There are a lot of fantastic entries in the Shoujo genre of anime/manga. Today’s show is Yona of the Dawn. It is similar to Garo in some ways, such as being set in a medieval-like time period and the journey to taking down a ruler. Yona however is a more engaging watch, which is mainly due to the focus of the story. The show explores the themes of betrayal, leadership, friendship, and courage. It’s a must-watch for any anime fan.
Upon her sixteenth birthday, the cheerful Princess Yona intended to tell her doting father of her love for Su-Won, but her life was turned upside down after witnessing the man she loves cruelly assassinating her father. Heartbroken by this painful betrayal, Princess Yona fled the palace with her loyal servant Hak. Now, she will take up the sword and the bow on a quest to gain new allies and protect her beloved people.
Yona’s first episode is standard, almost too standard. And that’s the point: to make the viewer think this is going to be something of a stereotype of Shoujo anime. The focus for most of the episode is on the Princess narrating her love for her childhood friend Soo-won. Romance is a primary factor of this genre, so the question always has to be, “what will make this particular show stand out?” The episode answers that question in the climax when Soo-won murders Yona’s father, King II. This scene 24 episodes later still feels like the most powerful of the show. Everything preceding it points to a happy adventure in the kingdom with Yona about to pronounce her love for Soo-won. This scene forces the viewer to rethink that assumption and changes the atmosphere of the story going forward.
Episode 2 focuses on the Princess and her bodyguard Hak escaping the castle. The viewer is fully engrossed here, not knowing what to expect. In many ways Yona mirrors what the viewer is feeling. She’s shocked while trying to adapt to the situation. From here, the show becomes a survival, and then a journey both outward and inward. The outward part plays out much like an RPG. We have the main character going from village to village meeting diverse characters and “treasure searching.” However, instead of objects the goal is to find and recruit people in order to take back the kingdom.
The inward part of the journey is Yona discovering how to be a warrior and leader. It’s amazing to look back at Episode 1 and jump to Episode 22 when she makes her first kill to save her friend. The character development is fantastic. Yona never ceases to be a likable, engaging protagonist. This is enhanced by her ongoing narration as viewers get to hear things from her perspective, know her feelings, etc. She goes from being distressed to a person of courage willing to put her life on the line to help others. This is why the scene of her firing her arrow at Kumji is such a powerful one; it’s the culmination of her past development.
Aside from Yona, the greatest character is easily Hak, the “Lightning Beast.” His character arc remains pretty much the same, which is being a bodyguard for the Princess. The first few episodes were especially great in showing the unique relationship between the two. Hak is typically portrayed as rather serious, which is why it’s always a treat to hear his narration. Early on it was very interesting to hear what he was thinking about on Soo-won killing the King. He’s just as shocked as Yona, but doesn’t have the luxury of getting depressed because he has a scared duty to protect her. Later, he has to deal with the fact that he has feelings for her. As a bodyguard, is it a good thing to let those feelings take over? It’s a tough question he has to ask himself, especially since Yona doesn’t look at him in a romantic way. This subplot is never overplayed nor underplayed. The viewer is left wondering at the end of Episode 24 what will become of it.
Soo-won is a fascinating character. He is the “antagonist” yet the writing rarely seems to portray him as outright evil. His killing of King II for “the greater good” and subsequent scenes gives the indication that he is genuinely concerned about the kingdom. We do see glimpses of a more deceptive side at times, but again he’s not a cackling tyrannical dictator. The fact that he has personal ties with Yona and Hak (as seen in the excellent backstory portrayed in Episode 3) makes the conflict all the more engaging.
King II isn’t around long but his presence is felt throughout the show. The interesting aspect of his character is that a lot of the kingdom didn’t like the way he ruled. A very powerful scene was when Yona ran into a dying man. He claimed that it was the King’s pacifism as the cause of the former’s village being in ruin. So, this gives the viewer an ongoing mystery: was II truly a good king? Did he really have a dark past, as Soo-won claimed? These questions the writing smartly leaves open-ended. This also has Yona question whether her father did things right as a king. It’s engaging to see her decide in the final episode that she has to go against her father’s wishes of complete peace and take up a sword to fight for the kingdom.
After the first few episodes the show focuses on Yona searching for the Four Dragon Warriors. This is where the RPG element comes into play. Each Dragon Warrior (aside from Zeno) has his own mini-arc as the Princess enters the villages. The writing does a solid job at making them diverse. The longest arc is Jae-Ha’s. Some might say it took too much time away from Soo-won’s story, but it helped cement Yona as a warrior princess. Plus, the heartwarming moment with Yona and the pirate captain was excellent. The most disappointing arc by default is Zeno’s. Of course, after the long pirate saga it didn’t make sense to have another multi-episode arc exploring another Dragon Warrior. This sadly then forced Zeno to appear basically out of nowhere and by the end he’s given no backstory. Hopefully in Season 2 he will be explored a little more.
The animation is excellent, as are the fight scenes. There aren’t many standout battles unfortunately, because a good number of them are just against hordes of minions. The best single battle might be early on with Soo-won versus Hak. This was a nice tease for a future showdown between the two. There are quite a few side characters, the most prominent being Yun whom becomes a main character. He’s definitely good, but the writing does sometimes take it overboard with his yelling. (Not to mention the tiresome self-calling “beautiful boy genius.”) Even though the plot is rather serious, the show does like to have fun with itself with comedic scenes. Sometimes they’re effective, but often they border on just being too silly. (Such as some of the bickering between Hak and Kija.)
Overall, Yona of the Dawn is a fantastic watch. At its core it’s about a princess moving past betrayal and becoming a warrior. Yona is a great focus, and her narration greatly enhances the viewing experience. The cast of characters is nicely utilized, especially Hak. The ongoing plot with Soo-won is intriguing to watch unfold. While not perfect in some spots, Season 1 is excellent. Hopefully its sequel will be formally announced soon.