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.