I generally consider low fantasy to be harder to do than high fantasy (though both equally hard to do well) because you can’t just fall back on the old good vs evil Tolkien templates, but still need to be able to deliver an engaging fantasy world. And speculative fiction is already difficult, as a whole, because of the need to establish an unfamiliar world. For an anime with a limited run time, as opposed to a novel where you can relatively easily devote some extra pages, this puts more pressure on the precious 23 minutes or so you get each week. This is why it’s so common for anime to launch into big rounds of exposition, firstly because light novels do it, and second because it’s quick and easy.
The clever thing about Akatsuki no Yona, and other tales like it, is that much of its story involves its character waltzing around, walking the earth anyway. As Yona sees the plights and politics of Kouka for the first time, so do we (and it also helps that feudalism, quasi-Korean or not, is still familiar). So Akatsuki no Yona can save some ‘extraneous’ world-building time, and spend it elsewhere. Indeed, it’s an anime with a bit of everything—sometimes action, sometimes romance, sometimes comedy—and to its credit does all of it well. Much of the success, I feel, is owed to the show’s methodical pacing, which manages to juggle both the narrative’s tension and the cast of characters in a way that makes all elements look effective. The downside is that the plot moves forward rather slowly as a result. After 2 cours, Yona has only just managed to collect her team of
Pokemon pretty boys, and returned to the cold open of episode 01. We don’t even know what the deal is with the Yellow Dragon (Shimono Hiro); he joined the party in the 11th hour almost as a matter of course (which is 1. too late and 2. too fast). In fact, the entire 24 episodes can be considered one long prologue, with much of the overarching plot (about Soo-Won killing the king, about the dragon myth, about strained love triangles) remaining unresolved. Sequel bait? Maybe. But it’s a rare thing these days for an anime to spend so long on essentially nothing but development.
The development is important though, because more important than the actual plot is Yona’s growth as a person. I was initially actually somewhat wary of Yona’s character, because the old yarn about royalty with special blood and some destiny and divine right is a bit too medieval for my taste—I make a very poor Monarchist. And yes, other characters do spend a bit long obsessing about how awesome Yona is whenever she does something morally superior, and the entire thing often carried a noblesse oblige stink to it, but Akatsuki no Yona spent enough time (again, time is an important factor) showing what makes Yona insecure that there’s still more or less a good balance. I don’t wish for angst, just doubt, especially because realpolitik and moral compromise seem like such significant backdrops to the narrative.
That’s one thing I wish Akatsuki no Yona dwelt on longer: its central theme of idealism vs realism, of necessary sacrifices, or moral individuals in an amoral geopolitical theatre. I wanted either Su-won or the late King Il’s philosophy vindicated. And I wanted Yona killing Kumji—completely anathema to her father’s pacifism—to be a more significant event. Yona killed an evil man to save a city; could she kill a good man to save a kingdom? It was a perfect time for her to run into Su-won again, but alas, nothing came out of it. Is he just a necessary Cincinnatus? Was King Il really that bad? It’s one thing to want peace, but it’s another to be weak. Switzerland is famously neutral, but they won that independence with blood. The Swiss Pikes carried such a fearsome reputation as mercenaries that it persists to this day—the Swiss Guard still protect the Holy See. Point is, if you want to speak softly you need to also carry a big gun. Or pointier sticks. Something like that.
The point of that point is that there should be a genuine moral struggle in Akatsuki no Yona—made doubly obvious by Hak being loyal to the king and Su-won murdering him—but it remains hanging. Just one of many things that scream ‘hey, we need a sequel!’. And hey, Akatsuki no Yona is well set up for one. There is still so much story left! It’s like only having the entree and nothing for dessert. I can’t believe a full 24 episodes were not enough. Give us 24 more.
For those interested in games and anime adaptations of them, I’ve also written a short thing on the Persona 3 Movie #2: Midsummer Knight’s Dream that you can find here on that blog I don’t update.