Akatsuki no Yona Series Review: Women in Anime and Manga
“Darkness has fallen upon the land. The blood of the dragons will revive once again, and the ancient pact will be kept. When the four dragons are gathered, the sword and shield that will protect the king will awaken, and the Red Dragon shall restore the dawn at last”
–Prophecy from the Priest Ik-Soo in Akatsuki no Yona
Even though there are a lot of female characters in both anime and manga, the sad reality is that women in anime are often portrayed as popular archetypes that are written based on those tropes, and have no substance as complex characters. I highly recommend an article written by my colleague named Ari Iris that wrote a sample of the female character types that exist in the medium of both anime and manga called “A Go To Guide On ‘Dere’ Girl Types” in case readers are interested in a further analysis of the subject.
I am not saying that all young girls and women in anime that are written based on popular archetypes are empty characterizations, as there are plenty of great characters out there too. For example there is Homura from Puella Madoka Magica and Tomoko from It’s Your Fault I’m Not Popular that have so much depth to them. However, it is a genuine problem when there aren’t enough female characters that we can both admire, or that inspire us to feel empowered by their narratives. That being said Akatsuki no Yona is the series I wish I could have watched as a child; especially after I was disappointed with Fushigi Yuugi.
So what is the series about? Akatsuki no Yona takes place in the Kouka Kingdom and the story is about Princess Yona who grew up in Hiryuu castle being sheltered by her father Emperor IL and protected by her bodyguard Hak. She lived a mostly privileged lifestyle without worry, except, for trying to get her romantic feelings across her cousin Su-Won. That all comes to a horrible end on her 16th birthday when she witnesses Su-Won kill her Father in cold blood. From that moment on, Yona and Hak are on the run to save their lives and deal with the emotional trauma caused by Su-Won. After narrowly surviving death Yona, Hak, and their newfound comrade Yun, hear a prophecy from a Priest named Ik-Soo that they must seek out the Four Legendary Dragon Warriors of the Kouka Kingdom in order to aid them on their journey.
After I was first introduced to Akatsuki no Yona, I immediately bought all the Japanese volumes and was extremely delighted to hear that it was going to get an anime adaptation. I like the idea that more people will read this and become engaged in the story. At first the story gives the impression that Yona will be another helpless woman that solely needs the support of her comrades in order to survive, and that everyone will instantly fall in love with her. To the surprise of the reader, Yona does not only defy expectations, but it is clear that this story is also about the other characters and their own personal struggles too. What is interesting about Yona’s character is how realistically she deals with her emotions about the betrayal by her cousin, and how she copes with being thrown into the harsh realities of her kingdom. As she continues her quest she slowly realizes how ignorant she had been about the plights of citizens within the kingdom and how her own limitations hinder those who want to protect her.
Despite Yona dealing with her sorrows it was very clear to her that she needed to re-learn everything about the kingdom and learn how to use weaponry in order to protect both herself and her comrades. While she was learning how to use weapons, she had to re-evaluate her decisions. Is she truly ready to do whatever it takes to survive? That includes killing her enemies in order to survive even though killing human lives is huge moral dilemma for her. What her decision was on the matter I leave for the audience to find out. However it is important to remember that the women in Akatsuki no Yona live in a patriarchal society, so when Yona expressed her desire to become stronger it was met with great paternalistic concern for her well-being. Fortunately with the support of her friends, she not only becomes physically stronger but, her mental fortitude was met with adoration by all the characters she would later meet in the series. There aren’t many women in leadership positions in this universe, but the few women that are only further inspire Yona to keep moving forward.
Aside from Yona, characters like Hak, Yun, and the Four Dragons not only have depth to them, but the audience grows to care about them in a world that is clearly cruel. As time goes on they become more than just travelling companions everyone shares their struggles with each other and form a close-knitted family together. The beauty about these characters is that all of them are continuously learning on this journey and that they are not afraid to be vulnerable with their feelings. Despite their hardships, they make it clear that no matter what happens in the future they will always support each other. Akatsuki no Yona has certainly achieved something special when it is a genuine joy to watch Yona and her friends being silly and familial together.
So after all I said Su-Won has to be the big bad villain of the series right? The answer to this question is tricky because aside from murdering Emperor IL, Su-Won is a good ruler for the Kouka Kingdom. Despite the fact that Emperor IL was a pacifist it did not change the fact that weak domestic and foreign policies both harmed citizens that were already suffering and weaken the strength of the country, making them vulnerable to enemy invasion. Since the coup d’etat, Su-Won personally traveled around to inspect each of the 5 Tribes within the kingdom and currently is working on strategies to make the country strong again.
Su-Won is an enigma throughout the series and it is often difficult to understand what his true feelings are on certain issues since he rarely gets internal monologues. Even though it is ironic that both him and Yona now have similar goals it does not change the fact that Su-Won murdered his uncle and attempted to kill his close friends. Regardless of what happens to Su-Won in the future it is clear he destroyed any chances he has to have a healthy relationship with anyone. This series provides more questions than answers. What are Su-Won real goals for the kingdom? What is the true destiny of Yona and her friends? When will the damn sword and shield appear in story?
After the anime adaptation ended, Akatsuki no Yona continues to be successful by being scheduled to have a stage play adaptation from March 16, 2016 until March 21, 2016. The manga is still ongoing and it was announced a few months ago that Viz Media will be releasing the manga in English in the summer of 2016. I mentioned earlier this is a series I wish existed during my childhood because when I truly think about it I did not have many female heroines to admire within both anime or manga. Yona’s journey is a beautiful reminder that despite all the hardships we face in our lives it is ok to feel vulnerable in order to be able to find strength through those feelings with the support of the people who care about us.
I think the lyrics in the second ending theme song called Akatsuki by Akiko Shikata sums up my thoughts on why I consider this to be a fantastic series that can become an anthem for anyone looking to feel empowered about themselves, the future, and well written characters in anime and manga:
Shedding tears for the days that are gone,
The sky you looked up was burning oh so red oh red,
If you realize your strength and weakness, now is the time,
Do not be afraid push through the wind and go wherever your heart leads,
The dawn will illuminate your path,
(Rise!! the ferocious arm, the eyes that see a thousand leagues
the legs that run through the skies, the eternal shield)
Fulfill the ancient pact and then the dawn will break