This year, we’ve seen two adapted fantasy shows that covered a lot of the same ground, Akatsuki no Yona and Arslan Senki. Both series carry the familiar premise of sheltered teen noble thrown into chaotic circumstances, gather a Party of Heroes™ to reclaim what they’ve lost, and grow up a bit in the process. Drawing inspiration from ancient Korea and Persia/Iran respectively, they also have enticing cultural flavor and substantial amount of geopolitics to accompany the standard fantasy hero arc.
Yet, in spite of all those similarities, Yona and Arslan had markedly different approaches in fleshing out and developing its characters. Only one of them managed to have me properly invested in its characters (and, by extension, its plot), and here’s where I’m going to pinpoint on the how’s and why’s.
A straight up adaptation from Mizuho Kusanagi’s manga, Akatsuki no Yona is a shoujo fantasy adventure that may seem heavy on female-oriented fanservice, but does have progressive twists and nice balance between substance and comic fluff. Its titular female character also firmly takes hold of the lead role, refusing to be shackled as a damsel in distress or defined by a romantic relationship with the male lead. Fushigi Yuugi may be the one shoujo fantasy anime most similar to Yona in terms of basic main party set-up, flow, and sense of humor, but Yona is a step ahead of the likes of Miaka and other passive teen heroines of yore, showing the grit and assertiveness that would be appreciated by a lot of modern audience.
Make no mistake, Yona herself is still a wish fulfillment fantasy heroine: an initially spoiled royalty maturing into a genuine badass, surrounded by a bunch of literally colorful bishonen (and a shamelessly adorable squirrel!). She has that flame red hair, a traditional mark of headstrong and rebellious heroine, spanning from Swedish super girl Pippi Longstocking and little mermaid Ariel to fellow teen anime leads Youko Nakajima and (also from this year, and also had a haircut ritual of sort) Shirayuki. Nonetheless, it all remains compelling due to really strong execution and occasional subversion to the formula, without necessarily diminishing the inherent fun factor in this kind of show. After all, you can have the most complex or unusual narrative, but I really couldn’t care for too long if you can’t sell me your characters, their world, and the stakes of their action. Suffice to say, I bought into everything Akatsuki no Yona’s selling, not least of which the plight of its princess.
There’s a simple answer for why this show is such an effective character development piece: headspace. In regards of Yona (and other major characters, for that matter), they highlight crucial past events in her life, establish the groundwork on her dynamics with other major players, and consistently delve into what she’s feeling and thinking amidst the life-changing events around her. There may be a couple of shortcuts (several nights’ worth of target practice eventually turns her into a deadeye archer, for one), but I can easily forgive that because the show the never skimp on showing (not merely telling) the process, and the mental development is what really matters in the end. Yona’s personality shines throughout the show with such clarity and consistency that she indisputably remains the main centerpiece despite the eventual swelling of the cast, and while she has her share of glorious classic heroine moments (most prominently being the ‘flaming eyes’ motif), it’s the character-defining interplay that struck me the most—with the stand out being a display of pride, selfishness, and grief as she admonishes her manservant-with-repressed-feeling Hak for calling her by first name.
“Only you must call me ‘Princess’. Please don’t forget that I am my father’s… that I am Emperor II’s daughter. Even if everyone in the country forgets, please… you have to be the only one who does not forget.”
Meanwhile, Arslan Senki has a bit more complicated origin story. The show that we’re discussing here is an adaptation from Hiromu Arakawa’s (she of Silver Spoon and mostly Full Metal Alchemist fame) shounen manga, which in itself is an adaptation from Yoshiki Tanaka’s (he of Legend of Galactic Heroes fame) novel, which had also been adapted into a six-episode OVA in 1990s. Whew. In any case, I genuinely enjoyed the latest anime show for about the first five or six episodes, before it’s become apparent me that the show takes too many narrative shortcuts, use the same few tricks repeatedly, and just have feeble character development overall.
Arslan is quite interesting, mainly because he’s a rather unusual male lead for a shounen and/or fantasy story. He’s one that thrives on gentle charisma, general level-headedness, and empathy for others, and based on that alone, I can see his potential to become as idiosyncratic as Tanaka’s most memorable creation, Galactic Heroes’ Yang Wenli. However, I can’t help but feel that the show’s take on the character and overall narrative—a likely combination of Arakawa’s shounen-ified writing and the showrunners’ poor composition—had robbed him of that potential. I don’t hate Arslan or irritated by him, but in the end he feels like a bland cipher lacking in emotional depth, and that perhaps is the worst thing to happen for the lead and supposed anchor in a bildungsroman.
Everything I said about Yona applies in reverse to Arslan. There’s not enough glimpses of his headspace, effort to get me to connect with him and his thought process, or convincing depiction of the anxiety, insecurity, and vulnerability that he must be feeling and how he eventually rises above them. It’s not like there’s lack of opportunities either; in one moment, Arslan casually mentioned how he’d been mostly raised outside the palace by a maid, and it’s never elaborated prior or ever since. Why didn’t they elaborate or, even better, show that crucial period of the main character’s formative years?
One may argue that the two shows’ contrasting approaches could be attributed to their respective demographic nature, of which a shounen work is traditionally more focused on plot and action, whilst its shoujo counterpart tend to be more keen on character interaction and development. Nonetheless, I found that distinction to be increasingly meaningless these days, and when all is said and done, Arslan Senki simply couldn’t spend the extra effort to flesh out its characters or is just largely ineffective at it. I don’t think it’s even really good at the things it focuses on; hampered by string of clumsily animated battles and largely forgettable characters, it eventually gives the impression of simply going through the motion, a few interesting moments (mostly on the front end) aside.
In contrast, Akatsuki no Yona excels in its use strategic flashback (and, in one clever instance by the end of first episode, flash forward showing the hardened Yona) to paint the major characters’ backstory and personality before fully integrating them into the picture, going deep before going broad. This extends to its designated villain/anti-hero Soo-Won, whose thought process, perspective, and temperament are all very clearly articulated, inspiring a complicated mix of feelings toward him as a character. Again, Arslan’s Silver Mask/Hirmiz suffers in comparison. He theoretically fulfilled the same ‘shade of grey’ role, but thanks to deathly repetitive temper tantrums and flashy swordfights with little eventual consequences, he appeared as a much more one-dimensional character than he really is.
And then, there’s the comedy. Both shoujo and shounen series are partially characterized by brash and childlike sense of humor/whimsy, which often manifests itself in funny reaction faces or chibi transformation, and Yona’s especially fond of them. Now, this can get a bit overdone at times and cause certain characters to seem inappropriately immature, but overall they do a good job lightening up the mood and humanizing the characters through some playful ribbing. Moreover, Yona is also adept at putting chibi art to creative and even helpful uses, with my favorite example being the rules explanation in the mock war episode. You can indeed have plenty of humor in a show with serious plot, without compromising the integrity of the big picture.
Meanwhile, Arslan’s idea of comedy is to have a girl acting as a clingy stalker, soon after she just witnessed her father and entire clansmen slaughtered.
To be fair, Arslan did have one amusing gag early on (Narsus’ dubious artistic talent), but a vast majority of its humorous attempt just miss the mark by a lot. In a way, Alfreed is emblematic to the show’s problem as a whole: its execution just couldn’t live up to the potential nuances of the concept. Yona is a more tonally balanced show, and here’s where I gotta give props to the show director Kazuhiro Yoneda and screenwriter Shinichi Inotsume for that and an overall splendid job adapting Kusanagi’ work—shout-out to composer Kunihiko Ryo too, as the music noticeably enhanced a lot of the show’s character-driven moments.
All that said, personal preferences still matter a lot. Arslan would appeal more if you prefer faster pacing and more events happening. For all my praises, Yona could’ve benefit from more gender balance and character diversity, and its last episode (“okay damn, we only have one more episode left, let’s introduce and establish this last dude who appeared in all the OPs and EDs real quick, and somehow wrap things up!”) is also a blemish in its otherwise solid composition. In the end, Arslan had advanced the plot further by its first season wrap-up, and already had a second season lined up (I may be lukewarm on Arakawa’s action/fantasy works, but she’s definitely a popular draw) where it has the chance to address my misgivings. Meanwhile, the first season of Yona feels more like an extended ad for the manga or future season that may not ever arrive.
Bottom line though, the flame-haired lady had left a mark on me with her show, out-executing her silver-haired counterpart in areas that matter to me the most. As a coming of age fantasy anime, Akatsuki no Yona is still some distance behind Twelve Kingdoms and Moribito (which isn’t necessarily a knock against it, these two are just in a different class of their own), but in a debut season essentially meant to set up the chessboard, I can’t help but admire how effectively the pieces are designed and polished.