Series Review: Yona of the Dawn (”Akatsuki no Yona”)

I know, Yoon. I’m not ready for it to end, either.

Mild spoilers below the jump.

Full disclosure: This isn’t going to be a review so much as an extended sales pitch, because Yona is a fantastic anime and everyone should be watching it. The fact that relatively few people did means that we may never see that second season (although I’ll remain hopeful—Studio Pierrot has greenlit sequels to shows with less-than-stellar sales before), but that doesn’t make this first season any less worth your time. While there’s clearly a lot more story to tell, Yona finds a good stopping place, an “our fight continues” ending that nevertheless manages to wrap up some major plot points and character arcs. And hey, even if we never do get that second season, there’s always the manga.

But enough about the destination—Yona is all about the journey, and what a journey it is. The series follows the titular character, a sheltered princess forced out of the palace during a coup who must find a way to survive on the run with no one but childhood friend Hak (a martial prodigy and deadpan comedian) to keep her safe. After a chance meeting and some (literally) sage advice, she decides to seek out the four “Dragons” of legend to help them stay alive.

The series (I so badly wish I could type “first season”) spends most of its time on Yona searching for the dragons, loosely dividing the show into mini-arcs based on exploring new locations and meeting new people. But if this sounds like a certain other helpless-girl-gathering-legendary-guardians harem story (coughFushigiYuugicough), rest assured that it isn’t. There are some similarities, but as much as I enjoyed FY, Yona is the far superior series, focusing on multiple relationships and characters. It’s less a romance than a character-driven drama, a historical fantasy full of action, intrigue, and a hearty dash of humor.

While the dragons are all layered, likable characters in their own right, the story’s greatest strengths have nothing to do with them and everything to do with Yona and her two three non-dragon companions, Hak and Yoon (and Ao, a pet squirrel who comes dangerously close to stealing the show). Hak does sometimes suffer from “childhood friend” syndrome (he must have a lot of oil on him, given how long he’s been burning that torch for Yona), but his reactions to Yona’s growth are realistic and understandable, as he struggles to reconcile the pampered girl from his childhood with the strong, thoughtful leader she’s becoming.

Yoon may just be my favorite character in the series, a self-proclaimed “handsome genius” who “can do anything except fight.” He’s a unique male anime character, clever and thoughtful and courageous, and he and Yona develop perhaps the closest emotional relationship out of the cast, serving as close confidantes. It’s refreshing to see a series develop a close boy-girl friendship, plus their shared roles as “normal” humans surrounded by powerful warriors makes their struggles that much more compelling, their courage that much more inspiring, and their victories that much more satisfying.

But plenty of shoujo fantasies have awesome/badass guy characters. It’s the girl at the center who can elevate the story from good to great, and in this case she succeeds with flying colors. Yona’s personal story is one of gradual self-discovery and self-reliance, as she travels the kingdom she used to rule but had never seen. She takes up a weapon to protect herself and grapples with the reality of needing to hurt or kill another person. It’s a gradual, realistic process, but Yona is determined to be more than a perpetual damsel in distress, and she works hard to learn how to protect both herself and others.

Which is great, of course, but Yona’s coming-of-age is less about her becoming a warrior and more about her understanding the complexities of both her father’s rule and the regime that overthrew him, and taking responsibility for her own naivete regarding the suffering of her kingdom’s people. She’s a great main character, basically, neither a traditional damsel nor an out-of-the-box “badass,” and her growth is the backbone of the series, a through-line that connects each of the dragon’s personal stories.

I’ve been gushing for probably too long about this series, but I can’t wrap this up without also pointing out that Studio Pierrot has done a remarkable job with the adaptation, handling every piece of the production with obvious affection for the source material. No single element jumps out because they all work together to form a fantastic whole, from the art (beautiful and expressive) to the animation (dynamic when needed and always competently done) to the music (thematically fitting and full of lovely traditional Asian instruments) to the acting (they bounce between the serious and humorous moments nicely, delivering each with their character’s own unique sound and tone).

What really makes this adaptation stand out is it’s attention to detail. Little things like Ao playing with Yona’s earrings or munching on her dress (again, the squirrel almost steals the show) or the way characters who get beat up maintain their bruises over multiple scenes/episodes (rather than having them magically vanish once the fight is over, as is often the case) add a level of consistency and realism, showing that the creative team was trying to construct an entire world rather than just focus on the main story beats. Great source material doesn’t always translate to great anime, but the Yona team clearly loved this story and handled it with a deftness that looks easy but is most definitely not.

Epic in scope but intimate in focus, Yona of the Dawn is a worthy edition to any fantasy-lover’s watchlist. If you like dynamic characters, sympathetic protagonists, complex antagonists, well-paced historical fantasies, or even just pretty girls and hot boys kicking ass, then this is a no-brainer. Yona of the Dawn is an excellent series, and even if we never get that second season, it’s still well worth the watch. Go watch it.

Grade: A

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8 thoughts on “Series Review: Yona of the Dawn (”Akatsuki no Yona”)

  1. I read this review quite a while ago, and meant to watch Yona, but kept putting it off. I finally got around to it this week. I went through the whole series in 2 days, and now am depressed that there’s simply no more of it to watch.

    This series is amazing! During the first episodes I kept frowning because of Yona, thinking she was simply another Miaka/Suzaku no Miko – but then I always remembered how promising she looked in the opening (a very spoilery opening, and yet, a really awesome one) and decided to give her time. Not that it was hard to wait for Yona to grow, since Haku was around and I fell head over heels in love with him. I could watch him being conflicted over his feelings AND proud of her steady growth all. day. long. I’m not gonna lie, I’m on Shipping Mode so hard right now.
    But Yona’s growth did not need much waiting, either. She started having her own agency pretty fast, and I absolutely love her evolution. She’s probably one of the best heroines in anime I’ve ever seen.
    The four dragons are really nice characters, and it’s a shame we don’t see them being flashed out some more, since they popped up really near the end – Zeno, in particular, got the shortest end of the stick (and he still manages to be interesting). Yoon is a GREAT character! I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like him. Ao, of course, is a showstopper.
    Also: very interesting to see Soo Won being an intelligent, thoughtful king, and actually missing Haku and Yona. Another nicely layered character, instead of the one-note Cruel-For-The-Sake-Of-Cruelty Villain.

    I’m definitely gonna read the manga, and hope really hard that they’ll give us a second season.

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    • Yay, another Yona convert! It’s still one of my favorite shows of the year. Now you can join the rest of us in praying desperately for a Season 2 announcement (or at the very least for some nice English-speaking publishing company to license the manga)! It really does have some fantastic characters (and character arcs), and there’s still so much we’ve barely covered. Plus I have a fatal weakness for good shoujo fantasy, so really, Yona was almost guaranteed to be a favorite for me.

      Glad I could help you find this wonderful series, too!

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      • I know, I’ve always had a soft spot for shoujo fantasies!
        I’m praying to the gods that they’ll make a season 2, there’s still so much story to tell! I’m reading the manga online already, but I’m really hoping that they’ll license it over here in my country AND over there for you guys! I just need to have the manga on my shelf, and be able to leaf through it at will and carry it around whenever I feel like re-reading it.

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  2. My only issue with Akatsuki no Yona per se was that the comedy felt kind of forced at times, in that it just pops in during emotional or serious moments and that RUINS the whole moment for me. It sucks, because after like 5 episodes I could predict exactly when they were going to put in a piece of comedic relief. That, and I didn’t really find it funny at all, at best meh, and worst cringey.

    ALSO FUCK MAN, I would’ve been fine with it not being focused on romance if it was averted another way, since they just resorted to making Yona ridiculously stupid with romantic advances. Too much teasing, I was so looking forward to some romance, even if it wasn’t going to be the focus…

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  3. After reading your review a while ago, I picked Yona as a series to watch with my 9 year old daughter — and I’m so glad I did! I have to be careful what we watch together, but it’s made me more aware of certain themes and tropes in animes and prompted some good discussions. I liked this series because Yona was such a sympathetic character. I loved that we see her grow from sheltered to an activist, and she’s the kind of character that I hope my daughter can take as a role model.(Of course our hearts are completely broken now that there isn’t a second season ). Thank you so much for the rec!

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    • I’m glad you liked it! And hey, the good news is the Yona manga is coming out in English now, so you and your daughter could continue the story that way. ^_^

      If you two are looking for another good recent series, Snow White with the Red Hair might be up your alley. It’s more laid-back than Yona, more fairy tale than epic fantasy, but the female protagonist is another one of my favorites, her relationship with the leading man is a great example of a healthy romance, and the supporting cast have some really good character arcs. Highly recommended!

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