It’s not just the remarkable consistency that impresses about Akatsuki no Yona, though for a show to be this good virtually without interruption is indeed impressive. It’s also notable that this series can be outstanding in so many different ways, with so many different combinations of characters. The cast is fabulous, that’s a given, but there’s a great thematic range here too. As with the old fantasy titans of anime, this series is telling a complete story – as intimate as it is epic, as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. There’s room for the entire emotional palette on this canvas, and Yona uses every color in the rainbow.
As usual lately, I hardly know where to begin to talk about this episode because it’s operating simultaneously on so many levels. Just a portfolio of Yoon’s facial expressions would be more entertaining that most series, but then you have the rodent too – and Ao had his best week yet (my favorite moment was definitely the fish scene). Seriously, that bushy-tailed rat is a scene-stealer – an animated example of why there’s an old actors’ expression “Never work with kids or animals”. In lesser hands this could be insufferable, but even such a simple thing as a cute animal is masterfully written and animated here. We all know that the real battle in this series is not for to rule Kouka, but the death match for the adorableness crown between Ao and Yoon.
In main, the focus of the episode was Yona trying to carry out her mission to gain Gigan’s trust – to retrieve Senjuso, a rare medicinal plant that’s invaluable in treating wounds. The catch is that it grows only halfway up a sheer cliff above the surf, accessible only via a nauseatingly narrow ledge. This was played out in harrowing and frightening terms in its own right, but there was so much more to it. You can even start with the fact that Gigan assigned Jae-ha to accompany Yona (though only to show her the way), because events later in the episode suggest Gigan had an ulterior motive here. It’s never spelled-out for us – Kusanagi-sensei trusts the audience to make the connection and ponder it (bless her).
Jae-ha’s real contribution as a character generally and a Dragon specifically really shows through here. He brings the question of free will to the forefront and forces us to contemplate it. This is the disturbing side of Yona’s quest – these men have no real say in their fates. Even as Jae-ha watches the “weak girl” Yona struggle to overcome her fear and complete the quest, he cannot trust the growing respect and admiration he has for her – is it his genetic imperative talking, or his heart? And it goes without saying that this event is also a showcase for Yona to again display those qualities that Jae-ha finds himself admiring – not to mention for some of Ao’s most hilarious antics, including snatching a fish when Yona is nearly tossed into the sea by a huge wave. It’s Jae-ha who saves her from that wave after she barely manages to snag a vine and prevent herself from falling (he was prepared to dive in after her if she had), and that’s enough to convince Yona that she’s failed Gigan’s test.
As this is happening Hak, Yoon, Ki-ja and Sinha (one assumes) are growing increasingly agitated about the danger Gigan’s quest has put Yona in. Yoon, in fact, is in tears when she and Jae-ha finally return, and is the first to greet her (with a bear hug), further proof of the emotional bond that’s grown up between them. Yona refuses to heed Jae-ha’s suggestion that she make no mention of his help – it’s the first thing out of her mouth after she delivers the Senjuso. Her notion that she’s failed is rather a silly one, and Gigan agrees – she could hardly have expected Jae-ha to allow a girl to be swept out to sea without intervening. And Yona did complete the task after all – she retrieved the plant herself and with no help from Jae-ha apart from the comfort of his voice in her ears.
Again, we see Jae-ha sliding into an important niche – as a catalyst to move things between Yona and Hak forward. His teasing of Hak is clearly double-edged, and it forces Hak to confront his own feelings. And his “joking” confession of possible interest himself is clearly no joke. Jae-ha is the first credible threat for Yona’s affections since Soo-won obviously took himself out of the running – he’s more a peer to Hak than Yoon or the other Dragons, of about the same age (actually a bit older) and quite experienced in the ways of the world.
This unsettling development for Hak comes to a head when he finds Yona nursing her scratched and bleeding hands (she’s tried to remove thorns with an unheated needle – I suspect Yoon would have killed her on the spot) and proffers assistance. His prescription (after hand-washing) is to apply honey to draw the thorns out (apparently this is a real thing). We may see Ao rolling about on the ground with his head inside the jar, but I promise you the squirrel isn’t the only one thinking about diving into the honey pot…
This is an electrically-charged scene – erotic in its own right, but loaded with significance. Hak’s actions can only be taken as an outright admission of his physical desire for Yona that not even she can misinterpret – and it’s clearly way more than she can process, and she quite understandably wigs out and flees the scene rather quickly. Alluring as it is, this idea of romance between Hak and Yona is a difficult one, full of enormous obstacles, and I wouldn’t expect anything to happen quickly or easily.
While that drama is sure to linger on for long after this season has run its course, the storyline of Gigan’s pirates is clearly nearing a head. Gigan’s conversation with Yona reveals that she’s already thinking of the future – a future where she no longer gives men cause to fight and die for her, and where Jae-ha can have a new support system to cling to. And we learn the unsettling truth about Yan Kumji – he’s s slaver, and a huge transaction in human traffic is about to go down. He’s massing his ships for an attack on Gigan as a result, and it seems next week is going to see Yona go on an undercover mission – and that something you had to figure was going to happen sooner or later is going to happen…