Man, was this one of Akatsuki no Yona‘s best episodes yet or what? Great character comedy, some cuteness, ideological and thematic tension, a new character, plot progression—it was all here and with the freshness that only a new setting can bring. A port town is the perfect place for a stare down between destiny and freedom and I’m incredibly excited to see how Yona brings Jeaha into the fold. (Oh, and the new OP got me real hyped this episode—consider acclimation complete.)
At this point, our main cast has evolved into a truly lovable bunch of fools and episode 17 did about a good a job as any episode thus far at balancing serious versus silly, blending them together, and generally making good adaptive choices. There were a boatload of small jokes and funny faces this episode (including some that let us know about some really interesting character dynamics—like Hak internally looking to Yun for advice) and it honestly feels like director Kazuhiro Yoneda has finally found his comedic stride with this series.
It’s also cool to get a large chunk of the episode episode of Hak as the viewpoint character, as he’s one of the most nuanced, interesting and entertaining characters of the entire cast. As a soldier, he’s been trained to be observant and insightful, which means his thoughts follow a logical pattern unique to him (great on a character level) and allow us as the audience to hear more about the world around him than we would otherwise (great on a storytelling level). The two big observations we get from him this episode are on Port Awa itself and on how much freedom means to Jeaha. The first, obviously, is later echoed by Yona—demonstrating just how much she’s grown up (surprisingly without Hak noticing that because, of course, he’s limited by what he perceives Yona to be). The second sets up a cool opposition between Hak and Jaeha’s respective brands of freedom.
If you’re excuse me for “going Catholic” here, part of the Catholic teaching on free will and sin more or less articulates that by “binding” ourselves to God’s rules, we are freed from the cycle of selfishness and sin to be good—we become “free to do good.” Said another way, you have to choose to be good constantly, but it’s easy to become “trapped” by the cycles of selfish interest.
After Hak tells Jaeha that he serves as a bodyguard (and this is all framed within a comedic context using chibi characters—an effective way of not beating us over the head with the ideological conflict), Jaeha’s first reaction is sympathy: “How awful for you!” he cries. But Hak replies, “It’s not so bad. It was my choice.” As we see in Jaeha’s later predictions as to what he would do if confronted by King Hiryuu, such a mentality is utterly beyond his selfish ability to comprehend. Is Hak really without freedom because he is Yona’s bodyguard or does the fact that he chose this path for himself mean that he has merely subordinated his freedom to another for the sake of “doing good” (preserving Yona’s wellbeing and life)?
Of course, it would be an oversimplification of Jaeha’s position to condemn him for desiring freedom in contrast to Hak’s choice. Jaeha, after all, has been shackled (as he sees it) by destiny.
There’s a level, though, of hypocrisy in Jaeha’s reveling in his power—”This power is the greatest”, he crows in the middle of a fight—a power that brings him the esteem and admiration of his friends…and one that calls him to a greater purpose than his selfish indulgence in the pleasures of life. He’s accepted the power, but refuses to accept the responsibility tied to the power, the responsibility through which he has been granted the power in the first place. But even that indulgence is nuanced by the fact that Jaeha is currently using his power for the good of others. This isn’t such a simple situation as a man with great power lazying around and using his power for his own gain versus a grand destiny. Sure, Yona’s journey is ostensibly to save the kingdom (but does it really need saving?), but Jaeha is working on a more immediate, symptomatic level.
Even in terms of a divinely ordained quest, Jaeha has no real reason to follow Yona. Unlike Yona when she accepted her quest from the priest, he doesn’t really lack a purpose (although perhaps we’ll see a deeper existential emptiness in him than we have yet) right now.
It should be clear by this point that the whole scenario of Jaeha’s recruitment is incredibly complex, far more so than any other member of Yona’s party to this point. Hak is motivated through personal reason to follow her; Yun out of affection and curiosity. Ki-ja was, more or less, groomed to follow her from the moment she appeared and Sinha had a terrible living situation to escape. Jaeha has no such reasons to go with her, and even the grand destiny of Yona’s quest has been called into question by the two episodes we’ve just finished with Soo-won. Yona doesn’t know yet, but we do, that Soo-won is no tyrant—he is, in fact, a good king. Recruiting Jaeha to overthrow Soo-won (presumably Yona’s eventual objective, even if she isn’t sure of it yet) tastes just a little more sour having seen what we did in the past two episodes. Plus, there’s the added dimension of the recruitment being reversed in Ginga’s order to Jaeha to bring Hak to their side.
I’m told Pierrot, which has otherwise stuck closely to the manga, changed up the order of Soo-won’s adventures with the Earth Tribe to put it ahead of this arc and, right now, it looks like a brilliant choice. There are levels and rings in this narrative that expand far beyond the characters’ ability to see, but we the audience are privileged to see the impending contradictions and ideological conflicts on the horizon. All this adds a layer of subtle tension to the proceedings of each episode, giving us many more things to consider beyond the simple “Find the Dragons” quest Akatsuki no Yona appears to be on the surface.
Every dragon Yona collected leads her one step closer to becoming a revolutionary against a good king for personal and divine reasons. That’s really, really amazing stuff. Man, oh man am I excited for the upcoming episodes of this show and man, oh man am I dreading the end of it.