From harem manga, we move on to reverse harem manga. It's been a while since we've gotten a new one; most of the more prominent shoujo titles have focused either on supernatural romances or more traditional schoolroom stuff. It even got the benefit of having a (fairly good, from my understanding) anime to pave a path for it. So can it live up to its modest hype?
YONA OF THE DAWN (Akatsuki no Yona), by Mizuho Kusanagi. First published in 2009 and first published in North America in 2016.
Princess Yona is the pampered child of the gentle King Il in a faraway kingdom. While she wants for nothing, the only thing she truly wants is the love of her childhood friend and cousin Su-Won. Her life is forever altered when Su-Won slays her father in a bloody coup. She's forced to flee for her life with only her personal guard Hak to protect her. Will Yona find the strength within herself to continue on, or will she be consumed by her grief?
Yona of the Dawn manages to temper its frothy reverse harem trappings with some serious drama. Were it not for some poor timing with some flashbacks, it would be an outstanding debut.
That being said, a lot of the elements Kusanagi uses are pretty standard for the shoujo world. We have a sheltered, lovesick teenage girl for a heroine, complete with red hair that she loathes but others find beautiful. There's a snarky, dark-haired future love interest who alternates between fighting with her and admiring her from afar. There's even a light-haired princely type whose placid exterior hides a secret. Were it not for the faux-historical Korean setting, this could be the start of many a popular shoujo story.
Then the princely type flat-out murders the heroine's father in cold blood and shit get real.
What makes Yona really effective is how seriously it takes this trauma. Yona isn't just sad, she's nearly catatonic from her grief and betrayal. She spends most of the second half mentally sorting out her feelings for Su-Won. Were Yona a more shallow character, this might come off as turning her into a load in constant need of rescue. Instead it's handled with enough nuance to actually lend her some depth. Even Hak ceases being a jackass by doing his best to make her comfortable while still giving her some space to sort stuff now. What really surprised me was that to some degree, they did the same with Su-Won. It would have been easy to have written him off as a cackling villain and be done with it. Instead he's shown to have doubts about his actions and is also mourning his sister-like affection for Yona. I'm sure the dramatic payoff won't be coming for some time, but it's good to get a plot thread like that going so early.
The only real misstep here is indulging in a couple of extended flashbacks right after Yona is forced to flee. It's not like they're completely unnecessary, as they help to establish how the dynamic between Yona, Hak and Su-Won came to be. It also fills in a few other details, such as hints towards Su-Won's upbringing. Nonetheless, it stops the momentum of the story dead in its tracks and it takes a while for things to pick back up again. I feel like they would have worked better as bonus chapters than they do as part of the main story. Still, if that's the worst thing this first volume can do, then it promises that things will only get better and more interesting from here.
The most notable thing about Yona of the Dawn's art is the Korean influence on the setting. It's obvious in the names, in how the silhouette of the costumes more strongly resemble hanboks than kimonos, and in the occasional glance at exotic, ornate rooms of Yona's palace. It doesn't add much beyond some fanciful flare, but it's a nice change of pace from the expies of ancient Japan and China that more frequently populate these sorts of stories. In comparison, the characters themselves are drawn more conventionally, all wide-eyed and pretty. There are some nicely drawn glances from the side, but Kusanagi isn't bringing anything new to the table here. The same goes for her composition. It's perfectly effective, but she doesn't do anything striking or breathe life into the occasional bit of fighting. It's just a little disappointing that the artwork can't live up to the standards of the story.
Yona of the Dawn is deeper than the pretty boys and average art would suggest. There's emotional nuance here that's not always seen in shoujo. If it can keep this up, then Yona of the Dawn can turn into something truly special.
This series is published by Viz. This series is ongoing in Japan with 23 volumes available. 3 volumes have been published and all are currently in print.
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