I like writing about good episodes, and this episode of Akatsuki no Yona was a very good episode indeed. From the beginning of the show, I’ve felt Yona had the potential to take a recognizable story form and mold it into something more compelling than a reverse harem set in a fantasy world, and this episode stood on the shoulders of the episode before to start to make that suspicion a reality. That’s not to say that Yona has shed all its flaws, or that the anime has turned into a deeply impactful piece, but being on that path is about all we can ask from the show at this point.
We ended last episode with Hak poisoned and Yona’s eyes burning with more spirit than she’s had all season—this episode both got them out of that particular bind and allowed Yona to regress a little, a natural and (I think) important decay for her character.
But before all of that character stuff, holy crap Pierrot! Hak’s fighting in the initial scene of the episode was about as good as I’ve seen Yona look all seasons—certainly, the actually animation itself was better than anything we’ve seen from this show. It’s pretty hard to capture stuff like that in still shots, but thankfully someone over at SakugaBooru uploaded the whole fight. The tags tell me this is the work of Hidetsugu Ito and it makes sense to me that this is all catalogued under one animator. There was a definite sense of unity to the entire fight, and there was a ton of important character movement that really gave the fight a sense of weight.
Beyond the actual, animation I really appreciated the visual presentation of the whole first scene up to the point where Yona and Hak fall off the cliff together—Yona’s burning sun eyes, Hak’s reaction to the poison, Yona’s face as she starts to realize that Hak might die if she doesn’t act, Tae-jun’s hand just missing Yona’s dress. It was a wonderful string of somewhat stylized images, and having those injected into the fight not only added emotional heft to the desperation of Hak’s fighting and their fall, but made the whole scene intense and memorable.
I especially liked how Yona had a mini-flashback to her father’s death as she’s running to save Hak. It’s not especially original that a character, having lost one person close to them, would fight all the harder to save their remained loved ones, but I think it adds a personal dimension to Yona’s actions that was missing from her original motivations with the Wind Tribe. This moment isn’t about justice, or revenge, but about protecting someone important to her. It’s much more concrete, and even the brief cut to her father’s head in her lap serves to establish an important piece of her character.
Aside from Yona, though, I appreciated this episode most for the screentime it gave other character’s. Tae-jun, the prince of the Fire Tribe, has a really strong reaction to Yona’s apparent death; even though he wishes Hak dead, he clearly wanted to bring Yona back alive. Both on the cliff and before Soo-won, he shed tears and shouts. He may not be a good guy, but he’s not an evil guy either. I suspect we’ll be seeing more of him the future.
But, somewhat surprisingly, Soo-won was the real highlight of the episode. Clearly affected by Yona’s death, he more or less covers up his feelings in front of the other administrators of the castle—or, as the flashback shows, perhaps tries to dismiss them entirely. Soo-won is easily one of the most complex characters of this season, and Yona’s insistence of returning to him episode after episode has allowed us to see him grow beyond a simple traitor into a nuanced young man who has chosen to deny himself the comfort of his past for a new future.
It seems like Soo-won really did love both Yona and Hak (and they loved him in return), all the way up to his murder of King Il. It’s not really clear to me when the flashback occurred, but it looks like it was somewhere during early teen years—which means Soo-won had known for a long time the path he was going to take and that it was rip his right hand and his love away from him. This obviously begs the question we’ve been asking from episode one: why did Soo-won kill King Il? Was it merely to revenge his father? That particular explanation has never rung true to me, but I think we perhaps got a glimpse of Soo-won’s true reasons in his coronation speech. With a few words, he unites the tribes under the common goal of restoring the kingdom to its former glory. This, I think, looks to be closer to the core of Soo-won’s motivations, but the whole picture is still obscured.
Elder Mun-deok is another interesting side character that shows up briefly in this episode. Of anyone still alive, he’s had the most interaction with the three main characters and while Hak and Yona haven’t surprised him, he’s clearly in the audience position of not fully understanding what’s driving the new king. Mun-deok is a nexus where all three of them are united, and it seems like Soo-won’s sentimentality is enough to cause him to ask Mun-deok to watch over him, albeit in a different capacity than before.
So, to sum it all up, this was an episode with sakuga, pretty colors, and some fascinating character building. Soo-won’s quest to restore the kingdom of Kouka might end up making Yona’s campaign to recover the kingdom fall into a grayer sort of place. After all, if Soo-won is trying to unite and expand the kingdom for the good of the people, he’s performing a public service. Sure, he’s trampled old friends underfoot and murdered a king to maneuver himself into the position where he can do so, but if Yona’s ends up trying to throw the kingdom into chaos for the sake of returning to the throne, we’ve got the foundation for a fascinating conflict.