I have no doubt that this episode of Akatsuki no Yona will prove to be among the audience’s favorites, and it’s certainly with good reason – it has a lot of everything that this series displays at its flashy best. I happen to think last week’s episode was just as good (and it’s not the only one) but for straight-up entertainment, this series doesn’t get much better than this. It was an episode that felt kind of like an ending, but the ending itself made it feel like a beginning.
Not to repeat myself (as if that horse hadn’t long since left the barn) but I really love the fact there’s room for a character like Yoon – not that there are any other characters like Yoon – in an episode like this one. Battles aren’t just about the powerful and the fearsome – they’re also about people just trying to survive and do the right thing. Yoon is a proud boy, but he’s not immune to insecurity about his own vulnerability – how could he be, when he’s surrounded by the most overpowered beasts and dragons mythology has to offer? Again repeating myself, but I find courage by someone like Yoon far more meaningful than someone like Hak or Jae-ha, because of that very vulnerability. When the chips are down, Yoon is thinking about only one thing – saving Yona, even if that means laying down his own life.
I think Hak and the Dragons appreciate that about Yoon, but it’s sort of sad that it’s only Yona who shows any real concern for him during the battle and its immediate aftermath. For a princess raised in a palace full of sycophantic servants Yona is remarkably empathetic, and for a girl raised by a father who shunned killing (though Soo-won might disagree) she’s shown a remarkably steely spine. What’s kind of cool is that Yoon is inevitably overshadowed in a series like this one, but Kusanagi-sensei and the Pierrot team make it clear that they’re well-aware of that syndrome – which is really the first time I remember that dynamic existing to this degree.
This was an important ep for Yona, for obvious reasons. She hasn’t been the traditional damsel-in-distress for a long time, but – while she (and Yoon) did need saving by Jae-ha and then Sinha (and Ao’s teeth) – she (like Nanami, actually) is ever-more entrenching herself as a formidable figure in her own right. The battle is a long one, hard and bloody, and Gigan’s pirates are effectively fighting one-handed because they’re trying not to kill anyone. We see in this fight that even dragons and thunder beasts have limits, and grow weary – and it’s a weary Jae-ha that’s shot out of the sky by the retreating (skulking, really) Yan Kumji. But it’s Yona who does the saving this time, as Kumji is just about to put an arrow through Jae-ha’s heart when the bloodlust he feels from Yona (I’m convinced now that this is a Hiryuu-related phenomenon) pulls him up short.
To call this a crucial moment is merely to state the obvious. It’s the climactic moment of the battle at-hand, and also of Yona’s journey up to this point. What really happened here is somewhat uncertain – in anime, when you don’t see a body you never assume someone is dead – but there can be no question that Yona intended to kill Yan Kumji. She seems like the least shocked person on the water when this happens – I would rank Hak and Yoon as the most shocked – but it’s hard to imagine that killing someone for the first time wouldn’t have an impact on her, even if she doesn’t show it. Kumji has certainly given Yona just cause, and she’s certainly seen enough of the world to know just what a hard and terrible place it is, and what that demands of her if she wishes to survive, But it’s still a big, big deal.
For the nonce, though, that takes a back seat as the episode culminates with a shocker I can freely admit I wasn’t expecting. It’s fair to say Yona wasn’t either, but was Soo-won? We don’t know what Soo-won was doing in Awa, much less walking around seemingly unguarded, but it can’t be assumed that he wasn’t there looking specifically for Yona. Perhaps more likely, he was there because he’d heard what a monstrosity Yan Kumji was and was planning to put a stop to it himself – we’ve already seen that Soo-won takes the responsibility of being a good king seriously (which makes this all the more interesting).
So what now? Who knows, but it’s certainly going to be fascinating to watch this drama play out. We have only two episodes left and the fact that there’s no sign of the final Dragon anywhere is impossible not to notice – it seems likely we’ll meet him briefly in the finale, with his role left as a cliffhanger. There’s hope here, perhaps a bit more than usual because this is Pierrot and they do sequels a lot more often than most studios. If one reads anything into how much budget the studio puts into a series, it’s clear that Akatsuki no Yona is Pierrot’s highest-cost show in some time – thought in truth that’s a function of the production committee (though that itself might be a good sign). It’s almost cruel for a show to so perfectly set up a sequel if there isn’t one coming, but anime can be a cruel medium.