If you’ve been reading manga or watching anime for a period of time now, you have probably watched, read, or at least heard of some kind of reverse harem anime/manga centered on a chosen teenage girl’s journey to gather a band of handsome young men. Perhaps most famous of this fantasy/harem genre is Fushigi Yugi, infamous for its helpless (and rather unlikeable) heroine, Miaka, who is made the victim of multiple attempted rapes for the sake of drama. Whereas other heroines in this genre have ultimately been limited to playing the kind girl who touches the hearts of her warriors while relying on them to provide her with physical protection, Yona of the Dawn offers viewers a refreshing twist to this well-worn path. As if to respond to these frustratingly helpless heroines both in and out of reverse harem manga/anime, Yona of the Dawn presents viewers with a tale about a heroine who does not accept her own helplessness as inevitable.
Yona, the heroine of this story, certainly starts out as a heroine you might expect to see in a reverse harem manga-turned-anime. When we first meet her, she’s a typical pampered princess with no political knowledge nor useful skills. Her only two interests seem to be her appearance and her beloved Soo-won, the sweet cousin who she has loved since childhood and dreams of marrying. Her other handsome childhood friend, a young general with a rough demeanor named Hak, guards her from physical harm while her father, the emperor, spoils her and shields her from harsh realities. In this environment, Yona turns to worrying about her romance, such as what Soo-won thinks about her hair. Helpless girl who’s greatest aspiration is romance? Check. Handsome men who give viewers both a sweet guy and a guy with a rough exterior? Check. Throw in the fact that Hak clearly harbors feelings for the oblivious Yona and that Soo-won obviously doesn’t understand Yona’s feelings for him, and you have the cliche love triangle at the foundation of the harem that is to be built.
This highly standard set up is subverted, however, when Yona witnesses Soo-won kill her father in a coup d’etat. The superficiality of the first episode shatters along with Yona’s sheltered world, revealing a much more complex one behind it as characters emerge from behind their simplistic roles. Relationships, too, take on more depth at the same time revelations and betrayal tear apart Soo-won, Yona, and Hak. Initially, the shock of losing her father and Soo-won leaves Yona a husk, and Hak must coax along and protect her as they escape to safety. Hak gets multiple chances to act as the helpless Yona’s protector, but rather than rely on its heroine’s weakness to provide Hak permanent knight-in-shining-armor status, Soo-won’s betrayal becomes Yona’s turning point. She snaps herself out of her depression, opens her eyes to the troubled reality of her country, and begins her journey to find her purpose in life. Furthermore, while many a heroine has feared losing loved ones, Yona actually does something to combat that fear, picking up the bow and arrow in order to gain the power needed to protect them even as she steadily gains more able-bodied men capable of protecting her.
Is her change a reaction to Soo-won, suggesting Yona to be yet another female character whose development rides on her relationship with men? Clearly, Soo-won’s actions spurred Yona into territory she would never have otherwise tread, and thoughts of Soo-won creep up on occasions, revealing that his betrayal is definitely on Yona’s mind. Nevertheless, the story thus far has done a good job of depicting Yona’s transformation as one that expands beyond Soo-won. Her transformation becomes a personal journey as her loss and sense of powerlessness turns into frustration over her helplessness and ignorance, and determination to change herself.
Of course, Yona still must largely rely on the men’s strength at this point in the story, but that doesn’t mean her determination to become stronger is an empty promise never to be realized. Some viewers may be impatient to see the steely Yona previewed in the opening and in the flashforwards shown in the first few episodes, but in this case, I think a slower paced change will prove more effective. If Yona just woke up one day a strong-willed woman, the change wouldn’t be as satisfying or as believable as watching her experience situations that cause gradual change. Granted, it’s a fine line between showing a character gradually change and pushing the viewer to frustration, but when executed right, seeing Yona’s struggle to change becomes one of her character’s strengths.
Speaking of building character, I appreciate that Yona wasn’t made into some magical prodigy who’s able to master the bow and arrow on the first try. Instead, the show depicts Yona’s struggle to wield her weapon, not only physically but also mentally. She can’t hit anything at first, but practices every night while her comrades sleep in order to improve her skill and strength, and she must mentally prepare herself to kill if she wants to use her weapon to protect her friends. The emphasis on Yona’s training shows the viewers Yona’s determination, and depicts her strength in a way that expands beyond the superficial example of strength as purely physical. (I also enjoyed that one of the male characters related to Yona’s struggle to become strong in the most recent episode! This kind of character development doesn’t just apply to female characters, after all.) If Yona of the Dawn keeps up this kind of crafting of its heroine, she’ll easily be one of my favorite heroines!
Lastly, the way the show has handled its male characters has been pretty satisfying so far as well. Obviously, the show offers a smorgasbord of good-looking guys, but it develops them beyond cardboard cutouts of various types of attractive men. Two perfect examples are Hak and Soo-won. With them, the story takes the staple male love interest types and complicates them, making the caring Soo-won into an antagonist with a logical motive yet controversial methods and Hak neither a mindless bodyguard hunk nor a lovable jerk, but a colorful childhood friend who has grown to love the princess. With any luck, the good characterization and relationships won’t get bogged down as more characters are introduced. Handsome boys are nice to look at, but a lot more enjoyable and interesting when they have actual personality. Of course, it’s also pretty amusing when the series acknowledges itself as part of, and pokes fun at, the reverse harem genre, inserting humor into the plot with characters who display awareness of their bit to play in the harem.
While the characters may seem stereotypical at first, the show seems determined to overturn those expectations. Watching the group come together, and the characters flesh out and evolve–particularly its determined princess–has become my weekly treat. With any luck, this series will keep up its excellence. Anyone who likes fantasies with character-focused journeys spiced up with a blast of breathtaking action and/or a heroine who won’t take her fate lying down should check out Yona of the Dawn. Watch it on Crunchyroll, Funimation, or Hulu.