Akatsuki no Yona (Yona of the Dawn)

yona

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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Robert Graves – I, Claudius

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Game of Thrones is crap. There are very few positive things you can say about it. Martin’s prose is clunky and the story goes nowhere. Any little character development that he had gets lost. There is something engrossing in a huge drama of constant betrayals, violence, sex and powerful people. The powerful and famous people always lead a wild life. Why settle for Martin’s crap when I, Claudius exists?

Everything that Martin’s book is supposed to do, Graves does a whole lot better. Comparing something to crap isn’t much of a praise, but I, Claudius doesn’t just highlight these faults. It’s a powerful novel that succeeds on all fronts – prose, characters, events.

Graves creates a strange mixture of familiarity and distance. We often think of ancient languages as hard to read, but Graves’ prose is plain. The sentences are sometimes long, but never go poetic. Nothing in the prose resembles the epic poems of Rome or ancient Greece. It’s closer to Paul Auster’s maze of thoughts.

This style traps us inside Claudius’ head and brings him to life. It also highlights the similarities between our world and ancient Rome. We’re all logged on, hearing what party this powerful family threw or who’s this actor is dating. It happens everywhere. Being popular in high school, which is a small environment makes everyone a viewer to your life.

It’s not enough to just present a series of dramatic events. You need a perspective that will bring meaning to those. That’s why the decision to have Claudius narrate the novel is brilliant. He’s actually not present throughout most of the novel. It’s an impersonal story about other people doing things he didn’t witness. Claudius’ perspective is everywhere though, even when the ‘I’ of first person doesn’t appear for 20 pages.

Claudius was an outcast. Like any outcast, he has no choice but to question the foundation, beliefs and ways out life of the society that cast him out. It doesn’t mean he’s some social justice warrior who fights for the Common Folks against the evil tyranny. He’s not one of them, either. He’s almost completely alone in his intellectual pursuits. All he can do is look with detached eyes at the mess that is the royal family.

George Martin expected us to care about the bullshit of the Iron Throne. People lead great lives, had servants, an endless supply of lovers and food and still felt bad. Despite all they had, not having the crown was unbearable to them. Martin wanted us to take this seriously, although a common person – not even a poor one – would be happy with a quarter of what the a royal member had.

Graves is willing to laugh at this. Using Claudius, he presents the ridiculousness of it all. These are people who are offended by the slightest things. They are so thirsty for power, yet it’s this thirst for power that causes them all to be afraid of each other. The Senators offer to grant people honours, only so people will suspect them and then kill them. There is one instance where someone put the coat on the wrong peg which lead to the coat falling and then someone stepping on it. This caused an animosity that later ended up in one bloody murder or another.

No one dares to question the purpose of it all. No one takes a moment to look at what he has and try to make the best of it. Claudius, born disadvantaged, is merely happy to have access to intellectuals and time to write history. He’s one of the few who finds something else to do besides being a popular and well-known figure. He’s the nerd who was busy working on his skills instead of trying to be popular.

That doesn’t make him a saint, though. He might be an outcast, but he’s closer to the royals than to the common people. He doesn’t detest the commoners but he’s not exactly on their side. In a way, he falls to the same trap as the royal family. His whole world still revolves around struggles for the throne.

Aside from a few small digressions, the story concerns itself only with how the Big People lived. The ordinary people get a few names, but their stories aren’t told. He sometimes talks about how the Emperor generally treated him, what he did for their benefit or took them. Claudius never comes down to the streets to document how they lived.

For all of his claims of being an objective historian, he can’t help but get sucked into the silly wars of the royal families. Then again, how can we blame him? Why should Claudius step down? He found himself a comfortable position enough – hiding from the fighting in his libraries and villa. He learned a little more empathy due to his casting-out, but outcasts still care about themselves most of all.

He has one dramatic and hilarious story to tell. The story of this dynasty is truly unpredictable. It has nothing to do with random deaths. It has to do with the fact that this culture, while being similar to us is very different. There are all kinds of bizarre moments, like Caligula’s bridge of ships and how a pear tree was charged with murder.

There are no such bizarre moments in Martin, because he never created a different culture than ours. All he did was create a gloomy world of decent people and overly cruel ones. In Martin, the cruel people want power because it gets the plot moving. Here, people want power because it’s part of their character.

Both Tiberius and Caligula are presented as cruel, but these are different kinds. Tiberius and paranoid and afraid. He destroys everyone who he thinks might be out to get him. He acts out of a lack of self-confidence. Caligula is the opposite. He’s so sure of himself that he thinks he can do whatever he likes. He enjoys his power so much he does think for the sake of adrenaline and instant gratification. Dropping people from the audience to the arena and building a bridge of ships is part of the same character.

This humanization makes for a much more grey area. A lot of people suffer because of them, yet we’re not invited to hate them. We’re invited to understand why they act so. Claudius narrates in a dry tone that does more to add an air of objectivity. When an emperor does something right, it’s not hidden from us. Even when they’re cruel we understand that from Caligula’s point of view this is the right thing to do.

Grey morality is not when nobody is right, but when you can understand a cruel person even when we disagree with him. These are just a bunch of people running around, doing what they think is the best for themselves.

The humanization makes the violence all the more shocking. Sejanus is a horrible person. We’re never given a reason to like him, but he’s just another power-hungry guy like everyone else. His death is shocking because it’s clearly the death of a person. There is something meta in how the Romans cheer for his death. They cheer for the death of an antagonist like Martin fans cheer for the death of their most hated character. Violence isn’t shocking when the people who suffer are just plot devices. When they’re characters with wants and needs, when they feel real it’s scary.

The only weakness is in the narration style. It’s told in a summary fashion. It allows Graves to sum up a lot of events in a few pages, but it also creates a distance that is too wide. It’s not a problem with the emperors. They’re all well-developed and unique, but many others are just names that do a few things and then die. At least there is a meaningful reason for this. The emperors were the dominating characters. The characters who get the most developed are the most powerful ones. It’s not a case where characters get different levels of importance without a reason.

It’s been a while since I read such a brilliant novel. It gets so many things right. The characters are well-developed and memorable. There are hilarious moments and equally horrifying ones. The story is thrilling. It hints that big things are coming while making sure What Happens Now is also entertaining. It deserves its place in the canon.

5 murderous pear trees out of 5