Truth be told, this wasn’t my absolute favorite episode of Akatsuki no Yona, though as much as I’ve loved this show through 18 episodes that’s praising with faint damnation. It was still excellent – it just didn’t “click” with me on the same level the last run of episodes have, for whatever reason. That said there were still several outstanding moments, and the series tackled the current situation in a way I genuinely wasn’t expecting.
Akatsuki no Yona does a very fine job balancing humorous moments with serious ones, which is quite a feat giving its extensive use of chibis (normally a robust irritant if ever there was one) and that the serious involves stuff like murdered parents. And in this case, a little boy beaten to death by official thugs belonging to Yan Kumji (who I assume we’ll meet at some point). The comedy during Hak and Jae-ha’s meeting didn’t work so well with me this time (apart from Suwabe-san’s “Uwao!”), but I don’t think it was so much the ugliness of what had just happened but that the comedy was a little cliched and struck a flat note. There haven’t been many times in 18 episodes when I’ve felt that way, so it was notable for that reason at the very least.
Setting that aside, the circumstances involving the child’s death are pretty important for reasons that are immediately obvious, as well as ones that only become so later in the episode. The key point here is Yona’s helplessness that she was stopped from intervening by Ki-ja (who was then stopped by Hak, who was stopped by Yoon). They were all correct and she knows this intellectually, but it would be hard for any young person of conscience to know that their action could have prevented a child’s death – and all the more so when that person is the daughter of the king under which the conditions leading to his death arose. There’s a lot happening here – of course Yona’s frustration at her own helplessness is a recurring theme, but she’s also starting to see more and more evidence that King Il’s reign might not have been a kind one for the common people (though I think Geun-tae shares plenty of blame in this instance).
The other major thread running through this episode is the question of free will and its application with the Dragons. Jae-ha wants to recruit Hak to his cause, of course, but even absent the (perhaps) misunderstanding about Jae-ha’s intentions Hak isn’t interested. Eventually it’s Ki-ja who tracks Jae-ha down, and Jae-ha dismisses him as a “dragon puppet”. When the rest of Team Yona catches up Jae-ha has to physically fight back his compulsion to serve (it even forces him to take a knee) but he’s resolute that even though Yona is a cute girl and not the warrior king (or perhaps soft, spoiled king) he expected, he has no intention of leaving his freedom behind to become anyone’s puppet – even hers.
Yona reacts as you’d expect – she tells him that she’s disappointed but she’ll respect his decision (I must note here that the most mesmerizing part of this scene is watching Aoi pat Yona’s hand – complete with sound effect), and she notes that she doesn’t consider herself the Dragons’ “master”. I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, but I think there’s a bit of denial at work here – even packaged as sweetly as Yona packages it, we’re still talking about service to a cause that predates these mens’ birth by centuries. Would any of them feel compelled to serve her if it weren’t for their bloodlines urging them to, even Ki-ja? Once they got to know her well and understood her cause perhaps, or if they were urged to by their beloved guardian as Yoon was. But under normal circumstances, no – I can definitely feel where Jae-ha is coming from on this point.
In fact, it’s only Hak for whom this service can be said to be wholly freely given, even if his family is sworn to serve Yona’s. And when he notes the difference in Yona’s willingness to be told “no” with Jae-ha as opposed to himself, she can only say “It’s different with you.” Of course it is, and we all know why, though it’s clear neither Hak nor Yona knows exactly what form that will take yet. It’s enough that the bond is there and that it runs so deep.
In the end, Yona’s solution to this conundrum is simple – her group and Jae-ha’s both have an interest in fighting the injustice that prevails in Awa, so a meeting with Gigan should take place. Jae-ha agrees, as long as Hak comes along. I quite liked the brief moment when Yoon expresses his anger that Yona committed to this dangerous without his approval – it shows the strong bond of trust that’s grown up between them – especially Yoon’s reaction when Yona tries to suggest he stay behind in case things turn violent. It’s so classically Yoon – which means it’s almost wholly unique for a male character in modern anime.
It’s quite a twist Akatsuki no Yona has pulled on us here, then – rather than Jae-ha joining Team Yona, Team Yona is going to join forces with Gigan’s pirates, at least for now. That means proving their worth to the canny captain, which is no problem for Hak, Ki-ja and Sinha (who really needs to be incorporated into the story more). It’s slightly more complicated for Yoon, but his answer is again perfectly him – “I hate violence so I don’t fight, but I can do everything else” he says modestly before listing a litany of options relevant to the interests of the modern pirate/freedom fighter, “and I’m a bishounen.” For Yona it’s even more complicated, because for all the work she’s put in she has no pat answer to the question “what can you do?” It’s still more a matter of “who are you?” with Yona, which is a big part of her character arc. And this interlude with Gigan’s pirates will doubtless give her further opportunity for progress, and her team perhaps the first real chance to strike a serious blow for its cause. I don’t think this partnership is going to be a long-term prospect, but it’ll be very interesting to see where it takes the story in the meantime.