Anime Reviews: Yona of the Dawn
Some Basic Information About the Series
Title: Yona of the Dawn a.k.a. Akatsuki no Yona
Production: Studio Pierrot
Series Length: 24 episodes + 3 OVA
Air Dates: 10/7/2014 to 3/24/2015
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, mild language)
Summary: All her life, Princess Yona lived in the lap of luxury at the Crimson Dragon Castle at the heart of the Kouka kingdom, doted on by her father, the jovial pacifist King Il, and her bodyguard, snarky and cynical Hak. At the tender age of 16, Yona is excited for the arrival of her cousin and alleged One True Love, Su-won, with whom she and Hak have been friends all their lives. Su-won is his usual charming self at first glance, but his true reason for coming to the castle is revealed that night, when he drives his sword through King Il's heart. To her horror, Yona witnesses the murder first-hand, and Su-won hints that his regicide was a long time coming. To keep his treachery secret, Su-won sends his men to capture her, but Hak arrives on the scene, grabs Yona, and fights his way through the guards so that they could escape. Why would Su-won kill King Il? And what will Yona and Hak do now that they're fugitives in their own homeland?
The Good: Pleasant character designs; classic feel; story manages to feel fresh despite its use of many tropes; wonderful cast of characters
The Bad: First few episodes are a chore to sit through; lackluster animation quality; comedy is extremely hit-or-miss; just kinda ends
The Ugly: The fact that Yona's hair is more maroon than it is red
What brought me to this series?
The universe has apparently recently decided that manga based around red-haired female protagonists living in a medieval fantasy setting where red hair is an extreme rarity absolutely must receive anime adaptations, because that's the only logical explanation as to how Snow White with the Red Hair and Yona of the Dawn could have possibly come out within a single year of each other. I mean, I can't complain--they're both pure fantasy anime without any of the tired "Ermagerd! I'm a modern Tokyo boy transported to Fantasy Land! I'll use my JRPG knowledge to survive and get all the girls!" nonsense we've had to endure in recent years.
No, this is a straight-up fantasy series in medieval totally-not-Korea with none of the annoying modern trends that still plague the medium. I had seen Yona being described online as "It's Fushigi Yuugi, but actually good!" and there's some merit to that comparison. In the end, I added it to my watch list, and now over a year later, here we are. I've finally given the series a go, and now it's time for me to state my feelings on the matter.
What does Yona of the Dawn do well?
To start off, the series' art style is lush and pleasantly medieval Korean, and is generally very nice to look at. The plentiful cast's robes and kimonos remain incredibly distinct and colorful, creating plenty of historic atmosphere that lends credence to this fantasy world's plausibility while also giving us a lot of info about what the people wearing them are like; those kinds of details often go unappreciated, but not here and not by me! The character art is quite lovely, as well, rich in detail and full of memorable features that distinguish each character instantly. Yona's eye-catching, wild red hair (and general female-ness), Hak's sharp eyes and signature blue robe, Yoon's hair accessory and blue shawl, Su-won's white cloak and long golden hair, etc. all serve to make these people easy to remember, and the general character art style brings to mind classic fantasy anime of the 90s and early 2000s.
Also, this might just be me, but once Yona of the Dawn started to find its footing and begin running, I felt like I was watching one of those classic anime from my adolescence--almost like I just got back home from school and tuned into Toonami. Like many of those anime from my youth, Yona is essentially a road trip story with Damocles' sword hanging overhead, and it pleases me to see a series with that kind of old-school (yeesh, already?) approach. This very much feels like an anime that has already become a classic, even though it's still basically brand-new.
Of course, giving off the feel of classic-ness might be misconstrued by some as being stale and unoriginal. Yona might sound very familiar at first--the heroes are betrayed by a loved one and go into hiding to gather forces to fight back--but I found myself surprised again and again how, even though the show knows its tropes and is unafraid to use them, it also knows how to subvert those tropes and keep us guessing as to where each little story arc could possibly go. You think the series is doing one thing, and then WHAM! You were wrong! It was secretly setting up this other thing! The fact that I had no clue where the plot train was heading--in the good way, I mean--is a testament to how invested I was and how unpredictable the original manga's author made her work.
Twists and turns make a story fun to watch, but of course, to become invested (as I have) means that a connection has been made between the audience and the characters. And as it turns out, I really, really like these characters. Yona herself starts out as an affable spoiled brat, but as time goes by and she's forced to endure hardships and loss, she turns into a much more mature figure who can pull off some excellent moments of badassery when appropriate. Hak is a wise-ass and confident to a fault, but he holds a deep devotion to Yona and her late father that adds considerable depth to his character. Even Su-won, who starts off seeming like a two-dimensional traitor villain, turns out to be enormously complex and even (dare I say?) sympathetic in his earnest quest to restore the kingdom of Kouka to its former glory. Add to the mix the smart-mouthed Jack-of-all-trades Yoon and the clumsy and selfless oracle Ik-soo, among many others, and the result is a lovable crew of beautiful, beautiful men (and a lady, too!) whose journey proves always to be an enjoyable one.
So, where does Yona of the Dawn fall flat?
Actually, y'know what, strike that last bit: The journey is not always enjoyable. In fact, I'd wager that the first 3-4 episodes are the exact opposite of enjoyable. The pacing in these early episodes is terrible, and far too much time is dedicated to useless flash-forwards and flash-backs that accomplish next to nothing, and the tone is uneven and inconsistent even within the same scene. It's just a bad way to start a series.
Something else that bugs me about Yona is the animation. I said a while back that this show reminded me a lot of the classic anime of my youth, and the animation quality is quite on par with those old favorites. Well, the problem is this: This came out in 2014. Those old shows came out in the 90s. Progress has been made since then. We now have studios like ufotable, KyoAni, and Bones pumping out the absolute best-looking and most fluid TV animation of all time, and this 90s-looking janky-ass still-frame-panning 3-frames-of-animation mess saved only by nice artwork is supposed to fly unpunished nowadays? I rest my case, your honor.
Another nagging little issue with the series--one that made those early episodes nearly unwatchable--is how often the comedy fails to hit. Occasionally, you'll have a comedic moment that works like a dream, like Ki-ja falling into the insect pit (made even funnier in the show's rock-solid English dub) or Jae-ha kicking Hak in the face out of nowhere as a desperate distraction, but more often than not, the jokes are just loud and unfunny. This show deserves better jokes.
Finally, there is no real ending. The anime only covers about 43 chapters of the manga, which is still ongoing holy crap, so naturally, if the manga hasn't yet ended, then the anime can't possibly have a satisfying ending. I want more, dammit! And now I'll have to find and read the manga like some kind of dirty caveman! So, if you're willing to make the plunge, you'll have to remain aware that you won't see how the story ends--at least, not here.
What's the verdict?
My verdict is that Yona of the Dawn, while certainly flawed, is nevertheless essential viewing for fans of fantasy anime. This is a title that would feel right at home in a classic Toonami anime line-up, so if, like me, you grew up watching anime around that time, then this is a series that should tickle that itch you may have been scratching. The kinda-sorta-Korean setting is engrossing, the story's plenty of fun to go through, and the characters are immensely worthwhile to become invested in, and I was left starving for more. If you've got the means to see it, and any of this sounds remotely interesting, then you owe it to yourself to check this series out. After all, like I said, you don't see straight-up fantasy series like this much anymore.
Final Score: 8 out of 10. Yona of the Dawn excels in delivering a familiar, yet unpredictable, story in a unique setting populated by a treasure trove of lovable characters, but it does bear mentioning that the journey has a rocky start and an incomplete end that sour the experience a little bit.