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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Genei wo Kakeru Taiyou (Daybreak Illusion)

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Horror comes from inside and is directed inside. People who want to kill us are quite scary, but they’re a very specific problem. True horror is in realizing that we can be the killers, that we can be what we hate. It throws a big wrench in our grand narrative and shatters it to pieces. That’s why we limit our consciousness, assume the patriarchy or the media or the government is to blame for it all. Negative feelings are bad, but the true problem must be outside us.

Obvious comparisons to Madoka spring up, but these are superficial comparisons. The latter is more existential and philosophical, less concerned with the emotions of its characters and relying more on structure and mechanics to deliver its philosophical idea. Daybreak Illusion is far more emotional, fantastical and wild. Each character has distinct demeanor, it has many arcs which peek into other people’s lives and the main subject matter is emotion, not the grand meaning of life.

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With that aside, let’s focus on what’s actually going on here, something deeper than how ‘logical’ the story is. Cliched stories that flood your cinema have an external evil. These are comfortable fantasies. The bad is always outside of us. We need to kill it. Some of them improve and we can converse with these evil, but it’s still outside. The third stage is recognizing something inside of us is evil, but an external thing brings it out. The fourth, and most horrifying stage, is realizing that each of us partakes in the conspiracy against the human race.

Daybreak Illusion belongs in the third category, which is a weird one. Stories that reach there are aware of theme exploration, that their story shouldn’t just give us a good time with pretty visuals. You can’t reach that stage without trying to be deep. The anime really wants to be more, not just a copy of Madoka but to compete against it and expand on the genre. It does that fine enough, but not good enough.

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Daemonia are the big evil, but they’re amplifiers of already-present negative emotions. Yet by pushing the source of the bad outside, the series isolates it and doesn’t explore their issues too deeply. Many of the characters become ‘not themselves’ when the Daemonia take over, but that’s just avoiding the horror. The horror is realizing that the bad side is just as a part of ourselves as the good side.

The series is always close to truly delving into the depths of emotion, but never getting there. A climatic conflict does it the best, showing how we’re responsible to each other. Main character finds herself needing to actually face another person’s emotions, and digging inside of her to find out what she really feels. It’s an interesting position to put the main character in, but it doesn’t solve the big conflict. All ends with a big Final Boss Fight full of flashing lights and explosions.

In the most of the arcs though, the victims are just innocent people who are tempted by the devil. By the time they start their rampage, they’re supposedly ‘not themselves’. The escape from horror isn’t deliberate. Our heroes talk to the Daemonia and are frigthened by the fact that these are people. In a way, by showing us that these distorted monsters are still actually human beings, we’re supposed to be all the more horrified by our negative feelings. Yet this doesn’t work, since these Daemonia too end up too alien from us, their cause being external. People transform into monsters because something infected them, not because they made decisions (or were born in environments) that turned them into monsters.

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For the characters in the story these people are real enough, even when they come looking like man-eating plants. What it does better than Madoka is showing the journey and emotional development of heroes caught in the midst of a cosmic battle. Characters actually have a will and their reactions to the events. If in the first episodes the anime seems aimless, it’s only because it really tells the story of these girls and nothing else. Any time the story loses its direction is when it sways from it.

Although these characters aren’t particularly deep, they’re given distinct views about the battle, the world and what they get from it. In the first few episodes the anime actually threatens to improve on Madoka, since it’s far more in touch with what kind of dilemmas and conflicts would arise in this situation. Of course it uses Monster of the Week format, because anything else is a distraction. At its most exciting, we see them clashing and arguing and talking about what they’re going through. How it feels like to be the hero is where the excitement lies.

The drop in quality comes later. Suddenly we get a more rigid structure and a main villain. Already in the beginning we had some meaningless technobabble, but it avoided getting technical. Battle ended when there was no emotions left to explore in that conflict. The final conflict also ends thanks to the heroes reaching a conclusion, deciding to rebel against their own fate. Yet we don’t actually see them reaching this conclusion.

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A trait of messy anime, especially those with huge epic stories and wacky art styles is that they have a slew of themes and they don’t know which one to focus on, or even which one fit their structure. First the anime start with exploring how negative emotions get the best of us, how the evil is supposed to be inside of us. Then this is thrown away, not completely resolved and instead out of nowhere the girls are fighting against fate.

Now, if the series had something to say about emotional determinism it would be fine. Exploring the conflict of will and choice is the next big thing, since so far we all agree we can’t control our emotions. The whole idea of fate comes from the Tarot, though, not because the series wanted to explore it in the first place. Messy structures tend to arise naturally from theme-focused anime, but here it’s because the show couldn’t focus on its ideas.

At least on the surface it works well enough. As a simple heroic story, I’d take this over many others. Even if its exploration is shallow, it gains from it enough emotional weight. These battles matter. We see the characters going through something during these moments of violence and how their psyche is affected. It’s not just ‘beat up those deamons and get some shwarma’. It hasn’t reached the heights it’s aiming for, but it’s still an exciting story with great visuals. For some, that’s enough.

3 daemonia out of 5

 

 

Aku no Hana (The Flowers of Evil)

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There is no reason for anyone to love the way they’ve been raised in suburbia. It may not be dangerous, but that is not enough to make living there worthwhile. Suburbia is a world without values, where nothing is allowed to be good and worth devoting to. Some things are considered bad and off-limits – like drugs. Anything else though is ‘just a hobby’. No wonder this safe lifestyle doesn’t stop people from killing themselves – why live such a life, anyway?

No wonder, then, that suburbia has its share of ‘rebels’ who take symbols that seem to contradict suburbia. Then again, any person who finds something valueable is rebelling against suburbia – that’s why both the happy-go-lucky raver and the skull-laden metalhead are considered rebels of this landscape. Even the truly religious and the intellectual can be rebels in this world. Such passionate people will challenge the status quo since they will value something other than the suburban lifestyle.

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Notice the problem, though. Notice what’s the requirements for a true rebellion against suburbia – having values. Aku no Hana is the pseudo-rebel, the person who hates suburbia so much with all its emptiness yet cannot find anything of value to replace it with. It wrecks destruction, says naughty words and perhaps will pay lip-service to sexuality but in the end it has nothing to say. In the end, it is too weak to admit it’s exactly like the suburbia it hates and this lack of self-awareness is its destruction.

The anime fails in the same way the main character, Nakamura, fails. Nakamura hates the boring life she leads. I hate that way of life, too. Yet just because she claims she’s going ‘beyond the hill’, that she will tear down Kasuga’s walls to find something there doesn’t mean she actually will. It doesn’t mean her actions are directed at this venture. Actually, her actions are more like that of a sexual abuser rather than a tough life couch.

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Imagine if a man stripped a female of clothing, forced her to wear something and said this will somehow psychologically heal her and make her stronger, bring out the ‘real her’ or something equally fancy. Few of us would take it seriously. The moment the man will use force is the moment we will find him villainous, no matter how many rebellious slogans come out of his mouth. So why is it okay when a female does it?

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It’s an anime so engrossed in being different, so immersed in wanting to be unique that it doesn’t even try. It goes beyond the art style, which is ugly but not too hard to get used to. The backgrounds are fantastic. They go beyond the emptiness of suburbia, giving everything a rusty look of falling down and crumbling. We see something else besides boredom, that suburbia equals malaise and its lack of values is actually that depressing. As for the character design, it’s merely failed realism. None of them actually look like real people but more like distorted photographs. For a while it’s amusing, but not too much.

At first it starts off interesting with a view into the darkness and weirdness of random people. Quickly, though, it is obvious we’re supposed to side with Nakamura, view her as a tragic person lost in a world of dull people who just cannot realize how special she is. Too bad the creators missed that if anyone actually paid attention to her, they’d realize she should be in jail. No one cares how special you are when you abuse people. Look what happened to Watkins.

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True horror is realizing that something that’s horrible is also real, and perhaps more common than we think. Don’t be a pig and act like your mud is special. Show the viewers that what they consider deviant is actually normal. Horrify them with that. Instead, we see a small act of stupidity and teenage horniness being shoved in our faces like the creators just discovered the true darkness that lays at humanity’s heart.

If only they had enough empathy to realize that the true horror is realizing that all our rebelliousness is worth nothing if we’re cruel, that we’re excellent at swallowing our own Kool-Aid as we hide from how we hurt others. From the middle onwards, the series becomes nothing but a carnival of vomit. We see people being mean to each other, some preaching about the nastiness of suburbia and pushing someone to do things they don’t want because you and your rebellious self know what’s best for them. Hating suburbia is a good thing, but it’s the first step. This anime barely takes in, and merely wallows in the pre-packaged cliches of rebellion – like anti-capitalism music that you need to pay to hear.

1.5/5