For me at least, it’s almost always true that it’s more fun to watch superficially humble characters be GAR than generally overpowered ones. You can draw a parallel to sports anime, where most of the best protagonists are along the lines of Shou from Ginga e Kickoff or Onoda from Yowamushi Pedal – regular kids who surprise the world by proving they’re not regular kids at all, but truly special. There are rare exceptions, like Goro Honda from Major (whose son, BTW, is the protagonist of Major II, premiering this week) that manage to be great characters despite their ridiculous talent, in a way reversing the process by achieving narrative greatness by showing their vulnerability. But characters like that are indeed pretty rare.
When it comes to Akatsuki no Yona, pretty much all the characters are really good at the very least, but let’s face it – it’s a lot more inspirational to see the likes of Yona or Yoon kick ass than someone like Hak or Kija, who do it all the time. It’s more effecting to see someone like Yoon take a beating he knows he can’t return a bad guy than to see Jae-ha dish one out to one he knows can’t return it. It takes more courage for people like Yona and Yoon to be brave in the face of peril than the likes or Hak or the Dragons – not that they aren’t brave, but it’s easier to be brave when you’re packing the arsenal those guys are.
In addition to being the two supposedly “weakest” characters among the main cast, it’s easy to forget that Yoon and Yona are also the youngest. And while Yoon is even younger than Yona, he’s seen even more of the world’s darkness than she has because unlike Yona, Yoon has stared that darkness in the face for his whole life (that’s why Kija says “Sometimes even I respect him” in response to Jae-ha’s doubts about Yoon). So I’m not sure who’s got the biggest balls for showing up gloriously under fire the way these two did this week, but thankfully it’s not a competition.
After getting our first sort-of look at the cause of all this last week, we finally meet Yan Kumji (Sugo Takayuki) here. He’s a real piece of work, a brute who thinks nothing of kicking (what he thinks are) little girls or his own men, not to mention selling them into sexual slavery (the girls). Yes, the story here is about slaves being transported below decks on sailing ships – and while it obviously pretties things up a bit, it still goes pretty dark. Kumji may be a sadistic wretch, but he’s not dumb – he immediately makes the connection to Princess Yona when he sees that red hair, but he drops the ball when he allows the fierceness he sees in her eyes (which may or may not be supernatural in the impact it has when others see it) to convince him that this village girl couldn’t possibly be King Il’s daughter.
That’s not the only reason Kumji makes that conclusion, of course. There’s a common thread here with Yona and Yoon, and it’s that we see them both forced to repeatedly swallow their pride (another thing Kumji assumes he’d never see from the Princess) in order to survive. Yona grovels before Kumji and offers to do whatever he wishes to please him. And Yoon repeatedly puts himself in harm’s way to try and shield Yona (and the other captured girls and women, too) from further peril. Yoon takes the abuse in stride, knowing he’s not strong enough to directly return it – but he doesn’t forget. There’s a ledger in that proud and resolute head of his, and every indignity and worse is written down as it happens – along with the identity of the one who caused it.
This is great stuff, really. It’s not that often in anime (or elsewhere) where we get action storylines driven by those fighting only with the wits and their hearts. This is one big reason why I love this series, and why I especially admire Yoon – characters like him are incredibly rare, especially males. He’s no saint – just a boy who’ll do whatever he needs to survive, and protect those he loves – but make no mistake, Yoon has an honor code he lives by and a fierce pride in what he is. In many ways I think he and Yona are more alike than any others in their party, because she too has become a person driven onward by stubborn resolve to do right and a fierce pride in who she is.
In the end, the best-laid plans go awry when the moment comes to try and set off the firework, undone by an ill-timed wave. This is Yoon’s moment of truth, really – his old instinct to survive at any cost is strong, but he’s also dealing with competing responsibilities. He can try and set off the firework himself and put Yona and the other girls in danger, or he can sacrifice that to the larger goal of protecting Yona from imminent harm – which he does, by outing himself as a male and claiming he’s a pirate who threatened the girls to force them to help him. This leads to yet another beating, and might indeed have led to far worse – I believe that’s exactly what Yoon expected, and he was prepared for it. But Yona rises above herself too, and refuses to let Yoon die for her. It’s this combination, their shared resolve (and Ao’s teeth) that lead to the moment of opportunity – Yoon spots the way their plan might yet be carried out, and Yona executes it. These two make a great team, to say the least.
We’re very close to the end here – disturbingly close, and we still haven’t even met the final dragon yet. Just what Pierrot has in mind here I’m not sure – we could be looking at a “and their fight goes on” ending and that’s that. I’m not without hope (manga sales have seen a respectable kick) but resigned to the possibility that this is going to be all the Yonanime we get. If so, the series has already done more than enough to qualify as one of the better shoujo adaptations in recent memory, and continues what’s been a sneaky good run for Pierrot these last couple of years.