Akatsuki no Yona (Yona of the Dawn)

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Describe the structure of this anime, and you’ll get a shounen. Add the genders of the characters, and it’ll read as if this anime tries to deconstruct both Shoujo and Shounen for some grand statement about anime, sexuality and the target audience. Watch it, and it’s just a simple story about collecting plot coupons in the shapes of handsome guys which all happen to be engaging characters. It’s odd how Yona opted for doing a simple adventure story when it could do so much more.

It’s not bad, just bizarre. Most anime – or stories in general – that aim for a simple, exciting adventures¬† have low aspirations. They aim for a bit of fun, some wacky designs and battles, a few dramatic mission statements and a big explosion to signal the climax. Yona has all the ingredients to uplift this formula to something serious, yet it’s content in basic storytelling. At least it has a good reason. As an example of adventure stories, Yona is fantastic.

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The first thing a storyteller must decide is what’s the meaning of his adventure. This meaning doesn’t have to be explored with all its philosophical layers and references to dead white European males. Rather, this meaning will serve as an emotional core, to make us care about what’s going on. We always care about things because they mean something, anything.

Yona starts with emotional hooks and never lets them go. A common mistake is turning your adventure into a set of obstacles to overcome using skills and badassery. Yona, instead, has a running theme connecting all these stages. What’s dominating is a specific type of coming of age. It’s not just about learning about the world outside, but realizing how different the bubble you were in is to the world.

What makes characters interesting and meaningful is what they do with their circumstances. Yona’s bubble doesn’t just burst. Rather, she doesn’t give up on her bubble but tries to reform it. In every place she goes to, she uses the lessons she grew up on – love, comfort, and softness – and bestows it upon the people. Her battle against the trafficking of women isn’t plain morality. Yona aims for a specific type of world, some kind of replica of what she used to live. Notice her treatment of the dragons. She never demands that they’ll join her moral crusade. She reacts in the same way her father did, she hopes they’ll join them of her own will. Her gang is designed like her father’s world, where everyone is nice to each other.

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As a female character, Yona is fascinating. On the surface, she’s a weak female character who needs her guys, weapons, and a shorter hair for validation. That’s because we’re so used to aggressive personalities. Even if our women aren’t warriors, we expect strong characters to shout and care nothing at all about others.

Yona may be feminine, but it is hardly a weakness. She has a worldview that guides her, that is uniquely hers. The actions are never convenient and her moral system isn’t a simple case of doing good. Beyond that, everyone actually relies on her. The source of meaning isn’t just a way of moving the plot. The dragons don’t join smoothly, and each views their situation differently. Nevertheless, Yona is the ultimate guide of the gang. The meaning of the journey, of remaking the world as a softer, more comfortable place to live comes from her.

Although she rarely takes active, aggressive action she always remains dominant. That’s because every conflict is an examination of her personality, and she changes. Everyone else just helps her with the technical details of getting food and scouting.

The anime also treats its antagonist well. Soo-won is a character of contrasts. His presentation is always a flip of what we before. It goes beyond the beginning, where he’s a smiling angel who turns out to be murderous. In two episodes, he’s the main character. We see how he runs the kingdom, what his views are of how it should be. It’s a shame the series is so short and doesn’t give him enough screen time. He’s a cold, calculated person who’s a fantastic actor. He also, when choosing a purpose, pursues it aggressively.

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An aggressive personality doesn’t necessarily translate to a cruel reign, but an efficient one. In a few instances, the anime is an excellent exploration of a benevolent monarchy. Although Soo-Won is cold, his aggressive pursuit brings him to a lot of victories. He manages to lift up a situation that King Il couldn’t, and without aggression he couldn’t do that. It’s a shame he has little screen time. The creators use the screen time to display both sides, but they never clarify the connection between them.

Each arc stands on its own, carry its own meanings, main characters and tones. The anime borders on experimental, with one arc flirting heavily with horror. The result is that despite having a structure of plot coupons, it never feels this way. Yona needs to collect all dragons to cash them in for End of Plot, but each tale of getting the coupon stands for itself. The stories are so different. One is about a comically religious village. Another is about an underground village living in constant fear. Another is about overthrowing the asshole ruler. Separate these stories from the big picture, and they stand on their own. A formulaic structure doesn’t matter so long as the parts are good, and this anime is a clear proof of this.

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That’s why although its ending is one of the worst in the style of ‘no ending’, it’s still great. Many complain about anime that don’t really end, but often they do conclude their small arc. Yona is one of the few that builds up to a big conflict and never gets to it. It doesn’t even use its final arc to conclude all the ideas that happened before. The anime doesn’t set itself up as an episode in a gigantic story – like, say, Attack on Titan – but a straightforward adventure where we expect the hero and the villain to meet at the end for some milk, cookies, philosophical discussions and an exchange of blows. It ends by collecting all the coupons and never cashing them in. Since everything that happened before is good enough, it doesn’t ruin the anime but it’s still disappointing.

The art style is delightlyfully shoujo. The eyes are quite big. Yona is feminine, with a red hair that’s not just red, but sore red. It’s the kind of red that you don’t wear to your workplace because it’s too attention-grabbing. The guys are also all handsome. While the designs are appealing, few are distinct. Yona is beautiful, but that’s expected from a shoujo anime that doesn’t think feminine is an insult. As for the other characters, only Soo-Won has an interesting design. His soft side is expressed in his long, bright hair and warm expression that has a long, rather than wide smile. Everyone else fits their characters, but Hak’s rugged look is typical dark short hair. Yun is another honorable mention. As an attempt to make a pretty boy, it’s excellent. We never see much of this handsome male look. We see male characters who are handsome, but not those whose looks is a major selling point.

Yona is a straightforward adventure anime. What it aims to do isn’t special, but what makes it special is how well it understands the adventure story. It manages to overcome a non-existent ending, and you can only do that by having separate arcs which still gel together, by having characters that breathe life to these arcs. Occasionally, it shuffles the pieces around but it’s more for entertainment effect rather than subversion. Still, if you want to experience pure storytelling, this is it.

3.5 dragons out of 5

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Brandon Sanderson – Mistborn: The Hero of Ages

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Sanderson’s books are puzzling. Take their surface, their visual ideas and the overall story and you’re left with a rollicking adventure that occasionally goes deep. Add his stilted, unoriginal prose and method of solving conflicts and you’re left with a generic Fantasy book that doesn’t insult the reader. After reading his essays and his view on the genre I’ve come to the conclusion he’s an awful writer who stumbled upon some great ideas.

The problem with Sanderson isn’t the story itself, but his approach to storytelling. He views his stories as a mechanical process, with the purpose of everything is get to the end. Characters, magic and objects have meaning which is determined only by how much they can solve conflict.

If we’re talking reality, this view can make sense. Life is full of conflicts and we need tools to solve it. Literature and Philosophy can be such tools. The difference is in the nature of conflicts in real life, and conflicts in fictional world. The conflict in real life is imposed on us. By that, I mean we don’t fully control it. We can instigate, but never design it from scratch. I can go out and start a fight with someone I don’t like, but I don’t control all the elements – our personal histories, which influence the conflict, are out of our control. The other person’s reactions and choices are also out of my control.

Fictional conflicts are the opposites. You build them from scratch. This is something many people forget when they talk about stories. Authors fully control their work. Authors can – and should – impose laws on their work, but even those laws are something the authors can control. Creating a problem just so you could solve it is like the brilliant Useless Machine. It’s a contraption that you turn on so it would turns itself off. If the purpose of everything in your story is that you’d solve the conflict, why create the conflict in the first place?

Sanderson’s parts fit nicely, but I see nothing admirable about that. Complexity doesn’t equal depth, and depth is what matters in fiction. Compexity can be engaging in activities that are thinking for thinking’s sake, but Chess also involves human interaction and a real conflict whose elements you don’t fully control. Reading the Mistborn novels is like playing Chess against yourself, only with a fancier dressing.

It was so disappointing when Sanderson took an important symbol and turned it into the final plot coupon. Sazed’s story is absorbing. It is the existensial crisis made physical, questioning what the hyper-intellectual who only researches, instead of providing answers and doing things, will do when the world is ending. The idea is sometimes explored, but Sazed mostly stares off into space and ruminates. By the time he takes the center stage, he realizes all his knowledge is the last screw to seal the Bad Ending’s coffin.

Too many scenes are about doing Allomantic stunts. Sanderson writes them like they’re a blow-by-blow account of a role-playing game. Even in those role-playing games, they are the most boring parts. No one cares about Fallout‘s battle systems. Planescape: Torment is a towering achievement because of the writing. These games can employ a battle system, because the person experiencing the art actually gets to use them.

Fantasy authors often forget that the position of the reader isn’t like the writer’s. The author may feel like he’s discovering a new land when writing. For the reader, it’s all laid out, no exploration of thought needed but just an info dump. The author may feel like he’s using a complex system of game rules to solve conflicts, but the reader only gets to observe it. The reader doesn’t actually use these rules. Imagine if a sports caster told you exactly how the basketball player’s legs work.

All these details in those big fights don’t matter. They don’t affect anything. Remove them, and the battle will be slightly shorter. In general, battles don’t work in literature. Violence is visual and immediate, something that’s hard to replicate in the relatively calm activitiy of reading. It’s also swift, so exact descriptions of it come off as silly. People don’t experience violence like Sanderson writes about it. It’s always over before we know what happened. He never once tries to capture the thrill of violence.

The story is more focused this time around. Stalling, the defining feature of the second book, is gone. Sanderson also deserves credit for his ability to structure stories. He never gets lost, never rambles too much or digress. He understands epicness doesn’t have to come from how many miles your characters walk, but the scope of the conflict. So making his story about stopping the end of the world is a good idea, and there is an energy in the final scenes, the emotionally appealing concept of the world torn between creation and destruction.

I want to hear Sanderson tells such a story. He can tell it without losing track, but when it’s covered in dull prose I lose hope. Many a pointless sentence fill the book. Inner thoughts drown the books in obvious or unnecessary details. I truly don’t understand why authors do this so much. I sometimes edit out of kindness prose of young writers, and they do it all the time. Are they afraid that nobody will understand? So long as you don’t write like Hegel, we can understand you just fine.

I do give him credit for not digressing too much. Scenes do gel together for a coherent story. One arc does feel like it’s separated from the main story, but Sanderson tells it like it’s self-contained, with its own conflict and resolutions. It doesn’t exist just to add details, but as an actual story. His descriptions are often to the point.

His exploration of themes is particularly bad. He wants to say something, and his fairly sparse story means ideas emerge clearly. For all the talk of worldbuilding, there aren’t too many details to keep up with. When the ideas emerge though, they’re just there. Sanderson does nothing with them. The secondary arc is about the evils of revolution, but all it has is a bunch of extremists using the government for their own selfish needs. There is no understanding or insight or sympathy towards them. It doesn’t reveal anything about this archetype, but perpetuates an empty pattern. The final antagonist also stands for nothing but death’n’destruction. It’s fun enough in a simple story, but Sanderson aims higher – a complex machine which has no reason to exist but to turn itself off.

Occasionally, it’s fun and it concludes. Mostly, it’s a Useless Machine, but not as amusing and not as offensive as George R. R. Martin. I understand some people dig epic fantasy, but this is 700 pages. Dunsany wrote a brilliant novel with only 230 pages, and reading it three times will keep revealing new things and is a better usage of my time.

2 heroes out of 5 ages