Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Yona of the Dawn
Episodes 1-24 Streaming
Princess Yona lives a charmed, sheltered life as the heir to the Kouka Kingdom. That is, until her sixteenth birthday. That night, her cousin and lifelong crush, Su-won, kills her father and takes the throne for himself. Yona's devoted bodyguard Hak grabs her and they run for the hills. After believing his childhood friends to be dead, Su-won focuses on consolidating power in his kingdom. Yona, Hak and new ally Yun search for the Four Dragons, legendary protectors of the original king of Hiryuu Castle. Along the way, Yona finds adventure, learns more about her kingdom, and grows from a fragile maiden into a fierce warrior.
There are more than enough anime out there about medieval princesses with reverse harems. It was a big enough genre in the 1990s and early 2000s to spawn multiple parodies. So, a decade and a half late to the party, what Yona of the Dawn offers to set itself apart is the title character herself. Yona is not only a sweet and relatable heroine, but a truly strong female character. I don't just mean in brute power, of course. She's believable in her strength because she starts with so little, and grows into it as the plot demands. Yona is the story of how our pint-sized Amazon got that way, and I haven't seen an anime do that this well since Sailor Moon. Like Usagi, Yona's stubbornness and compassion for others push her to learn to fight and survive. She's a heroine you can both root for and want to be like, and there's little more you could ask for from shojo.
Of course, the strongest heroine in the world can't carry a story like this if it doesn't have a solid plot. And that's where Yona of the Dawn stumbles—at first. The flight from the castle is well-worn stuff, and this series doesn't bring an ounce of originality to it. Yona and Hak wander in the forest. They hide with his tribe. Hak threatens to turn himself in in her place, but Yona refuses. They travel some more. They're attacked, and Yona gets her first flush with battle. We all know the steps to this dance, and it moves at a snail's pace. It's only when they start picking up allies, in the form of legendary "dragon warriors," that this changes.
The "search for the dragons" sounds like its own dull fantasy gimmick, but it's this part of the story where the series really picks up. That's especially true once we get to the second dragon, the timid and tortured Sinha. The first one, Gija, shares Yona's naïve and privileged background, raised as his tribe's "chosen one." His arc is mostly comic relief, albeit among the best in the series. Sinha is the first to shake up the dynamic, with his stoicism and tragic backstory. Being special in his tribe meant shunning, so he grew up in darkness, fearful of his own powers. It improves even further with the next dragon, green-haired playboy Jeaha. The Green Dragon is the most fun, a smarmy free spirit who's hesitant to join up with the gang. He's also a pirate, whose fleet protects a seaside town from corrupt officials. This doubles as the most fun and suspenseful part of the story, as one would expect with pirates vs. evil government goons.
Both Sinha and Jeaha act exactly like you'd expect from their backgrounds. Sinha is no blushing moe cliché; he clearly has severe social anxiety. He can't believe it when Yona comes to his aid, because no one's cared for him before her. Jeaha is a rolling stone determined not to gather moss, confident and extroverted but clearly possessed by a similar loneliness. The series is full of this kind of strong character writing. Hak loves Yona, has grown up protecting her, and juggles rooting for her growing strength with his surprise and fear for her. Gija is clueless but curious about the larger world, and flails about like a baby bird learning to fly. Yun is the simplest major character as the team mom and brainiac, but also the most endearing. You come to Yona of the Dawn for the strong heroine, stay for the quirky characters surrounding her. All this is helped by the voice acting, solid and well-cast with all the major characters. The actors match and enhance their characters' particular quirks but without launching them into parody—except when intentional for comedic moments.
Yona of the Dawn's strong second half also shades the central conflict in gray. The show still finds time to drop in on Su-won as he curries favor with generals and other leaders. We see that he's actually an effective leader in spite of his ruthlessness—far more so than the Yona's pacifist father, King Il. Even she learns this, and must wonder if maybe the kingdom is better off with her cousin in power. The dilemma expands her view of the world, as well as that of the audience. It's another way in which Yona of the Dawn transcends its genre. Shojo rarely tackles politics, especially that balancing act between honorable idealism and cruel pragmatism. We're left with the implication that Yona will find a middle way between the two extremes. If only we'd get to see that.
That's the series' greatest fault: its lack of an ending. Like too many manga adaptations before it, Yona of the Dawn rides off into the sunset with no obvious end for the journey. Everything from Hak and Yona's budding romance, to the looming confrontation with Su-won, is left hanging, with only the promise of more in the source material. After the first three dragons' multi-episode arcs, the final one is crammed into the last episode. I'm not sure if Yona of the Dawn would be better if it tried for an anime-original ending, though. That would involve mangling the Sinha and Jaeha arcs, and less Su-won focus episodes, the strongest parts of the show. We'll just have to hope for a second season, or for the manga to get licensed in the U.S. Until then, be warned that this is an incomplete story.
The visuals and music are fairly straightforward, exactly what you'd expect from this kind of show. The art is reminiscent of Pierrot's previous shojo fantasy effort The World Is Still Beautiful. The animation is dynamic and fluid for its many battle scenes, but not particularly standout. More stilted moments are usually intentional, as in the frequent SD gags. The music is largely orchestral, full of pentatonic scales so we really know we're in medieval Korea. Occasionally you might hear an erhu or other traditional instrument to add to the feel. The score's best feature is how it uses short, staccato phrases to enhance tense emotional moments. The show's only musical misstep is the second OP, generic synth-pop that's more Dance Dance Revolution than medieval adventure-romance. The rest of the OPs and EDs are par for the course for the genre. Yona of the Dawn's aesthetics are nothing to write home about, but they fit the series well.
Like its heroine herself, Yona of the Dawn struggles to get going, but once it does, it shines. It's the perfect series for those who grew up with the likes of Fushigi Yuugi and now want something more enlightened. Its reverse harem members have both fangirl appeal and compelling character arcs. Yet, Yona of the Dawn isn't just a fine example of shojo romance. It's a great adventure anime and will appeal to anyone who loves exploring and swordfights. That is, if you give it time to train itself up first.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Puts a unique, feminist spin on a tired genre; variety of fun, engaging major characters; second half is fresh and strong.
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