As finales go, Akatsuki no Yona’s delivered just about everything I would think any fan of the series would want. Yet there’s no denying that what most of us were hoping for was the one thing we didn’t get, and that’s any news of a second season. Between Anime Japan this weekend and the finale today, it would seem that if such news were coming this would have been the time – but instead we got a “Thank you for your support!” As despairing messages go that’s probably about a “7” on a scale of 10 – it’s better than “Goodbye” or “The End”, but not exactly what I’d call bursting with optimism for the future.
I’ll talk about the (wonderful) finale itself in a minute, but I feel like starting by talking about the series as a whole, even if that’s a bit backwards to how I usually do Series Review posts. A few things we can say for certain, one of them that Studio Pierrot is becoming a bastion of extremely faithful manga adaptations. It also seems clear that Akatsuki no Yona was generously budgeted compared to Pierrot’s usual standard of late – this was not a case of simply coming in with the low bid. And obviously, Pierrot is a go-to studio for shoujo – though that’s been a tradition of long-standing, it’s nice to see them prove over than last year (I loved Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii, and Yona was even better) that they’re still as at-home as any studio working with shoujo.
So a question I need to ponder now, as Yona comes to an end, is just what Pierrot and the production committee’s intentions were with this adaptation. Curiously, the first volume of the Blu-ray/DVD isn’t even going on-sale until the end of May – an odd piece of scheduling that effectively eliminates it as a real-time yardstick for commercial success. Disc sales are typically modest even for popular shoujo titles, though, so perhaps closer attention is being paid to manga sales, where we’ve had a decent-sized (though not massive) bump (I’ll be very interested in seeing how the new volume does in the weekly rankings, which should hit about 8 hours from when now as I type this). It’s hard not to speculate that this season was produced with another in-mind, because Yoneda Kazuhiro (a first-time director certainly proclaiming himself one to watch) made no effort to hurry the pacing or deliver a conventional ending. But if that’s the case, what is the production committee waiting for? There’s plenty of source material. Perhaps, in the end, this really is simply a case of Pierrot adapting the manga in extremely faithful fashion for its own sake.
That decision leads us to the point where we find ourselves – with the Awa Arc having concluded (in the process providing the closest thing we get to an ending) we get a major character introduction in the final episode. That would be Zeno (Shimono Hiro), the Yellow Dragon – and his introduction is (like the others) unique. There’s no pomp, no conflict, no search, no backstory – he simply shows up at the campsite the day after Gigan’s group has been left behind, stomach growling. And it’s not until the other three Dragons confer and confirm that, hard as it is to believe, this is the Ouryuu that the others even discover the truth. Zeno, for the record, has known who Yona and the other Dragons are from the start, that much is 100% clear.
There’s a lot that isn’t 100% clear about Zeno. Setting aside the issue of introducing him at the very end of the series (which I’m basically OK with, under the circumstances), this is an extremely incomplete introduction. He’s cheerful, a bishounen (is there room for another, Yoon?) and supposedly has “a stout body” – but of what his true power is there’s no obvious clue. I find Zeno’s behavior highly suspicious – his cheerfulness may be genuine but it seems a bit overplayed, and I think he reveals a bit of his true nature when he asks Yona the cutting (and wholly necessary) question of just what she wants to do next. He’s hiding a lot, this one, and while Shimono Hiro wouldn’t have been my first choice to play the role, Zeno’s appearance certainly leaves me hungry to learn just what that is.
Happily, the finale also gives us the chance to see Ik-Soo again – and he’s still so utterly clueless at self-preservation that I’m amazed he survived as long as he did. Yoon (who fancies himself the main decision-maker for the group, and I’m not sure he’s wrong) seeks Ik-Soo out because with the four Dragons reunited it seems time to take the prophecy to the next level (and because he’s homesick). But of the Sword and the Shield – the next pieces of the puzzle – Ik-Soo says the time has not yet arrived. This is when Zeno asks his pointed question, and it’s about time someone did. Zeno again tips off that he’s sharper than he acts by saying quite authoritatively that four Dragons could be “enough to take a single castle”, should that be the route Yona chooses – though he denies trying to push her in that direction.
What does Yona want? Not to re-take Hiryuu Castle and not to kill Soo-Won – not right now, anyway. She makes a very interesting comment – “Before returning to the castle, I have something I must do”. This, of course, is exactly what Soo-Won said to her in Awa – and though Yona has her own reasons for saying so, she’s struck by the alignment of their words. It got me pondering just what it was that Soo-Won meant – just as it was intended to – and I was struck by the notion that perhaps what Soo-Won has in mind is to make Kouka a fit kingdom for Yona to assume the rule of, and then hand the reigns of power to her (possibly after his own death). Fanciful probably, but not impossible – and think on what Jeaha said, that it would be “unwise” for a 16 year-old girl to assume total power even if she could seize it. Perhaps Soo-Won felt that Il was an unfit King, and resolved to do the dirty work that had to be done so that Yona wouldn’t have to – starting with murdering her father and assuming power. To “keep the kingdom alive”, as he says to Mun-deok in the end sequence.
That’s speculation, and even if the anime continues we’d be a long way from knowing the accuracy of it – so for now, Yona’s intentions are the more pressing. And her notion is to do throughout Kouka what she did in Awa – to take her merry band of outlaws and act as a sort of freedom brigade, doing battle with the cruelty and injustice she now knows flourished under her father’s rule. It’s an interesting notion – it puts her at-odds with her father’s wishes, but it could conceivably make she and Soo-Won allies (though undeclared ones). After all, from what we’ve seen it looks very much as if the two now share the same goals – which is a delicious bit of irony if ever I’ve seen one.
The other thing we see in this sequence is what was already obvious – Yona still loves Soo-Won, and it seems very likely Hak does too. Yona confesses the truth of their meeting to Ik-Soo, and Hak overhears – and it’s Jeaha (the most astute of the dragons, befitting his age and experience) who verbalizes to the others what Ik-Soo has to say to Yona. The nature of just what these three feel for each other is yet another major theme of the story going forward – it’s complicated to say the least. Jeaha has suggested to Yona that Hak wants to “hide her away” from other’s eyes, and while she declares it a lie and Hak is probably quite truthful when he says he wishes he could “show her to everyone” (in his pride at what she’s become), there’s a part of him that would prove Jeaha right I suspect. As I said, it’s complicated.
It really does seem almost cruel to engage in such breathtakingly good setup only to leave the story here, with so little effort to resolve, well… anything. But we’ve seen anime act as commercials for manga before, and will again – and Akatsuki no Yona has certainly performed that task admirably. I’m pleased to see the big uptick in the ratings this series is getting at places like Anime Planet and MAL – of dubious meaning though those numbers are, they do reflect a growing consensus that Akatsuki no Yona is something special. And it is – it’s a magnificent piece of storytelling, patient and subtle and emotionally powerful. Like the great anime fantasy epics it excels both as an intimate personal story and as a sweeping tale of myth and history.
I’ve certainly not given up hope for Akatsuki no Yona as an anime, and we’re definitely getting an OVA at the very least. But the announcement of that OVA and the absence of any other communication does leave me feeling somewhat pessimistic, especially since it’s not clear just what the decision makers would be waiting for if there really was a second season hanging in the balance. I’m never going to be satisfied when a story as brilliant as this one gets an incomplete telling, especially when no much generic (and worse) anime is produced every season. But the fact that this was such a faithful and beautifully-produced adaptation of a great manga is something to be celebrated, whatever happens from here. It’s timeless anime in the best sense, and as long as series like this can get made – even if they can’t get finished – there’s at least reason to be hopeful for the medium’s future.