Yona is the teenage princess of the Kouka Kingdom, residing in the central palace under the eye of her convivial father, Emperor Il. On the night of her sixteenth birthday, the palace is struck by a coup which forces Yona to escape under the protection of her bodyguard and lifelong friend Hak. Unsure of who is friend and who is foe, Yona is forced to confront the reality of her country and begin a quest to find a team of legendary warriors who protected the kingdom generations ago.
We’re in the middle of a visible shift in Western entertainment where an increasing focus is being put on strong, leading female protagonists for stories. It’s a move that I generally welcome, but I don’t think has been applied as well as it could. Likewise, given anime’s questionable handling of female characters overall, I was expecting a lot of clichés in Yona of the Dawn but what I got was far more welcome.
One of my major concerns on the Western side is that I feel a lot of the female protagonists we’re getting in new stories are too aggressive in their presence. Rather than showing a woman is just as capable (if not more so) than a man, there’s a chip on their shoulders and in how they’re promoted that feels it’s not enough only to challenge archaic perceptions but to actively offend people. It’s a mentality seen in stuff like Divergent, where the female protagonist has to be a political sledgehammer rather than a character.
Yona is strong without needing this pointless posturing. We’re introduced to her as a spoiled, headstrong princess, indulged by her father on various whims. She’s not greedy or selfish, but certainly someone who has a rosy life where her biggest complaint is managing her mane of unruly red hair. The coup forces her to change swiftly, and although she spends some time shell-shocked, we quickly see her adapt to the situation and the realities she’s suddenly aware of with the poise of a true leader. In a weaker story, I would call out her highlighted fiery follicles as the hallmark of a Mary Sue, but the significance is understated and Yona herself is humble to dismissive about its alleged implications. Nor does she become a wishy-washy audience avatar for young female viewers, who might aspire to some of the members of the warrior-troop-cum-harem that Yona forms out of her bishonen travelling companions.
That’s not to say there isn’t at least a love triangle, involving Yona, Hak and Su-Won. The first few episodes put focus on the relationship between these three life-long friends, juxtaposing the happy memories they share against the fact Su-Won led the coup (said fact is displayed prominently in promotional material so I’m openly discussing it). Being Yona’s cousin (a factor that creates some squick in her romantic affections for him, but can be smoothed over by the series pseudo-ancient Korean setting), he holds hatred for her father who he views as an unfit leader and believes betrayed his father/Yona’s uncle to claim the throne. This actually provides an interesting angle: although Su-Won and his allies are cast as antagonists, his motivations suggest something deeper than a selfish power-play, and the poverty Yona and Hak encounter beyond the palace does draw into question if Su-Won’s criticisms are valid.
Hak is a fun character, if a bit more generic. Being Yona’s hard-as-nails snarky bodyguard, there are obvious signs he cares for her as more than just a friend or charge, but has kept his distance given her obvious affections for Su-Won. The pair bicker constantly but it’s usually quite balanced, and never as overbearing as some shows would play it. Admittedly the wacky SD-style anime comic takes can at times feel at odds with how the show generally carries itself as something closer to a historical drama.
What eventually grounds their travel is a quest for a band of ancient warriors said to have served Yona’s ancestor generations ago and each carrying the power of a god-like dragon. The first two of these are encountered by the volume’s end, and there’s some nice balance in how the descendants are treated, with one venerated as a hero by their village while the other is treated as a blight. I admit the latter gave me flashbacks to the heavy handed bloodline drama in Naruto but the key flashback we get is actually very well done and shows how a destructive power unwillingly passed through a community could harden hearts effectively burdened with it.
Naruto comparisons might not be too far off the mark, as animation is handled by the acclaimed Studio Pierrot, who have made a name for themselves handling productions with such a distinct flavour of Asian culture. In general the show looks lovely with rich colours and detail. It’s obviously not up there with theatrical productions, but it also doesn’t look as bad as TV anime often can. In particular the sunrise/sunset motif noted in the title provides some gorgeous looking moments. Pierrot’s familiarity with action shows also helps compose the action scenes which mostly consist of blade and arrow combat. While it may not be as flashy as stuff you’d see in the more super powered likes of Bleach, that grounding works well for this series.
Things are pretty even between the Japanese and English cast. With FUNimation titles, my mind always falls back to remembering those early days when they were just starting out and the foundation of their talent pool were recording the controversial Dragon Ball Z dub. This is pertinent here because Chris Sabat’s voice work as Hak shows just how much that talent pool has grown. It’s a more subdued version of the voice old-timers like me will remember coming from Piccolo, but the craft is obvious. I do have to offer some mild criticism of Monica Rial’s performance as Yona. It’s by no means bad but given the nature of this hobby, comparisons will be made and it’s hard not to be impressed by the presence in Chiwa Saito’s original performance. Rial does a great job and delivers an adaptable performance but the weight of Saito’s edges ahead that tiny bit. The dub is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 while the Japanese comes as a slightly less mighty 2.0 mix.
The stand out for extras are dub audio commentaries for episodes four and eight. It’s been a while since I reviewed a FUNimation title, but the commentaries are always a highlight: friendly without being the fluff that behind-the-scenes discussion directly from Japan often falls into. You get to hear some stories about the dub casting and actor’s history with the overall tone making it worth your time to return to both episodes (though as of yet, no country blues song). The other extras are the standard mix of OP, ED and various Japanese trailers followed by the US one and some for other FUNimation titles. The OP is actually a big part of the show’s charm, as it’s an orchestral piece which fits with the show’s feeling of historical drama and stands out better than the millionth J-Pop song about being angsty, backed up by the OP’s visuals changing as the parties grow. The ED is a more generic spoilery affair, but decent enough.
Yona of the Dawn Part 1 is a good starting title for the partnership between Anime Limited and FUNimation. It’s a strong title in its own right, but the issues in the story take on an additional poignancy right now given the current political uncertainty in the UK. But ignoring that there’s a general appeal to this story which draws from the best of classic historicals while at the same time having progressive views. It manages to impart this without being drunk on itself or any kind of chore. Looking forward to the show’s second half.
Yona of the Dawn Part 1 is available to purchase on Blu-ray from Amazon UK.