Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Akatsuki no Yona: A Retrospective

I haven’t done much fansubbing of current shows for the last few years. Most contemporary series have been junk, and the few standouts have been claimed by teams I don’t work with.  Akatsuki no Yona proved an exception, on both counts. Preparing the scripts for the batch release of the show has only strengthened my admiration for the series.

I’m not sure what drew me to Yona. The Fall Preview in Random Curiosity pigeon-holed it as a shoujo harem in the mold of Fushigi Yuugi, an otome series that I don’t particularly like. Guardian Enzo of Lost in Anime saw signs of promise but only enough for it to “sit near the top of my second tier.” Yet from the outset, I wanted to work on the show, even though I was sure no one else would be interested. I more-or-less cursed, cajoled, or convinced a few people in FFF to work on it with me, as repayment for the crap light novel adaptations I’ve edited for the group. My judgment about the show was confirmed within two episodes, as was my hunch that no other team would pick it up.  That allowed for a more leisurely pace, with releases two to six days after the show aired.

Yona is a shoujo series, because its protagonist is a teenage girl, but it is more a historical fantasy in the mold of Seiunkoku Monogatari than a romance like Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii. The core subject is not love but power politics. The show is set in a semi-disguised feudal Korea. Yona is the pampered daughter of the non-violent and perhaps indolent King Il. She starts out with nothing more serious on her mind than her red hair, which she doesn’t particularly like; her imminent sixteenth birthday celebration; and her romance, so far unfulfilled, with her first cousin, Su-won, the heir-apparent to the throne.

Her life is rudely shattered on the night of her birthday when Su-won assassinates her father, claims the kingship, and orders her executed. Su-won says he is doing this as revenge for King Il’s murder of Su-won’s father, Yu-hon, but that remains in doubt. At the last second, Yona’s monstrously strong bodyguard, Hak, known as the Thunder Beast, rescues her, and together they flee into the countryside with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

The opening episodes aren’t very promising. Yona is helpless and, worse yet, vapid. The show seems headed for a standard damsel-in-distress-rescued-by-her-hero trope. Yet at the end of the second episode, to set the stage for what’s to come, the show flashes forward to show Yona as the determined leader of a small band of warriors, fighting off an invasion of her homeland. The core of Akatsuki no Yona is showing how that transformation came about; how a helpless and cloistered girl became a leader and a fearsome fighter.

Yona and Hak first encounter an exiled priest, Ik-su, and his clever, handsome, but not physically strong attendant, Yun. Ik-su tells Yona about the myth of the four dragons, companions of Kouka’s founding red-haired king, Hiryuu. According to legend, their descendants are still waiting for a new red-headed king to summon them.  Accompanied by Yun and Hak, Yona sets out to find the dragons in the hope that red-headed Yona is the king the dragons have been waiting for.

Over the rest of the season, Yona encounters and eventually wins over the four dragons, but she also sees with her own eyes the true situation of Kouka and its inhabitants. Her father’s lackadaisical policies have allowed foreign powers and local lords to oppress the populace unmercifully, and the land is filled with bitter, poverty-stricken people who are barely surviving. Inspired by her desire to set things right, and her need to gain strength if she is to survive, Yona embarks systematically on training herself for combat and for leadership. While the dragons, Hak, and Yun all feel protective of her and see her as "frail" young girl, they grow to appreciate her drive, her insights, and her leadership. By the end of the show, she is the undisputed captain of her small company.

While the quest plot dominates, the theme of love is not lost completely. Yona’s feelings of love for Su-won have not disappeared, although they are now mixed with a desire for revenge. Her feelings toward Hak remain at the “childhood friend” level, but his feelings are increasingly colored by love and desire. All the dragons worship her in some way or another and struggle about whether this is because of their heritage or their true feelings. Even Yun, the self-described “handsome genius” and loner, is torn between his wish to remain aloof and his growing attraction to Yona.

Still, it’s power politics that dominate the show, and those politics are far from clear-cut. The initial setup seems to make Su-won an out-and-out villain, but later episodes show that he is a thoughtful, subtle, and skilled leader, determined to rectify the problems that arose under King Il. He puts on the mask of a buffoon in order to probe the state of his kingdom and convey needed but perhaps otherwise unwelcome advice to its powerful warlords. Further, he still has feelings for Yona, although he is determined to forget them lest they undermine his mission. At some point in the future, they will meet on the battlefield, but whether as allies or enemies can’t be determined yet.

Speaking of power politics, two things in the initial setup bother me. The first is King Il’s adamant opposition to Su-won marrying Yona. As the surviving male in the royal family, Su-won is not only an acceptable choice to be Yona’s husband but also the obvious one. The second is Su-won’s apparent decision to have Yona killed during his coup. In feudal times, a usurping lord didn’t kill the old king’s female relatives; he married one of them, to strengthen his claim to the throne. (Think of Henry VII marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard III’s surviving sister, following the Battle of Bosworth.) Yona would have no choice but to submit; in that era, women were chattel.

So there are all these unresolved questions. Why would King Il say that Yona marrying Su-won was “out of the question”? Marriage between first cousins was perfectly acceptable. Why would Su-won apparently agree by deciding to have Yona executed? And why did King Il have Su-won’s father, Yu-hon, murdered?

I have a theory, based on no evidence whatsoever, to reconcile these facts. Suppose Su-won was not Yona’s cousin but her half-brother? Marriage between cousins is one thing, but marriage between siblings is quite another. In more detail, suppose Yu-hon cuckolded King Il and fathered Yona. We know from the flashbacks that Yona’s mother died when Yona was young (six or less), and that shortly thereafter, Yu-hon died (or was executed). If Yona’s mother confessed or her deathbed, it would explain (a) why King Il murdered Yu-hon, (b) why King Il says that Yona can never marry Su-won, and (c) why Su-won would have agreed, albeit reluctantly.

Of course, this is likely to be complete balderdash, and Su-won’s decision to execute Yona rather than marry her may well be just a plot contrivance to set Yona on her journey. We’ll never know – or at least nothing’s been clarified in the 72 manga chapters that have been scanlated so far.

For the batch scripts, I’ve gone back through and tried to make all the naming consistent. Crunchyroll changed the spelling of every character’s name, except Hak and Yona, at some point in the series: Su-won was initially Soo-won, Mun-deok was initially Mondok, Ki-ja became Gija, etc. Male names are typically hyphenated, but female names (like Yona) are not. I’ve tried to listen to the phonetics of the names, but some decisions are just arbitrary. Is the Yellow Dragon Zeno or Jeno? I like Zeno better; so there.

Yona isn’t quite done. An OAD has been announced, and I have faint hopes for an eventual second season. There’s plenty of manga material for another 24 episodes, and with a lapse of six months or a year, there will be even more. But shoujo isn’t as popular as it used to be. Saiunkoku Monogatari got two seasons of 39 episodes each, but that was six years ago. Can an anime market dominated by crappy light novel adaptations pandering to otaku sustain a quality show like Yona? I certainly hope so!

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