A Tale of Two Redheads: Yona vs. Shirayukiby Michael Basile,
Making comparisons amongst different facets of popular anime is a fun little exercise I like to engage with occasionally, especially when certain trends end up getting clustered together. In one such instance back in 2015, we coincidentally saw two different anime adaptations of shoujo manga with red-haired female protagonists in fantasy settings, and the general similarities continue well beyond that point. So today, I wanted to take a closer look at Yona from Yona of the Dawn and Shirayuki from Snow White with the Red Hair to see how they compare and what makes them work within their respective stories.
I should also say right off the bat that I love both of these characters. In their own ways, they are almost exactly what I look for in a shoujo protagonist. This video is simply a comparison of how these somewhat similar, but also different characters are presented within somewhat analogous settings. As for potential manga spoilers, I won't go into specifics about anything not covered in the anime, but I will briefly mention them as vaguely as possible if they're relevant to the discussion.
First, some context as to where these characters start. Yona starts off as your typical damsel in distress. Introduced as the princess of the peaceful kingdom of Kouka, Yona's life is sent spiraling out of control when Su Won, a lord she's been in love with for most of her life, kills her father and usurps the throne, forcing Yona to flee with her bodyguard, Hak, and Yona must now seek out warriors described in an ancient legend in order to reclaim the throne. It's during this exile that a familiar, but still captivating story of a pampered princess learning to take care of herself emerges. Up until her father's death, Yona has lived a sheltered life, waited on hand and foot by the attendants of the palace and almost completely incapable of looking after herself. On top of that, the trauma she suffered from losing her father to someone she was so infatuated with has left her emotionally distraught, and so she is practically helpless without Hak or some other man looking after her.
Once they escape to Hak's home in the Wind Tribe, a choice presents itself to Yona. If Hak leaves the Wind Tribe by himself and takes the blame for the king's death, Yona can live a peaceful life there free from the strife she fled from at the palace. However, because the Wind Tribe initially refused to acknowledge Su Won as the new king, the Fire Tribe mounts a campaign of pressure against the Wind Tribe by damming up their rivers and attacking the merchants that supply them. After seeing the atrocities that others are willing to commit in Su-Won's name, Yona, being the true heir to the throne, concludes that she can't simply hide away from the world, and that she has a duty to end the violence and corruption that plagues her citizens. And so, over countless travels across Kouka and even beyond its borders, Yona gradually gains the skills and confidence she needs to help the people of Kouka towards a brighter future.
In contrast, Shirayuki's starting point is a much more proactive one. Rather than being exiled from monarchy, Shirayuki's troubles begin when Raj, the prince of her kingdom, desires her as his concubine, and so she's forced to flee to a neighboring kingdom to retain her freedom. Along the way, she meets Prince Zen and his royal guard; unaware of Zen's real identity, she interacts with him just as she would anyone else and makes a very positive impression on him, thus earning his respect and friendship. It's a friendship of her own making, rather than one handed to her by divine birthright or royal decree, which makes the moment when Zen bursts in to save her from enslavement by Prince Raj feel like something Shirayuki earned for herself, giving the impression that she is the one in control of her own story from the outset. Again, this isn't to say that Yona's personal journey is less valid or interesting; Yona's case is specifically about the loss of power and having to earn it back. It's just that Shirayuki has a different base personality, and so this step isn't really needed for Shirayuki to be mentally and emotionally strong.
This establishes a pattern with Shirayuki where it's through her own talents that she achieves what she desires. In order to pay back what she sees as a debt to Zen for saving her, she applies to be a court herbalist at Zen's palace, and she earns this position solely through her own skills as an herbalist. At one point, it's even discussed how Zen could just give her the job without a formal application since she's so close to him, but they both conclude that this wouldn't make either of them happy since Shirayuki wants to be seen as her own person and not just one of Zen accessories or an outsider clinging to royalty for her own benefit.
This leads into another notable point of comparison: the ways that these characters relate to their respective monarchies. Both of them have some experience with being both an insider and outsider to their governing bodies, though the order in which this happens is flipped for each protagonist. Yona enters her story with knowledge of the bureaucracy and pleasantries that come with royalty, but has very little knowledge of the world outside the palace walls, and so all she knows is what her father had told her: that Kouka has become a peaceful place under his rule. It's only by leaving the palace that she begins to understand how life for the average Kouka citizen is much more tumultuous and dangerous than she could have possibly imagined. Crime, poverty, starvation, pressure from foreign powers, and so much more overwhelm Yona as the image of her father's nation begins to shatter, made all the worse as she learns that it is in part because of her father's passiveness that the country has ended up this way.
And this ultimately becomes the primary motivator for Yona's development. Yes, avenging her father is definitely part of it, but seeing how ignorant she was of her own people is what truly pushes her to overcome her past failings and become a better leader. The most striking example of this is found in the Awa arc, in which Yona allows herself to be kidnapped so that she and her companions can destroy a human trafficking ring that has taken over the port town of Awa. This is also the first of many instances in which characters who run into Yona think that she might be the long-lost princess, but her drastic change in demeanor and personality convince them that there's no way a pampered princess could act this way, ultimately leading to their undoing, and the climax of this arc, in which Yona kills the leader of the trafficking ring with the archery skills she's been practicing nonstop, solidifies this section of her development. She's no longer just a pretty object to be taken care of, but instead a strong leader that her people can look to with respect and reverence, and this event is ultimately what convinces one of the warriors from that ancient legend to follow her and leave his aloof lifestyle behind. Of course, this event doesn't resolve her relationship with the current monarchy. Su Won is still in power and, despite several run-ins with Yona later in the series, he still isn't taking the country in the direction Yona thinks is right, and so she continues to travel wherever she feels she can help the most. In one of the more recent chapters, this presents an interesting dilemma in which the people of Kouka are starting to see her as a savior and a reincarnation of the mythical founding king of Kouka, putting her at odds politically with Su Won, and I'm very interested in seeing what direction this line of thought will go in.
Shirayuki, meanwhile, is in the reverse situation. As a commoner suddenly thrust into the world of nobility via her relationship with Zen, Shirayuki is often on the receiving end of classist discrimination from other nobles whom she interacts with. The idea of commoners moving up into noble ranks disgusts quite a few of the nobles that we see throughout the series, such as Lord Haruka, who believes that Shirayuki being this close to Zen reflects poorly on the authority that Zen and the other nobles hold.
Which brings us to the final major point of comparison between these two: romance. While romance has a notable influence on both of these characters, the effects and presentations are drastically different. In contrast to the stereotypical anime romance, Shirayuki's relationship with Zen develops rather quickly, with the two of them recognizing each other's feelings and committing to a relationship by the end of the first season. With that established, season 2 gets to partly explore what a relationship between a prince and a commoner would be like, though this basically boils down to most of their personal lives being kept private and known only to those closest to them. That's not to say it hasn't presented any issues though. Namely, Prince Izana, Zen's older brother, is consistently shown to be against their relationship. However, much like other nobles she interacts with, Shirayuki eventually wins over Izana's respect as well. In particular, an incident regarding a mysterious plague and how Shirayuki responds to it and interacts with the local villagers as a representative of the castle seems to be one of her most noteworthy moments in Izana's eyes, and so, slowly but surely, Izana begins to approve of Shirayuki and Zen's relationship.
Meanwhile, Yona's romantic endeavors are much, much more complicated, yet aren't nearly as frequent as Shirayuki's. With most of the series being about how Yona learns to obtain power for herself and achieve a better future for her country, romance isn't very high on her list of priorities, but that doesn't mean this element is completely missing. The series opens with her having an obvious romantic attraction to Su Won, but him murdering her father pretty much shuts that option out. Despite this, she constantly grapples with these feelings during the majority of the anime, and a chance encounter with Su Won after the previously mentioned Awa arc forces these emotions back up to the surface. These feelings follow her for a good while after this moment. Then of course there's the parade of pretty boys that Yona is constantly surrounded by, with Hak in particularly being the most obvious romantic candidate. I won't spoil what exactly happens later in the manga, but I will say that there is definitely some closure to be reached in that regard if you choose to read on past the anime.
It's also worth noting that neither Yona nor Shirayuki are primarily defined by their romantic interests. Yes, these romances do have an impact on them, but their core personalities are shaped much more by their desires to better themselves either for their own sake or for the sake of those who depend on them, and it's this strength at the core of their characters that allow such engaging and fantastical stories to spring up around them.
In the end, these two characters are excellent examples of two different types of writing for female protagonists in a fantasy setting. One starts with no strength and has to earn it in order to survive, while the other has strength going into her new life that is challenged by those who see her as an outsider, but both of them eventually make the best of their situations and continue to find new ways of improving themselves and moving forward.
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