Reviewby Theron Martin,
Yona of the Dawn
BD+DVD - Part 1
16-year-old Yona, a rare redhead, is the only princess of the kingdom of Kohka. She loves her cousin Soo-won and frequently trades barbs with Son Hak, a childhood friend of theirs who is now one of Kohka's five great generals. In fact, she's insistent on marrying Soo-won, which Son Hak supports but her father opposes. She never gets the chance though, as Soo-won stages a coup and kills her father right in front of her by accident in the wake of her birthday party, claiming that Yona's father killed Soo-won's father and was driving the country into the ground. Son Hak flees with the stunned and overwhelmed Yona, forcing them to reconsider their futures and fight for survival while Soo-won's allies search for them. Fate eventually sets them on a path to recruit the four Dragon Warriors, individuals who inherited the blood of dragons (and their special powers) from mythical ancestors who served a red dragon. It is also a time of reckoning for Yona, who must overcome her lingering love for Soo-won and her naïve and dependent ways to become strong enough to survive and fight back – even if that means rejecting her pacifist father's taboo on using weapons.
Based on its first half, Yona of the Dawn may become the new standard-bearer for Eastern-themed shojo fantasy adventure. Despite some irksome quirks, its tale of a young heroine who must become empowered through hardship does a lot of things right.
First off, Yona of the Dawn is a distinctly better-animated series than many of its predecessors, like The Story of Saiunkoku or Fushigi Yuugi. While those shows have a well-deserved reputation for gorgeous designs, their animation was so limited that fight scenes were practically a joke. Not so here. Yona can match them on design and far exceeds them on animation, with action scenes brimming with dramatic, detailed, and sometimes bloody displays of violence. Combine that with interesting architectural designs, some impressively scenic vistas in its background art, and reliable production quality from a Studio Pierrot team led by first-time director Kazuhiro Yoneda, and you have a great-looking series.
The first half of the show is no slouch in the story department either, though it does have a few problems. Whereas Saiunkoku focused much more on political intrigue, Yona opts for more of an adventure story feel: a classic tale where the protagonist must gather a group of loyal companions to both survive and accomplish a greater purpose. The pacing of this quest is frustratingly slow, as Yona only has three of her eventual six companions locked down by the halfway point. This is primarily due to the series' biggest flaw: getting bogged down in flashbacks. The writing puts a heavy emphasis on establishing characters and their motivations, but there are smoother and more efficient ways to delve into backstories. Where Soo-won stands concerning Yona is also annoyingly unclear. Early on, he doesn't protest when his right-hand man suggests that Yona be killed, and yet he seems to have given standing orders for her to be captured alive and gets visibly upset when he learns that she is believed dead. Presumably this is meant to indicate that he is every bit as conflicted about her as she is about him, but it comes off more as an inconsistency.
However, the writing makes up for those flaws in other ways, by not making the villainy in the series purely black-and-white. Soo-won may be the antagonist, but he isn't really portrayed as being evil. He believes he has legitimate cause for killing King Il, and there's considerable evidence that he may not have been off the mark about King Il's pacifistic approach being problematic for the kingdom. However, some innocuous comments that Yona overhears from commoners suggest that Soo-won's image of his father's greatness may be an idealized one, so this may be an even more complex situation than it already appears. The show also does well portraying the dramatically different ways that the dragon's blood is regarded in different communities: a blessing worthy of veneration in one case, a curse worthy of revulsion in another.
Though the story does have some other good characters (Son Hak is a treat in particular, with his merciless habit of playfully teasing everyone), the heart and soul of the story is Yona, and the series will ultimately live or die based on how she's handled. Its first 12 episodes have done a believable job of showing her gradual progression out of being a helpless, naïve princess into something much stronger. The story makes her work for every step of her progression without getting overly dramatic about it, like an amalgamation of the growth experiences of the three heroines of “The Skies at Dawn” arc of The Twelve Kingdoms. As with that series, seeing Yona grow and mature is one of the series' highlights.
Unlike The Twelve Kingdoms, this story has a decidedly more humorous side. It follows the long-standing anime tradition of frequently breaking down into super-deformed art to emphasize the abject silliness of comic scenes; the best shojo comparison here would be The World Is Still Beautiful, and it is definitely in stark contrast to the smoother, more low-key way that humor was used in Saiunkoku. While I generally find these comic asides annoying, they work better here because the teasing is often actually funny. Also unlike other shojo fantasy series, the setting has a decided Korean rather than Chinese influence. This can be seen in both the naming conventions and the map used for the setting, which bears a suspicious resemblance to the Korean peninsula.
The show also resembles The Twelve Kingdoms in its use of musical score, mostly in the eponymous opening song, which stylistically hearkens back to 12K's “Jūni Genmukyoku,” but the soundtrack also uses a somewhat similar mix of dramatic orchestration. (Unlike 12K, the opener's visuals do update as Yona's group expands, though they sometimes seem to be a couple of episodes ahead.) The closer “Yoru,” which is used for all but episode 12, is also a solid number. For the most part though, the music is more serviceable than actually impressive.
Yona of the Dawn is a dubbing oddity for Funimation, since its second half received a broadcast dub but its first half did not, so episodes 1-12 were dubbed afterward for this release. The most interesting casting choice is Monica Rial as the voice of Yona. Her voice is somewhat similar to that of original seiyuu Chiwa Saito, but I am ambivalent about how well it actually suits the character. Otherwise, the dub is a strong one, with highlights including Christopher R. Sabat clearly having a lot of fun as Son Hak (sadly, he was not featured in the audio commentaries) and Ian Sinclair wonderfully voicing the eccentricities of Gija (aka the White Dragon). The script does not seem too far off either, as head writer Monica Rial resisted any temptation to juice it up with more modern slang.
Funimation's release of the first half does not have a Limited Edition option, only coming in a single case within a slipcover. It is a standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo with standard Extras for Funimation releases: reversible cover, a collection of promo videos and trailers, clean opener and closer, and English audio commentaries for episodes 4 and 8. Probably the most interesting detail to come out of those is that Clifford Chapin, who voices Yun and directed the first half of this dub, had his voice digitally pitched higher for flashback scenes where Yun was a young boy.
Though Yona of the Dawn is starting to build a reverse harem by the end of episode 12, it does not give off that genre's kind of vibe, as the male characters around Yona are more loyal vassals than actual love interests. (One of the running jokes is that Yona is so dense when it comes to sex that Son Hak's more innuendo-laced teasing blows completely over her head.) While the show can definitely be viewed from a feminist angle, that is not necessary to appreciating the story. It is a solid fantasy tale by any standards so far, provided that you do not find its penchant for humor too distracting.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Engaging characters, Yona's gradual development, explores moral shades of gray
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