For a series with as great a main couple as this one has, it’s amazing how a couple of supporting characters can mount an insurrection and steal the show week after week. But that’s exactly what the tensai bishounen and the squirrel are doing as far as I’m concerned, and for the latter you can thank Studio Pierrot at least in-part, because a lot of Ao’s antics are anime-original (I checked). It’s quite natural that the comedic possibilities for a cute animal are much more expansive with the benefit of sound and movement, but kudos to Yoneda Kazuhiro and his team for taking advantage of that.
Here’s the first thing I noticed this week – when one of the pirates made reference to the new “powerful allies” Gigan’s team now had, right after showing Hak and the Dragons the camera panned to Ao. Coincidence, or some kind of foreshadowing? I’m only half-kidding, but even if it’s all a lark Ao just keeps getting off the signature moments. Seeing him join Yoon (and Ki-ja, much less successfully) in cross-dressing was certainly one, but my favorite was easily when he slipped into that false moustache. Why? Because not content with that image, Yoneda-sensei then gave us Ao putting his paws behind his back and looking GAR.
Not to be outdone, Yoon gets in his attacks this week, even before his signature moment. It occurred to me that anyone who knows anything about naval history would already have had some concern about Yoon being on a fighting ship full of lonely men, and that was before he proved to be a great cook and perfectly at-ease in a dress. When one of the old salts gets a taste of his “pirate stew” and proposes marriage, Yoon’s comeback is a memorably hilarious one – “I’d never marry an old deadbeat like you.”
This is all building up to a major plot development that’s also a major character milestone for both Yona and Yoon, predicated on the bombshell that Yan Kumji (whose face we finally see this episode) is a slaver. Jae-ha takes Yona to town on a reconnaissance mission (much to Hak’s chagrin) and, after some bonding where Yona says she feels “much closer” to him now, they spy Kumji’s carriage rolling through town. The reaction of the townsfolk is telling, and one of the ones in hiding is a young woman in a false moustache (which will end up you-know-where). Turns out Kumji is using a shop as a front and advertising good jobs for women – women who disappear (literally, through a trap-door in the floor) if they’re deemed beautiful enough.
It’s not hard to see where this is going, and it gets there in short order. The battle is coming, and with it an opportunity for Gigan to use her newfound strength to land a decisive blow against Kumji. But without knowing which ship the women intended for slavery are being held on, her hands are obviously severely tied. That Yona should volunteer to go undercover and reveal the location of the ship – via fireworks – is hardly a surprise, as she’s been itching for a chance to try and start making amends for the sorrow and hardship she feels responsible for. Neither is the resolute opposition of Hak, the Dragons and Yoon, all of whom see this as the freakishly dangerous mission it is. But Gigan is the ultimate practical thinker, and she’s seen the merit – indeed the necessity – in what Yona suggests. She’s also seen that in order for the plan to have a chance to succeed, there’s a missing element that must be added.
As is so often the case with Akatsuki no Yona, the best moments are the quiet conversations that follow up the “big” moments. The first comes as Hak confronts Yona – and his own feelings for her – in rather forceful terms. “How can I convince you not to do this?” he demands, but at this point it’s clear he already knows the answer – he can’t. This isn’t the same Yona, but the truth is that it isn’t the same Hak either – this Hak embraces Yona and makes no attempt to hide his crushing anxiety for her safety. And he’s self-aware enough to realize that even though he hates that Yona is putting herself at such terrible risk, he loves this new Yona – the one who’s left behind the shelter of her father’s castle and of the lies he told her and decided to face the world head-on – even more than he loved that sheltered princess.
The second is the brief meeting between Hak and Yoon, the two who have chosen to be with Yona of their own free will. As I’ve said before I love the fact that Yoon possesses a fierce dignity and honor despite his own lack of physical strength – indeed, probably even because of it. “You think I’m pathetic because Yona’s so brave and I’m shaking?” he asks quietly. “I’m the perfect choice. I’ve lived more carefully and wretchedly than anyone else. I’m proud of it.” As the old saying goes, courage isn’t not being afraid – it’s being afraid and doing what has to be done anyway. I think this is a moment of real significance between these two, as Hak not only realizes that he must trust Yoon with Yona’s safety, but that he does. I don’t believe Hak was thinking less of Yoon because his hands were shaking (and not just because his own were, too) – I think he’s come to realize what a formidable boy Yoon is, and how much he truly cares for Yona.
The funny thing is, that statement about “living wretchedly” is only one of several interesting clues here. There’s the casual way Yoon replies to the jokes about becoming Yan Kumji’s lover once it’s obvious how good he looks in a dress – he replies with “You know it. I’ll best his actual wife.” There’s the admission that this isn’t the first time Yoon has posed as a woman, and the expert way he slips into seductress mode once he and Yona reach the bogus “shop” in Awa. It makes me wonder just how wretchedly Yoon was forced to live in order to survive until he met Ik-soo – if what we saw in flashback was only the tip of the iceberg, as hardscrabble as it was. I know this much – hard as this experience is for Hak, I don’t think his trust in Yoon is misplaced. Especially when it comes to defending Yona, I think we’ve only seen a small hint of just how fierce Yoon can be.