I was initially impressed by the quality of the writing, acting and productions values of Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona) (Crunchyroll.) Now I’m even more impressed. The story has fantasy elements but it is no simple fairy tale.
It’s a sophisticated story that seems informed by a knowledge of real history (as well as Asian mythology.)
As it happens, at about the same time that I started watching Yona I also started reading a book on England’s Wars of the Roses. I’m not saying that the Wars of the Roses were the inspiration for Yona. It probably draws on Asian history instead. (And frankly the members of the royal family of the Kingdom of Kouka seem saner than the Plantagenets.)
Nevertheless it is possible to draw some parallels. King Il is sort of like England’s Henry VI, a well-meaning but ineffectual king whose inability to control the factions in his own court led to his being imprisoned, deposed and finally killed. And Yona is somewhat analogous to Henry’s formidable queen, Margaret of Anjou, who took over the leadership of the Lancaster faction after her husband lost power.
Such analogies can be taken too far. The Wars of the Roses are an unrelievedly grim story. Yona, with its mythic elements and comic asides is much more entertaining.
The main mythic element of the story is that Princess Yona, before she can avenge her father, must gain the help of four “Dragons.” These are the descendents of four demigods who served her distant ancestor, Hiryuu the Red Dragon King, who founded the kingdom.
The story has been unfolding at a leisurely pace. At the end of the first cour, after a number of adventures, she has found and recruited one Dragon, and located but not yet recruited a second. I presume that by the end of the next cour she will have recruited all four, at which point she will be ready to begin her real mission.
But two cours are all that we have been promised. If we are to see the real end of the story, the anime will have to run for multiple seasons. It is fairly rare for a shoujo anime to get multiple seasons. For that to be possible it needs to attract a crossover audience of male fans. Given that this show is in many ways more like a shounen adventure than a typical shoujo story, that could well happen.
Which raises an interesting question. Mizuho Kusanagi, the creator of the original manga, could surely have sold this story to a shonen manga magazine, and would have made a lot more money by doing so. (Some changes might be necessary: probably the story could be told from Hak’s viewpoint instead of Yona’s, thus making Yona seem more idealized and Hak less self-assured.) So why didn’t she? Maybe she just felt a strong need to tell this particular story to girls.
It is unsettling to realize that King Il, though a decent man and no fool, was not a particularly good king. His regime was plagued by corrupt officials and there was obviously a lot of suffering among the common people. This is not the sort of story where having a rightful king who rules with good intentions is enough to guarantee a good outcome.
Soo-wan may be personally evil but he seems to be turning out to be a competent ruler, probably better for the country than the man he deposed. Which raises the disturbing question: is it right for Yona to try to avenge her father and overthrow him?
Yona had a sheltered upbringing, full of courtly ceremonies but with no training in military affairs or in the gritty details of how the kingdom is actually run. Now we see her observing the suffering of the peasants and practicing night after night with her bow, her fingers sore and bleeding.
But is she ready to rule the kingdom? Clearly she isn’t yet, if she ever will be. Could she marry a man who would make a good ruler? Hak, for all his virtues, doesn’t seem up to that job. Might she end up like Elisabeth of York, who ended the Wars of the Roses by marrying Henry Tudor, the leader of the opposing faction who had no legitimate claim to the throne (other than his marriage to her) but who was a capable ruler? Such a tragic ending would be unthinkable in a shounen story but in a shoujo story it is at least conceivable.
More likely she will gradually level up to the point where she can be a credible ruler, but it will probably take a long time.