Well-done fantasy is a special treat in Japanese animation (and the medium at large, for that matter), but well-done fantasy with a woman as the key and non-subordinate figure is a downright rare experience. But Studio Pierrot’s Yona of the Dawn delivers on both counts and joins Moribito and Twelve Kingdoms as a sterling example of a show with a very human and very positive leading lady, a work showing that being “strong” hardly needs to overlap with a shallow power fantasy.
Based on the shoujo manga by female mangaka Mizuho Kusanagi, Yona offers a healthy dose of adventure and the tried-and-true hero’s journey formula as applied to royalty, where a privileged person is compelled to mature in the face of sudden and overwhelming adversity (compare to The Heroic Legend of Arslan). In this case our lead is the pampered and carefree Princess Yona of the Eastern-style Kohka Kingdom, the only child of its kind and seemingly timid monarch King Il. Yona lives a sheltered life in the palace, with her closest friends being her irreverent and handsome bodyguard Son Hak and her cousin Su-won, for whom Yona carries a passionate crush as only a teenager can. Yona sees her imminent 16th birthday as the chance to be seen as an adult and to confess her feelings to both Su-Won and her father, but her world is shattered when she stumbles upon a bloody undercover coup to execute the king in the name of putting Su-Won on the throne. It’s all Hak and Yona can do to just escape the palace, in utter disbelief at their close friend’s betrayal. So long as Yona roams free she poses a possible threat to Su-Won’s new order, and the once exalted princess must now face the world as a fugitive on the run.
Yona opens at a deliberate pace, effectively taking three episodes just to kick off the plot, establish characters via flashbacks and offer enticing glimpses at the formidable future woman the childish Yona is fated to become. What might’ve been seen as empty padding in a lesser series is instead time well spent, as it shows the once-strong friendship between the trio of Yona, Hak and Su-Won along with troubling signs that Su-Won’s insurrection was brought on by Il’s real weakness as a ruler and maybe even past wrongs Yona was blissfully unaware of. Su-Won himself, meanwhile, just barely conceals personal regrets for actions beneath an icy exterior. His clever coup is thus shrouded in gray, imposing upon the viewer the uncomfortable idea that we’re witnessing a conscientious traitor. However one judges that question, and even if you simply love to hate him, there’s no doubt the man is at least a refreshing break from the wearying cliche of the power-craving narcissist.
In a more conventional series this would be the foundation for a revenge plot and ultimately a grand campaign to put Yona back on the throne, but show takes a more grounded direction by making her journey a desperate one about survival even as Su-Won entrenches his position. A sixteen-year-old, thoroughly sheltered, broken-hearted daughter of a pacifist is hardly the portrait of one ready to lead anyone or spark unrest that could prove the ruin of the country. Hak, while practically and implausibly superhuman in battle prowess, is nonetheless just one man with limits to what he can do, especially with a helpless charge in tow. It’s this realization more than anything that pushes Yona out of her dazed despair, toward a determination to take responsibility for herself to survive with Hak rather than meekly hide without her only friend or watch him die. Naturally Yona’s newfound strong will is only matched by her lack of skill at combat, but witnessing her loyalty and courage manifest inspiring – and bittersweet, as she and Hak know all too well that the late king’s beliefs and wishes for Yona are being denied with every violent act she takes.
All this would be engaging in its own right by itself, but there’s also the matter of the true quest Yona and Hak find themselves on when the seek out the once-honored, now-exiled oracle Ik-su for advice on what to do next. There they learn of the whitewashed legend of Kouka’s first king, an incarnation of the red dragon Hiryuu that lived among humans and was supported by four others with the blood, spirit and abilities of his brethren. The four dragons are said to reincarnate in human form to support Hiryuu’s descendants in time of need, and so Yona embarks to find them, accompanied by Hak and Ik-Su’s intelligent and ambitious young charge Yun. Here again, Yona of the Dawn manages to dodge obvious expectations, as Yona’s implied status as a “chosen one” is underplayed and secondary to the fact that it is Yona the woman, with her good heart and character, that draws Yun and the dragons to her side. Not that it’s all going to come easy: the show’s first twelve episodes end with one dragon turning out to be as reclusive as the other was welcoming.
FUNimation’s English dub of Yona is serviceable, although for a fantasy work like this, I do find myself wishing that the temptation to indulge in everyday slang was resisted. This is a fully alternate setting, not a stranger-in-a-strange-land yarn in the tradition of Escaflowne and InuYasha; hearing anyone call anything “cool” here only breaks the illusion, even if it does take place during one of the program’s many comedic cutaways. On the bright side, the dub does manage to give its most vital scenes the passion and seriousness deserved, while the deadpan delivery of Chris Sabat (Hak) and the pouty side of Monica Rial (Yona) do wonders for the myriad lighter scenes where Hak winds up teasing Yona to change a difficult subject or to just push his charge’s buttons in happier times. Perhaps the finest standout is Micah Solusod’s nuanced portrayal of Su-Won and the disparate sides of himself he shows to different company and in private, without which the ambiguity of the character simply could not work.
All in all, Yona of the Dawn shapes up to be a strong example of female-led fiction in the early going. This is a show steadfast in its avoidance of quick and easy answers, whether it comes to the nature of its villain or how Yona will become strong or even where her journey will ultimately take with her birthright seemingly so out of reach. It’s a show that swiftly brings its heroine to her lowest point and gives the great tragedy in her life the gravitas it should have, but sends a clear message that this is story about how she grows up and gets beyond it. Stripped down to its essentials Yona of the Dawn is the tale of the princess who would not be a victim, tasked with a personal battle that no man can win on her behalf.The thread view count is