In the first impression I said I didn’t expect Akatsuki no Yona to succeed if it went down the serious drama route. However, after watching the second episode, I’m starting to think I might have been wrong about that. There were still a lot of moments that felt corny or derivative to me, such as the stand-off between Hak and Soo-won in the middle of the episode and the flash-forward at the very end (I don’t really think the flash forwards have been very effective as a narrative device), but the writers made some inspired choices with the main characters that left me feeling encouraged about the direction this show is headed. I really like how they’ve handled Soo-won’s character. A story like this can live or die by the quality of its villain. If the villain is too sympathetic it can lighten the dramatic heft of the narrative, which can be really bad news for these type of operatic, character-driven, period pieces. If the villain is too sociopathic they can rapidly wear thin. However, the character of Soo-won strikes a nice balance between this. He’s a very cold person, to be sure, and it’s hard to empathize with his methods, but his motives honestly feel pretty reasonable to me. It’s easy for me to imagine the bitterness he would feel looking at Yona’s peaceful castle life and knowing that it was built on the violence and subterfuge that killed his father. I mean maybe we’ll find out later in the show that Yona’s father didn’t actually kill Soo-won’s father, but I hope the writers don’t go that route because honestly, it feels like a very believable backstory in my opinion. And it’s a backstory that really forces you to think about whether Yona is actually in the right here. If what Soo-won said is true, then perhaps Yona bears some form of guilt by association? I also like how we see moments of remorse peeking through Soo-won’s cold facade, like when you can see him wince momentarily after Yona tells him how she planned to confront her father about denying Yona the chance to marry her. It shows that there is a feeling person under there but those feelings have been buried under mountains of circumstances. And it makes for an interesting dynamic between him and Kye-sook, because even though Soo-won seems to be firmly in control of his fate, you can tell that Kye-sook is a Lady Macbeth type of character, prodding him to be more and more ruthless.
I also like how they handled Yona’s character in this episode. Often times, when shows portrays these types of “Princess forced out of the castle” situations the writers struggle so hard to make the trauma seem intense that the protagonist can seem unbearably histrionic or downright schizophrenic in their inconsistent and constantly changing reactions. I thought Yona went through a very nice and clear transition from initial shock at learning her father was killed, to denial of the situation, to fear that her own life was in danger, to anger and frustration that her osananajimi had betrayed her, and finally to a near catatonic breaking point as the fatigue and despair begin to set in. Throughout it all, her responses felt very natural and understandable for someone in her position. And the writers didn’t overdo it with the screaming and crying. I felt like most of the time Yona just seemed lost in her thoughts, almost unable to comprehend what was going on around her. Indeed, rather than being a player in the events of this episode, Yona is mostly just swept along in the torrent of events. I like this understated approach because it makes for some really powerful moments when Yona’s emotions come to the surface. I mean that hug at the end was so powerful and heart-warming. The entire episode Yona is just buffeted about by various people objectifying her and trying to kill her for reasons that have nothing to do with her personal life. You can see that by the end her sanity is about to break entirely because she feels just completely helpless and alone in a world that has completely changed for her in the span of a few hours. And then Hak, who despite his white knight persona had been pretty business-like towards Yona throughout this episode, lets down his own defenses to give Yona a moment of warmth and vulnerability with that hug. It was as if he was trying to say to her, “Don’t worry. Even if everyone else is treating you like a political figurehead, you’re still a human being to me.”
My biggest gripe with this episode, which was also a gripe I had with the first episode, was the terrible fight scenes. And I’m sorry if you liked them, but from my perspective after two episodes they’re just downright bad. I don’t mind that the fight scenes are short, or that the main characters don’t shoot fireballs out of their swords (at least not yet). I think those were both great choices. The problem is that the fight scenes just don’t feel real. Sure, there is blood and screaming, and loud sound effects when Hak swings his glaive around, but it just feels cartoony to me. I chalk a lot of this up to the fact that, although other aspects of the fight choreography feel more grounded and realistic, the actual physics of how the weapons impact and how the corpses are tossed through the air like volleyballs, is just comically unrealistic. And in spite of how well animated most of this show is, the animators do a really uninspired job with the death animations of all those nameless grunts that are constantly getting killed off. It makes the fight scenes feel like you’re watching someone play Dynasty Warriors (and no that’s not a compliment). The big issue here is not that the fight scenes themselves are bad, it’s that the bad fight scenes and comical death animations really take you out of the moment and just kill the serious atmosphere that the creators have otherwise done a great job building with the excellent soundtrack and cinematography.
Still, this was a good episode that really left me encouraged about where this show is going.