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Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona)

Season 1 of Yona of the Dawn (YotD) has come and gone. It’s a show with a lot of positives that’s reminiscent of some older, long running, shows like Fushigi Yuugi. This first season really just sets the groundwork for the story. So, if it doesn’t get a second season, this show will end up just being an entryway into the manga for viewers who want to complete the story.

Summary

YotD is a drama with elements of romance and mild action. The story centers around the titular character Yona, the princess of the Kingdom of Kouka. Known for her wild red hair, she begins the story as a fairly spoiled girl who wants nothing more than to be wed to her childhood friend Soo-won. Side-note, Soo-won is also her cousin, so we’re definitely talking about an older blue-blooded type people here. However, Yona’s childhood crush falls by the wayside when she finds Soo-won plunging a sword into her father. It turns out that Soo-won is one of those beautiful-but-murderous types. Soo-won’s father was stabbed to death by Yona’s father. In order to avenge his father and fulfill his wishes, Soo-won executed a coupe to become king and fix the kingdom. Yona is rescued from the palace by General Hak (aka the Thunder Beast). Hak is one of the 5 Generals, who are leaders of the five tribes that make up the kingdom. He was also a childhood friend of both Yona and Soo-won and had been charged with protecting Yona for most of his life, along with having romantic feelings for her. Most notably, Hak is incredibly strong and is generally regarded as the greatest warrior in the kingdom. His strength is put on display many times as we see him survive battles that would surely kill any normal person. Even though Hak rescues Yona from the palace, she’s devastated by Soo-won’s betrayal.

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After some traveling and fighting, Yona and Hak make their way to the priest, Ik-su . He’s a kind, but clumsy, priest who’s been living with a foul-mouthed, noble-hating boy named Yun. Having been stabbed, shot, poisoned (twice) and dropped off of a cliff, Hak needs time to recover at the priest’s shack. While he’s recovering Ik-su tells Yona about the prophecy he’s had concerning her. The prophecy relates to a creation legend about the red dragon, Hiryuu, who took human form. He was aided by 4 dragon warriors, each imbued with the power of one of Hiryuu’s loyal dragon followers. Ik-su also tells her that her life will cause a storm that will engulf the entire kingdom. So, to prepare for the upcoming storm, she needs to find the current dragon warriors, who have inherited their ancestors powers. Based on the appearance of Hiryuu in the story, it’s also pretty clear that Yona is the descendent of Hiryuu based on her trademark red hair. Although, Ik-su doesn’t tell Yona that she’s Hiryuu’s descendant. That way Yona gets to be confused by the Dragon Warriors’ responses to her once she meets them. Apparently, meeting Yona causes the dragon blood in the warriors to boil and gives them a strong affection for Yona, as well as the command to obey her. However, Yona is never made fully aware of her connection to the warriors and their dragon blood.

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Over the course of the rest of the season, Yona and Hak expand their party by gathering the dragon warriors. Yun serves as their cook, medic, navigator and general strategist. The first dragon warrior they add is Gija, the White Dragon. Gija comes from a village that reveres the Hiryuu legend and has been keeping him prepared to be used by Hiryuu’s reincarnation. He has a huge dragon’s claw for a right arm and a very noble and proper disposition due to his upbringing. The next is the Blue Dragon, who has the ability to see for far distances and paralyze (or kill) people with his gaze. He grew up with his power being treated as a curse, feared by the people of his village. As a result, he keeps his eyes covered with a blinding mask that he can see through because of his powers. Because of his isolated childhood, Seiryu (the Blue Dragon) doesn’t have an actual name. He does have a companion squirrel named, Ao, after his late master. Yuna gives him the name Sinha (meaning Moonlight) because of his warmth and him leading her through the darkness when they first met. Then they meet the Green Dragon, Jeaha. He’s a green haired, freedom loving playboy pirate who wants to escape his destiny. That makes it very fitting that his power is in his legs, giving him great leaping ability that almost mimic’s flight. Like Gija, Jeaha is aware of the existence of the other dragons and can sense them. Unlike Gija, Jeaha wants no part of being forced to serve a master.  However,  he is willing to travel with Yona. The final dragon is Jeno, the Yellow Dragon. He’s the easy going type and just wanders up to the rest of the group as they’re traveling and joins them without any fuss at all. He joins the group in the last episode of the season, so we never really get to see his power. All they say is that he’s supposed to be pretty tough.

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During the course of their travels, Yona has to transition from being a naive princess into a fighter. Despite her late father’s insistence that she never use weapons, she has Hak train her with a bow and sword in order to defend her self and keep Hak from having to work so hard to protect her. Every time they meet a new dragon, it takes them into a new part of the kingdom and into some kind of adventure, big or small.  Each mini-arc of the season introduces us to a new dragon and gives us some background on each of them. As a result of all their different ordeals, Yona starts to become stronger and we also continue to see glimpses of the Red Dragon’s fire in her eyes. Hak is also forced to deal with accepting the feelings for Yona that he’s been suppressing for most of his life while continuing to support her in her dangerous journey. Their biggest adventure comes in the back half of the season after they meet Jeaha. Yona, Hak, Yun, Gija, Sinha and Jeaha get involved with an all out war between some pirates and a human trafficker named Yang Kumji at the Port of Awa. Yona ends the battle when she shoots Kumji in the heart with an arrow. Separate from Yona’s group, we also see Soo-won taking over the kingdom. Despite the way he became the king, he actually seems like a capable leader who actually wants the kingdom to prosper. After the battle at Awa, Soo-won actually runs into Yona and ends up hiding her from his officials. He tells her that he understands her wanting to kill him but that he can’t die until he completes his work. After that and gathering the last dragon, the group returns to Ik-su’s place. Yona decides that she needs to go out and help the kingdom before trying to take it back from Soo-won. So she, her dragon warriors, Yun and Hak head out to help defend the kingdom.

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Episode Notes:

Here’s some notes about significant moments in some of this season’s episodes.

  • Episodes 1 and 2 cover Yona’s escape from the castle and arrival in Hak’s hometown, ending with a flash forward where we see all of the dragon’s in action and a “warrior princess” version of Yona.
  • Episode 3: is a flashback that illustrates Hak’s true feelings for Yona. It also introduces Tae-Jun.
  • Episode 5: is when we first see Yona’s “Burning eyes”.
  • Episode 7: is when Ik-su tells Yona the prophecy about her: “When darkness falls upon the land the dragon’s blood will restore life once more. In accordance with the ancient pact, when the four dragons are gathered, the sword and shield that protect the king will awaken. The red dragon will return at dawn.”  We also hear the legend of King Hiryuu, the Red Dragon made human.
  • Episode 8: is when they leave Ik-su with Yun officially joining the party.
  • Episode 10: the White Dragon, Gija, joins the party.
  • Episode 14: the Blue Dragon joins the group and is named Sinha. There’s also a scene where they become a 2d RPG for a moment.
  • Episode 15: introduces a new opening theme. Completely ditching the classical music for a modern pop-rock sound complete with an auto-tuned singer.
  • Episode 17: Jeaha is introduced.
  • Episode 22: Yona finishes the Port of Awa battle by shooting Yan Kumji in the heart with an arrow.
  • Episode 22: Yona runs into Soo-won after considering if she’s stronger for the battle she’s been through. The most epic music que of the series happens when they look into each others’ eyes.
  • Episode 23: Despite being with them for a while, Jeaha officially joins the group as they’re leaving Awa.
  • Episode 24: Jeno joins the group in the last episode of the season.

Commentary

Despite having some melodramatic moments, the show never likes to be serious for too long. It’s almost like they’re afraid of making things too serious, so they constantly interrupt moments with sight gags or other humor. The animation style of the show will often shift for comedic effect, even when something serious could’ve been going on. In contrast, when they really want to make a scene look dramatic they do a great job with focusing on the light and lighting details to pull it off. It actually reminds me of an older show, Fushigi Yuugi. Along with the animation and tone shifts, both shows had some design elements that seem reminiscent of both ancient China and Japan and the feel of a historical fairy tale. Then there’s the aspect of gathering legendary warriors around a young girl with no fighting skills who’s got a really powerful male lead to look after her. The character design of Jeaha is actually reminiscent of Tamahome, the male lead in Fushigi Yuugi. Granted, YotD doesn’t have as strong of a star-crossed-lovers plot line as Fushigi Yugi did (that was the cornerstone of the FY story), but it’s definitely got its own romance. Yona and Hak have that kind of slow burning romantic buildup that leaves no doubt for the audience as to how the two feel about each other. Unfortunately, the characters seem to have no real clue. That just leaves us to wait around until they figure it out.

Yona-vs-Fushigi-Yuugi
modern day Fushigi Yuugi?

A lot of this season is actually kind of a slow burn compared to a lot of other shows that are out now. This leads me to believe that the overall story has a much longer way to go. If the rest of that story gets converted into the same medium, this could actually be a strength of the show. It’s been a while since there was a show like this that ran for multiple seasons so I think there’s definitely a place for it. However, if the rest of the story is never made, that will make this show much ado about nothing unless you’re planning to read the manga. The entire point of this season is watching Yona and Hak gather the Dragon Warriors and come to terms with their new situation after Soo-won takes over the kingdom. There’s not really much suspense relating to whether or not they’ll succeed because the gathered Dragon Warriors are shown in the opening and ending animation, as well as the flash forward in episode 2. So, even though we know that Yona’s going to succeed, I think the show does a good job of making her journey interesting to watch. Between the romantic overtones, comedic interactions of the characters and the fairly consistent fight scenes there’s a good amount going on. The show also has some really distinctive production elements with their use of classic visuals and audio tracks (even though they did ditch the drum and flute centric sound for a more modern one as the season continued).

Aside from action or humor, the bulk of this season is character development. There isn’t one main character who remains exactly the same throughout the entire season and each one of them has a very different back story. Yona grows stronger in a very direct way throughout the season and is actually one of the best examples of a female protagonist I’ve seen in anime in a while because of how self propelled her growth is. Hak is a monster of a fighter, which is fun to watch, but he also has a lot to deal with when it comes to understanding his emotions. Soo-won shows that he’s not just your run of the mill power-hungry bad guy and that he might actually have a benevolent agenda. The dragons have all come from their own background ranging from privileged to traumatizing. Even King Il, who is killed in the first episode, is shown to have more to him than meets the eye. Now, it is true that most of these characters fit into a standard archetype. However, all the time spent delving into the characters’ past or present allows them to have a little more depth beyond just their archetype. The show also presents the stories in a way that allows the differences in the character’s backgrounds to also show us how different people in this world react to the Dragon Warrior powers as well as the condition of the kingdom. In short, it’s not just character background, it’s world building. It doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of action thrown in with all that either.

Recommendation

This show isn’t perfect by far. As I mentioned, it can feel a little bit slow and the season doesn’t have an ending. However, it does have above average production values and gives some welcome depth to a scenario that can feel dangerously familiar. There’s a lot of humor and enough action in the show to keep viewers entertained despite the slow pacing. For the kind of show that Yona of the Dawn is, it’s extremely well done. It’s just unfortunate that the story doesn’t have an ending and that this season amounts to little more than a long exposition. Because this season is just the beginning of a story, I can’t completely recommend watching the show. However, I can say that I enjoyed what I saw.

Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona)

Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona)
6.9

Plot

7/10

    Characters

    6/10

      Animation

      7/10

        Music

        8/10

          Enjoyment

          7/10

            Pros

            • Enjoyed the music
            • nice classical styled designs

            Cons

            • Story slows down and ends with a beginning
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