire for peace had done nothing to save villages like this one and his own. It’s Hak who speaks up for Il, and it’s again clear that it’s not only Yona but her father that he loved. Hak is a warrior, but in contrast to most in the series he sees Il’s aversion to conflict not as cowardice, but idealism and courage – even as Yona cries at the cruel irony that she must learn to use weapons against her father’s desire. Who’s in the right here? The series refuses to give us easy answers – and in-light of the evidence that Il’s reign was a hard one for the common people of his kingdom, it’s hard not to wonder if Soo-won has done the wrong thing for the right reasons.
Speaking of Soo-won, after a long absence he returns to the narrative with a vengeance this week. We meet him on a visit to the Earth Kingdom capital of Chishin, where we meet a character who’s been absent even longer – the general Lee Geun-Tae (nope, nothing Korean about this setting…). Geun-tae is a slovenly, sharp-tongued layabout whose open and brusque interplay with servant Chul-rang betrays that he’s a man little concerned with ceremony. He’s a warrior who loved Soo-won’s father, and despised King Il for outlawing war and – in his eyes – making the Kingdom of Kouka weak and subject to bullying by its neighbors.
Soo-won’s visit in the company of the Sky Tribe general Han Joo-doh provides the disillusioned Geun-tae a chance (while still dressed in his robe) to size up the new king – and he’s not impressed. Soo-won is the picture of kindness and bonhomie – and thus, nothing at all like the father that Geun-tae idolized as the true kind of Kouka. Soo-won speaks of sightseeing and waxes poetical about the deliciousness of the tea. What to make of Geun-tae – a likeable ruffian whose servants clearly love him, but speaks constantly about his desire to return to the battlefield and spill the blood of his enemies? He shows the new king little respect, but if Soo-won is in any way angered or even ruffled he betrays nothing – he merely smiles and reassures Chul-rang that no punishment will be forthcoming. He also announces that a “War Game Tournament” will be held – which both generals greet with a great deal of derision. Ostensibly this is to give the generals a chance to stretch their muscles and the people a chance to see them in action, but Soo-won is a very clever man – and it’s not hard to imagine he has a larger goal of seeing just what these men are still capable of, and to get them in the mindset of warriors once more.
There’s so much to ponder on here. On the relative merits of Il and Soo-won as leaders, and on the choice Soo-won made, and on the character of men like Geun-tae who cannot adapt to peacetime and dream only of a return to battle. It would be so easy to make us hate Soo-won for what he’s done, but since that terrible night at Hiryuu Castle the narrative has chipped away at his villain status – first by strongly suggesting that he did what he believed was right (at great emotional cost to himself), and then, that he might just have been right in his beliefs. This is a personal story and an epic at the same time, offering nuance and shading to a degree we almost never see in anime – and the more we learn about both the grand and personal dramas playing out here, the more fascinating and troubling they become.
ED2: “Akatsuki” (暁;Dawn) by Akiko Shikata