I Love Yona. She’s beautiful, she’s funny, and most of all, she can think for herself. If she weren’t a hand-drawn character, I would totally… be her servant! (What did you think I was going to say?)
Kidding aside, Yona’s tale is one worth remembering among so many of the new anime series. And since I’ve been talking about Liberation for this month, I have to say: this is my favorite of the four that I have featured.
Before I get to this review, allow me to list a few limitations. First, there are plenty of things I would like to say about this series, but I will be focusing mainly on the main theme at hand. So if you want me to comment on the Korean influence or the characters or the funnies, I am saying it now! Second, this is a feminist anime (no argument there), and I will be critiquing it in that perspective. Third, I will be focusing primarily on the latter half of the series, so there will be SPOILERS! But you should already know that.
And fourth, if you came here for some Hak fan service, here you go!
Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona) takes us to the Kouka Kingdom. Here we find Princess Yona: a red-haired noble who spends most of her days in the palace, under the protection of the guards, never to be harmed in any way. She is treated delicately, as her pacifist father, King Il, does not think she should fight or carry weapons at all.
But in one night, Yona’s world was turned upside down, when she finds out that her childhood friend and most suitable husband-to-be, Su Won, kills her father in cold blood!
With the help of the kingdom’s “Thunder Beast” Son Hak, Yona escapes the fate of her own death and flees from the palace. Life isn’t so great for a girl who just turned sixteen. But as she ventures across her Kingdom, she will soon discover just how sheltered she was her whole life, and discover for herself what it means to truly be the Princess of Kouka.
Now that Su Won rules Kouka, thanks to his charm and a huge lie, Yona is a fugitive of her own country. And when you’re a girl with red hair as bright as dawn’s horizon, you’re going to stand out! Luckily, Yona finds strength in Hak, the only person from the palace who followed her. But Hak isn’t going to be able to protect her forever. With the wisdom of her father and the need to survive in these unfamiliar conditions, Yona is caught in a conflict within herself, not knowing what is right anymore! Hak himself is caught in a situation of his own, wanting to protect his princess out of obligation, but also recognizes how much she still needs to grow.
But as fate would have it, Yona’s project becomes much bigger than she had first anticipated.
Yona is bound by legend as the reincarnation of the Red Dragon: the dragon-turned-human who founded the Kouka Kingdom ages ago! He and his four dragon companions have been in slumber among other humans, and it’s up to Yona to find them.
With each dragon Yona finds, she makes new friends with different people. The dragons and their respective clans react differently to their princess. Some welcome her with open arms with familial teasing, while others saw her as a direct threat from the Palace. The dragons themselves have all had their doubts of whether she was the Red Dragon they were to serve, but learn to follow her regardless. For the dragons Gija, Sinha, Jaeha, and Jeno, it wasn’t so important that they were serving a master who neglected them for so many generations, but to be in service of a girl who has the will to fight for real justice in the kingdom.
And don’t get me started on a certain squirrel that comes with the Blue Dragon Sinha! If you didn’t like Yona that much, I suppose you can say the series is more about that little rodent punk, because he’s so active in doing, well, anything! But then I won’t get to the liberation discussion, so I’ll cut to the chase!
Yona may be the Red Dragon, but the wisdom she gains from traveling across Kouka goes beyond some power she inherited through the royal line. In search of the dragons alongside General Hak and the pretty boy medic Yun, Yona also meets the real people of Kouka: people who have been marginalized by the Palace. Yona has lived a comfortable life as the princess, having the naive understanding that her father was nice to everyone.
Despite the late King Il’s pacifist regime and his desire for peace, anyone who was not among the noble clans suffered from oppression and hunger. Whether or not King Il had consciously known of these conditions, the truth is that he did nothing about them; and Yona finds out that more people in Kouka had hated the royal family for what they had done (or not done, I suppose). Yona had been taught to love peace her whole life, but as she learns more about her kingdom, that peace comes at a much higher cost than she expected. And in the small portion of this narrative told in the anime, Yona transforms from beyond just being the Princess to becoming a woman warrior.
Some people who don’t understand feminism make the assumption that feminism is only in the interest of putting women in power; and by following the zero-sum complex, men must then be made inferior. While I won’t deny that there is (some) man-hating involved, it’s not the case that we want to remove men from the picture altogether.
Yona is our main hero for this series, but even she recognizes that she can’t fight on her own. No one ever does! Heroes would be nothing without their supporters, and it is a gross misunderstanding among individualists that we can do things best on our own! As amazing as Yona is as the Princess Defender of Kouka, all of her male companions play an important role in achieving her goals.
In the Pirates of Awa arc, Yona takes it upon herself to save the girls who were to be sold against their will as prostitutes in a neighboring kingdom. She does so not only out of obligation as the Princess, but out of true solidarity with the poor of her own country. But while we know that having the will to fight isn’t enough to cause a revolution, Yona has already become so much more to make it happen.
When talking about the art style difference between shounen and shoujo manga/anime, the most obvious element is the use of eyes. Shounen styles display characters more in what they do, and therefore typically have very solid eyes. Shoujo styles on the other hand favor reflexivity, relating directly to characters through their proverbial “lens” by emphasizing the eyes in more detail. And while that detail is usually given most to the protagonists, we see Yona in this scene through the eyes of a minor character.
Audiences should pick up on the fact that Yona is hardly fragile in this cut, standing tall like a soldier before our very eyes. But more importantly, we are seeing our hero through the lens of essentially a background character. All we know of her is that her name is Yuri, and yet we relate to her through her eyes because she, too, matters. If Yona is to be the protector of Kouka, she will seek justice for all people: from those among the noble clans closest to her, to the marginalized citizens weary from years of oppression.
What does it mean for Yona to be the Princess of Kouka? It means she is responsible for the well-being of her kingdom. All of it. And through cunning, wisdom, and the help of the many friends she has made along the way, Yona will find a way to mete justice her own way!
Finally, I would like to point out that the story doesn’t end here. The anime stops right when Yona finds the fourth and final dragon, but the manga continues thereafter. And to me, that’s important not just because the story continues, but it shows that Yona still has much more to do and grow before achieving her goals. It’s a common misconception that liberation is achieved once a person or persons become “free.” To me, liberation is the process in becoming free, and once we are in a state of freedom, we may fall victim in becoming oppressed or objectified in another way.
Yona shows that even those of the higher classes such as nobles can be just as imprisoned by their own rules just as the lower classes are. But it is through struggle and a desire for justice, not only for ourselves but also for others, that have the potential to set us free. And as Yona continues her journey to fight for the people of Kouka, may she be liberated as well.
So if you’re looking for an anime that truly empowers girls and women in a robust, fantasy setting, check out Yona of the Dawn. Just one more review to complete our theme! It’s going to be fun!