Sunday, 2 October 2016

Yona of the Yawn: Review of Yona of the Dawn Ep. 13-24 (2014-5 anime)

[Spoilers for the whole of Yona of the Dawn.]

I overestimated Yona of the Dawn. Watching the first half, I saw potential. Yes, the plot plodded, the character dynamics had yet to bloom, and the show lacked conflict, but the pieces were there. Alas, the writers never assembled the pieces. All they’ve given us are flat characters in emotionally leaden scenes.

As Yona has found two of the four Dragons, she is halfway to martialling a force against Soo-Won, her former-friend/betrayer. While searching for the remaining Dragons, Yona uncovers a human trafficking operation. With the help of some pirates, and a new friend, she must defeat the slavers. Meanwhile, Soo-Won visits the down-on-it’s-luck Earth Clan. 

This review will sound harsher than my one for the first twelve episodes. This implies no plummet in quality from the series’ first half to its second. Looking back, both halves are mediocre. At a distance, however, one can miss this mediocrity. I liked the first half because it promised good in later episodes. Yes, the quest was too easy-going, lacking in conflict and urgency, but surely, surely events would swell as the series progressed. And, yes, the characters only approached roundness, but with a few more episodes surely they’d reach roundness. These promises unfulfilled, the first half is as mediocre as the second.

Characters who once promised depth retreat to shallower waters. Where once Yun seemed a brash but hardened boy, now he’s just bratty. Where once Gija struggled with how he could not fulfil his life’s purpose, protecting Yona, now he’s just ‘comically’ protective of her. Where once Hak seemed a gruff, but dutiful, bruiser, now he’s just the tough guy. Where once the Blue Dragon was a victim of stigmatisation, now he… Well, he just stands silently in the background.
Can you spot the Blue Dragon, beneath the dullness?
But though boring, at least these characters don’t clog up screen time. Yona, on the other hand, is front-and-centre. In my last review, I complained her arc finishes six episodes in, leaving her nowhere to grow, and thus little of interest to do. That’s still true. The show dangles hope for a new arc, but stumbles in the execution. If in her first arc she grew from dependent to independent, in the second she moves from mere self-sufficiency to aiding others. This might have been compelling, except for two things. One, she completes this arc without real threat of failing. Two, the obstacles in her way are generic physical challenges. They reveal nothing about her character specifically. For example, shimmying on a cliff’s edge is a challenge to any one; it does not force her to struggle with her past and/or personality. The copious screen time devoted to this arc dilutes it further. 

A new character shows up, the Green Dragon, Jae-Ha, who had potential. He treasures freedom, judging any who would dare control him as monsters. Because his purpose in life, as a Dragon, is to serve Yona, his arc could have been interesting. This belief of his suggests themes of freedom versus duty, existence versus essence – themes the writers never explore. They don’t even exploit the dramatic potential of a reluctant party member. The White Dragon’s community raised him to anticipate serving Yona. The Blue Dragon had nothing left for him but to serve Yona. How would Yona win over a dragon who hated serving her? Easily, it turns out. Jae-Ha just needs to meet her once, see that she’s not an elderly, male arsehole, and suddenly he joins her side. He resists at first, but not enough, given how much he claimed to value his autonomy. 

Flat characters can be interesting. Most of Dickens’ characters were flat. The problem comes when the writers want us to feel for these characters. When emotional climaxes happen to nothing characters, it’s like multiplying zero. On top of that, the writers don’t justify the emotional moments. Little in the characters’ pasts justifies the way they feel in the moment. One character tells Yona she feels Yona is the daughter she never had. They’ve known each other for a few days. It’s not just that the series’ emotional moments fail; Yona fails in way that makes the audience feel manipulated. When a writer tries to make us feel for a flat character, they point at nothing, while telling us it’s something, and expect to fool us. 

There is so much thwarted potential in this show. I feel the writers brainstormed a bunch of interesting concepts, parallels, and themes, but when it came to scripting they said, ‘Well, I can’t be bothered fleshing these out.’ For example, the series criticises Yona’s father’s, the deceased king’s, commitment to peace. His pacifism lead him to cede land to satisfy aggressors, hurting commoners. Yona discovers this soon after she pledges to carry on her father’s legacy. Now she sees that legacy’s stain, but not in a facile King-Il-was-really-an-arsehole way. No, the trait which stains his legacy, is the same trait that Yona admires: his love of peace. This could have been interesting, if the writers hadn’t forgotten it as soon as they mentioned it.
The most disappointing bit of unfulfilled potential is the slavery arc. Latent in this arc were subversive themes and character parallels, but unfortunately the arc depicts no slavery. Oh, yes, the series shows us trafficked women and calls it slavery – but this isn’t slavery. This is Generic-Evil-011, written only to make the antagonist unambiguously evil. The problems are two-fold. First, when you depict slavery, but handle it with kid-gloves, the whole thing rings hollow. I don’t think of how evil the villain is; I think of how the writers fail to confront the brutality of slavery. I understand the writers want to keep things light, but then I would suggest – don’t depict slavery. Why not Generic-Evil-024, crippling taxes?

Second, the show’s use of slavery squanders the parallels with the Dragons, Jae-Ha specifically. The evil central to slavery (i.e. the evil that no amount of ‘kind treatment’ can undo) is violating the slave’s right to selfhood and self-determination. To put it in Kantian terms, to enslave a person reduces them to a mere means, rather than an end-in-themselves. This sounds a lot like Jae-Ha’s view of Dragons, beings condemned to serve the Dragon King. Why didn’t he raise this when he, Yona, and the pirates planned to liberate the slaves? Why didn’t the writers find some way to make this parallel explicit? I know a critic shouldn’t write a new story in the middle of a review, but I only write this new story because Yona’s writers stopped writing it halfway. They must have seen the parallels. I can only assume it intimidated them; the implications of likening the Dragons to slaves would taint the show’s light-heartedness. As I said before, if you’re going to ignore the implications of depicting slavery, don’t do it at all.
At once charming and serpentine

Although not faultless, Soo-Won is the only interesting part of the show. As the only round character, he vivifies the scenes surrounding him. His visit to the Earth Tribe may have lagged, but it entertained. From it, we learn Soo-Won’s modus operandi. Despite his iron-fisted coronation speech, he plays a spiritual successor to King Il, a sheltered monarch with more joviality than sense. Under this veil of fecklessness, he cures economic and diplomatic woes, not through policy, but by orchestrating happy ‘accidents’. He is a Machiavellian posing as a bleeding heart. Although the ultimate goal of such play-acting is unclear, we sense he has a goal. 

How fitting that Soo-Won should initiate the only good episode in the series, episode twenty-three. This episode works emotionally, narratively, and tone-wise. Unlike the forced emotional manipulations of the series’ proper, this episode has genuinely affecting moments. Yona and Soo-Won’s reunion has weight. The viewer can empathise with Yona’s shell-shock after the meeting. What elevates these moments above the others in the series is that we can understand where they come from. In these moments, Yona and Soo-Won are not nothing characters affected by nothing moments; we know how their pasts and personalities inform these moments. The series reminds us that Soo-Won had no idea what Yona had been doing. He thought she was dead. This is not a confrontation of enemies. Rather, it is Yona confronting an enemy, and Soo-Won discovering a former friend still lives. As Yona’s entire quest aims to defeat Soo-Won, meeting him shatters her. Soo-Won unintentionally forces Yona to realise he is the same person he was before. He killed her father, but his kindness, his concern, all those things she liked in him, still exist. Distant from him, she could ignore that, but now she must confront what the goal of her quest entails.

Only time I laughed at one of these
The goofspots – those copious hyper-deformed punchlines littered into non-comedic scenes – actually work in this episode. They do not jar with the tone. As the show plays Yona’s shell-shock for light-laughs, the goofspots fit. I know it’s a small thing, but this shows what a competent episode this is. In a different world maybe all the episodes would be this good.

Someone's using After Effects for the first time

Not even this episode is perfect. The party’s departure from their new friends runs too long and smacks of soppiness. It is played, in part, for laughs, but it earns so few laughs that it’s just soppy. The episode stumbles stylistically, when it portrays a flashback as a screen within a screen. Don’t remind me that, in this fantasy world, I’m looking at a rectangular screen. Why didn’t they just let the flashback take up the whole screen?  

Episode twenty-three perfectly ends the series, which is why it’s a shame it doesn’t. Episode twenty-four resurrects every gripe I have with the series. It reminds me how dull all the characters are. It even introduces a new character, whose singular character trait is he acts like a clown except when he has to speak solemnly. This episode mainly sets up the second series. Those moments are so brief, however, the writers could have shifted them to the previous episode, and allowed the series to end on a bang.

And that OP. When I’m watching a medieval fantasy, I don’t want to hear techno. I can’t ignore it; the moment the opening credits start, the music starts, too late for me to skip past it. It seems a small thing, but it encapsulates this series. Something as fundamental as tone is broken, every episode, by the show’s own opening theme.

I won’t watch the second series. It may get better, but I doubt another twenty-four episodes will salvage it. Again, the series does not get worse in its second half; its second half reveals how empty its potential was. Don’t bother with Yona of the Dawn.   

[Yona of the Dawn is a production of Studio Pierrot. Images and screencaps taken from Crunchy Roll's stream:]

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