Yona of the Dawn does not prioritise excitement, nor intrigue, nor even adventure, but the show holds the viewer’s attention. The series front-loads the action and kingdom-rending politics, but those high-stakes keep to the background in the second act. Yona focuses on its growing party of adventurers and their internal struggles, at least for the first half of the series.
Yona is princess of the Kingdom of Kouka. Her two closest friends are her bodyguard, Hak, and her childhood friend, Soo-Won. Sheltered since birth, she is shattered by a coup. Soo-Won kills the King, her father, for the throne. Yona and Hak escape with their lives. To retake the kingdom, they search the Kingdom for four dragon warriors, the reincarnations of their Kingdom’s mythological founders.
By itself, the collect-‘em-all plot structure is dull. There’s always the danger that the protagonist’s objectives will be irrelevant to their character. They collect the McGuffin because the plot demands it, and it has no direct effect on their growth. But by making the objects to be collected party members, each new member changes the party’s status quo. The structure forces new dynamics to form between characters. These dynamics can be facile. When the White Dragon enters, a love triangle gestates between him, Hak, and Yona. But these dynamics can also have emotional depth. The White Dragon’s entire village raised him to protect his master, Yona. Entering the party, and finding that Yona has a bodyguard, and is, besides, somewhat able to protect herself, his reason for being is threatened.
These inter-character relations are vital for the plot because the series has few external threats. The coup is the bloodiest the series gets (thus far), and the battle with Tae-jin is the most action-packed. After that Yona’s party not only avoids battle, but malevolent obstacles too. No one and nothing tries to stop them in their progress (though episode suggests this will change). There is one battle with bandits, but not even the characters see any stakes in it. The looming threat of the Empire discovering Yona has not yet amounted to a roadblock. This could have been a screenwriting 101 pitfall, a breezy, and hence boring, trek to the ending, but there is some internal conflict to compensate.
All the characters must choose to leave their communities, therein lies the obstacle. Our medic Yun must leave the man who acted as his only family. The White Dragon must leave a village where he is treated as spiritual centre. Though Yona was forced to leave the castle, to flee death, she leaves the wind village willingly, despite the peace she found there.
They do leave their communities too easily. Yes, their partings are teary, but the only attachments they must overcome are their communal ties. While these are strong ties, painful to cut, one wishes they were stronger, so their cutting would resonate more. Say one of them had to leave behind a sick relative, of whom they were the only caretaker. Say they could never return home by leaving. Preferably they should lose something, not merely suffer a temporary separation. Yona and Hak are closest to this, fugitives unable to return to their homes. If episode twelve is anything to go by, it seems we’ll have another such character.
The series does commit some structural stumbles. It starts fine enough. Episode one establishes a peaceful status quo, which is obliterated by the coup. Forced out of the comfort of the castle, Hak and Yona escape through the forest. By the end of episode two they stand on the threshold of the wider world. And then episode three is a flashback. This pulls us back into the castle, out of the forward momentum of the story. Thematically the flashback is necessary, it shows happier times, when Soo-Won was a friend in act and deed. I would not cut the flashback; I would place it earlier. Put it somewhere in the first episode, or disperse it through the first two. This would both smoothen the pacing and, by showing Soo-Won’s former friendship, give more weight to his betrayal.
Flashbacks in general are a problem. As stated, they provide backstory, but when they occupy half an episode, they halt the story. This is not to say they have no good effect. Yun’s joining the party, and thereby leaving his only friend Ik-su, would lack its pathos if we didn’t see their past together. I just wish the series revealed their pasts without hobbling the forward momentum. For example, have their past come out in dialogue, or shorten the flashbacks. But, ideally, flashbacks should be unnecessary. By a character’s behaviour we should understand that character, by the interactions of characters we should understand their relationship. We may not learn their history, but we will know there is a history, for we feel the effect of it. Flashbacks are unwieldy short-cuts to character building.
Yona develops more elegantly, though she still has a few flashbacks. The story starts before her journey, so we need not flashback, excessively, to show how she was. We see her first sheltered in the palace, dependent and untested. The coup leaves her like a ragdoll. From there, her arc is from dependence on Hak to independence, the ability to defend herself and be a proactive agent in the world. As is the case with adventure stories, martial skills symbolise her independence; we know she can stand for herself when she can draw a bow.
Her arc, though legitimate, finishes too soon. A few episodes in she attains her independence, or at least healthy interdependence, her ability to defend herself and fight for what she believes in. This is not to say she has finished growing, just that her growth now consists of perfecting her current state, rather than achieving a new one. As a result she becomes a static character not even half-way through the series. Perhaps in the second half an obstacle shall shatter her stasis, forcing her to grow, but as it stands she has become a dull character.
Soo-Won is a refreshing villain, a realpolitik usurper who still has humanity. Realpolitik amounts to more than ruthlessness; it is compromise. Soo-Won is not a monster. We flash back to a simpler time, when he and Hak, half-facetiously, mused what the Kingdom would be like if they ruled. Soo-Won would be King, Yona would be Queen. Idealistic fancy, contrasting Soo-Won’s imminent coronation, a coronation gotten through murder. But even so far steeped in blood he remembers his ideals, though he sees them as childish. He assumes he must do evil for good’s sake. Here that good seems to be defending against potential invaders by strengthening the kingdom’s allied tribes.
It would have been so easy to resort to the ‘power corrupts absolutely’ trope, and have Soo-Won commit every atrocity to achieve his goals. But though not above immoral means, he is reasonable. When the leader of the wind village withholds his support for Soo-Won’s kingship, a lesser series would have had Soo-Won raze the village. But Soo-Won just dams up their river. While depriving civilians of water is immoral, this strong-arming is bloodless and reversible. Once the village leader submits, the soldiers need only undam the river.
The army does escalate the situation, with soldiers attacking merchants who bring essentials to the village. This, however, is not on Soo-Won’s orders, but a general exceeding his authority. Too easily the imperial army could have become a faceless force, a mere extension of the antagonist’s will. Here, a general disobeys our antagonist’s orders, and acts from his own, non-military, motivations.
Yona is not a dark series. It’s telling is light, but the plot-points told have weight. Its darkest point, the coup, comes early. As I’ve written, threat rarely shadows our party. A viewer’s heart will never still with dread. At times the levity grows too light, rupturing the tone of a scene. Like many anime Yona employs goof-spots, moments when the tone and style abruptly shift to goofball comedy; punchlines in the middle of non-comic scenes. Fine, in moderation, but Yona deploys one too many.
Yona of the Dawn is not an action-packed show, nor is it a searing character drama, but it has just enough internal conflict to pull the viewer along. And though the protagonist finishes her arc a bit too early, the series gives us a nuanced antagonist. I’ll definitely watch the second half.