Anime Heroines to Root For: Yona of the Dawn / Akatsuki no Yona

by sketchyfeminist

I’m updating my “Anime Heroines to Root For” list with two new characters from last season’s crop of anime: Kohina from Gugure! Kokkuri-san and Yona from Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona).

I struggled with whether or not to add Kohina to the list. While she’s an awesome character, her anime, Gugure! Kokkuri-san, has some SUPER problematic stuff in it. (For example, one adult character who self-identifies as the elementary-school-age protagonist’s “stalker”. But that person is the vengeful ghost of a dead dog, so that’s … not really better.) However! Kokkuri-san also has some of the zaniest humor and best-timed jokes out there in anime-land, along with some pitch-perfect deadpan deliveries from its voice actors. And as the quirky main character Kohina herself has some surprising nuance for the lead of a gag show, in the end, Kohina made the cut. (But she comes with a warning!)

Of all the new anime that came out last season, the only ones that really caught my interest were Parasyte, Gugure! Kokkuri-san and Yona of the Dawn. Of those three, the only one I stayed current with as it came out was Yona of the Dawn.

Title: Yona of the Dawn / Akatsuki no Yona
Original Mangaka: Mizuho Kusanagi
Producer: Pierrot
Where to Watch: Crunchyroll, Funimation, Hulu

Yona is about a sheltered princess whose life takes a dramatic turn when her cousin, childhood friend and longtime crush (yes, all one person) murders her kingly father in Episode 1. Yona goes on the run with her preternaturally strong, handsome and talented bodyguard Hak, and they go about collecting other handsome and talented men (some of whom are reincarnations of dragons, which is cool) who will help Yona on her quest to survive and/or eventually face her father’s killer, who has in the meantime crowned himself king.

I have been trying to decide exactly why I like Yona of the Dawn so much. I mean, some of it’s obvious. It has some tropes that I like in general. In general, I’m a fan of female-led “harem” anime (also known as “reverse harem” anime, which is such a common term for this particular sub-sub-genre these days that I’m seriously about to give up and start using it unironically), especially when the female lead in question ends up with power over some or all of her harem of men. And Yona of the Dawn is nothing if not a “reverse harem” show about a girl in a position of some power. (Note: I’m not making any claims that reverse-harem-with-the-girl-in-charge is a feminist thing in and of itself, just that it’s a thing that I happen to like. The heart wants what the heart wants.) So, there’s that. But Hiiro no Kakera has that trope and I find it unwatchably boring. Yes, I know Hiiro no Kakera is based on an otome game, but so is Harukanaru Toki no Naka de – Hachiyou Shou, and it’s is at least watchable.

So “reverse harem”? Check. Girl with some power over at least some of the dudes in the show? Check again. Look at me, I’m your target audience! Because I’m a big fan of pandering to the female gaze (in this case, the straight, bi, etc. female gaze), in part because it happens so rarely.

But I’m greedy. So even though I’ll openly admit that pandering will get you a surprisingly long way with me, I still want more.

And somehow, Yona does manage to offer more. More than pandering. More than bishounen. Even though it basically has one female character (with the exception of some minor roles) in a world of handsome boys and men, and (as far as I recall) has yet to pass the Bechdel Test as of its most recent episode.

More about the more after the cut:

One thing that pleasantly surprised me about Yona is that some of its gags are actually, well, funny. (To me, at least. Humor is super subjective.) I’ve seen a lot of harem anime–targeted at both men and women–and I’m pretty used to the jokes that boil down to “let’s all fight over the main character.” And while that trope is definitely present, there’s something new and different about the way these bits play out. I usually find myself laughing once or twice an episode, and not just in that “oh, how cute, they’re trying” kind of way. The show’s not uproarious or anything (again: just once or twice an episode), and it’s more a fantasy/adventure than a comedy, but it’s nice that the humor doesn’t fall flat.

A much bigger aspect of the show’s charm is that Yona has something I’m going to call a “peaceful, easy feeling.” (At least, I choose in this moment to call it that.) Yona really takes its time developing its characters and its story. And even though there are a number of action scenes, on the whole, the feel of the anime is very gentle.

And this gentleness, in turn, stems in part from the fact that the show’s heroes tend to be pretty decent people. The anime also has prettily-drawn backgrounds and an incredibly soothing soundtrack, which adds to the whole gentleness thing, but for right now I’m focusing on the people.

Yona herself makes for a fairly admirable heroine. One of the problems with a show like Hiiro no Kakera is that you could replace the protagonist with a potted plant and you wouldn’t really notice much difference. (Well, it might make the show funnier.) But Yona? I would miss Yona if she were gone. She’s caring and persistent, and once she becomes aware of her own gaps in knowledge (whether in her combat skills or in her awareness of the state of affairs in her own kingdom), she actively sets out to learn what she doesn’t know. Yona also takes her responsibilities seriously, and openly acknowledges her own self-interest as a factor in her motivations.

Honestly, my biggest quibble with Yona’s characterization is that the showrunners don’t seem to trust the audience to wait for said characterization to happen. The first few episodes of the show flash-forwards to a future, much more self-assured Yona (with a fully assembled harem, natch). I get that a lot of viewers (including myself) become frustrated with passive heroines, and these flash-forwards may have been the show’s attempt to reassure us that, yes, Yona will get better. For myself, I would have preferred to see Yona’s character development happen in its own time.

Because she’s never really bad. Sure, she starts off all ignorant and unworldly, because Sheltered Princess. And once she has her first taste of tragedy, she has a hard time processing and needs a lot of help just to function for a while. And you know what? That’s actually pretty realistic. Some people do mourn that way.

So, Yona herself seems like a reasonably plausible product of her upbringing and experiences. (It’s actually the fantabulous, over-the-top powers of the show’s menfolk that stretch my suspension of disbelief.) Now, the number of times that other characters (mostly the dudes in her harem) notice Yona’s excellent qualities and are impressed by them is getting pretty tired. They’re not wrong, exactly. It’s just … I noticed just fine without you pointing it out, show. There’s also a kind of condescending vibe to a bunch of ridiculously overpowered, overprotective dudes admiring a lady for struggling to succeed at tasks that they can all accomplish with relative ease. Like digging. Yona is the worst at digging. See, there’s this one episode with a cave-in, and everybody’s digging to either get themselves out of the cave or to get their loved ones out of the cave. And even though everybody else is digging and the men are better at it, Yona’s digging is still presented as super impressive, especially after she feels faint, takes a break and comes back. Because she came back, see? Perseverance for the win! (Full disclosure: in that situation, I would feel faint, too, because cave-ins are FUCKING SCARY and it’s OK to be afraid of them.)

On the one hand, I agree that it’s admirable for people to do things that are hard for them, even when those things are not as hard for other people. At the same time, this just kind of reminds me of that scene in Deep Space Nine when a couple of Klingon characters talk about how much they admire a Cardassian character for facing his claustrophobia. Because I totally buy that Klingon culture nurtures patience and understanding when it comes to phobias. So, yeah. These kinds of scenes read as forced to me.

In other words, I like that the protagonist has realistic limits but also dislike how those limits play out at certain points in the show. And I like that the show’s menfolk are nice people, but dislike how they appear over-accommodating at times. Now that we’ve established that there’s just no pleasing me, let’s talk about how much the show’s male cast pleases me. The next few paragraphs will be on the show’s male characters, because, well, Yona still has men to add to her harem, which means that at the moment, this is pretty much a show about collecting male characters.

Because I’ve seen other anime, I expected the show’s romantic lead, Hak–who has a fondness for teasing the protagonist–to end up being an A-class jerk. (You can tell he’s the romantic lead because he’s the first member of the harem. First slot in the harem is almost always reserved for the romantic lead.) But the teasing really does seem to be just teasing, for once, and not borderline-harassment. It admittedly helps that it gets less frequent after the first few episodes and also that Yona becomes pretty adept at tuning it out.

"Gija, teasing people is Hak's hobby. Don't let it get to you."

Screencap of Yona talking to Gija (the guy in the frame): "Gija, teasing people is Hak's hobby. Don't let it get to you." In other words, Yona says, “Sometimes people are mean … ”

But even if Hak’s a little bit of a jerk sometimes, he’s also fiercely loyal and clearly willing to die for his charge (though I expect a lot of dudes will fit into that category before the series closes, so Hak’s not so special). Also, nobody else in Yona’s harem is really a jerk at any time. (So far. She’s only up to four dudes.)

When Yoon, a young man openly proud of both his looks and his intellect, first showed up, I also thought he was going to turn out to be a jerk. I thought he would step into the role of the bratty character who demeans the female protagonist and bosses her around. And at first it was almost like he wanted to fit into that mold, because he was so frustrated by the spoiled princess Yonna’s ignorance of the world. But he couldn’t quite manage it. If Yona were a static character, things might have turned out differently, but since Yona’s so eager to learn and intellectual show-off Yoon is so eager to teach, they actually have a pretty cool dynamic together. Yoon may also be slowly inching his way, for me, to favorite male character status, just because, in addition to being the show’s most pragmatic character, he’s also the only male character so far without any combat prowess and he’s just fine with that.

The next two additions to Yona’s adventuring party are the first two (of four) reincarnated dragons. The current plot of the show revolves around Yona’s group going around and collecting these handsome dragon-men, so that she can “borrow their power.” For something. Probably facing her cousin and reclaiming her throne, but hey, the show could surprise me. The first reincarnated dragon, Gija (and I’m using that spelling only because I watch the show on Crunchyroll and that’s what’s used there–fans of the manga seem to mostly use Kija or Ki-ja) makes a nice addition to the cast, because he, like Yona, was raised in a sheltered environment cut off from the outside world. And I like that the whole “ignorant of the outside world” thing isn’t a trait reserved for the show’s only female character.

Then there’s ShinAh, the second reincarnated dragon, who is surprisingly nice for having grown up a social outcast in his own community. (And would still be surprisingly nice even if he hadn’t grown up shunned and alone.)

Basically, everybody in Yona’s adventuring party is a sweetheart. I keep thinking that I should find that aspect of the show too convenient or too contrived, but I mostly find it refreshing. I like media about relatively decent people who are relatively decent to one another. ::shrug::

Does Yona of the Dawn have the character development and intricate world-building of your Twelve Kingdoms or your Beast Player Erin? Ha ha ha, no. (At least not yet.) But if you want something a little bit fantasy-adventure and a little bit chock full of wish-fulfillment, it might be worth sitting down with a mug of hot tea or cocoa or whatever you find warm and comforting and giving Yona of the Dawn a try.

The “Anime Heroines to Root For” list so far:

Saya in Blood+
Erin in Beast Player Erin
Chihaya in Chihayafuru
Clare in Claymore
Lafiel in Crest of the Stars
Maya in Glass Mask
Kohina in Gugure! Kokkuri-san [big caveat for problematic tropes]
Ririchiyo in Inu x Boku SS [big caveat for problematic tropes]
Nanami in Kamisama Kiss
Haruhi in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya [big caveat for problematic tropes]
Balsa in Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
Nadia in Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Haruka in Noein
Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club
Akane in Psycho-Pass [big caveat for sometimes-sexualized violence]
Utena in Revolutionary Girl Utena
Juliet in Romeo x Juliet
Oscar in The Rose of Versailles
Lina in Slayers
Shurei in The Story of Saiunkoku
Taiga in Toradora
Yoko in Twelve Kingdoms
Asumi in Twin Spica
Ryoko in Yakushiji Ryoko’s Case Files
Yona in Yona of the Dawn

As always, feel free to recommend additions to the list in the comments.