I’ve recently finished watching the 24 episodes of Yona of the Dawn. If you follow me on twitter, you know that I was not amused by the fact that the show ends in the middle of the story. Just about mid sentence! Of course now I’ve ordered all the manga volumes I could find…. I’m running out of bookcases. I blame certain teachers…
As a classic hero’s journey, a lot of traditional themes come up in Yona of the Dawn and it’s only in the later episodes that you start to see the shift towards unexpected hard truths. Why oh why couldn’t they have resolved this plot? It was getting sooooooo good you guys. I told you all about it and whined a whole bunch in my review of the series. For today, I thougjt we could talk a bit about Kings. More specifically Il, Soo-won, and the impossible weight of a crown.
Spoilers guys, spoilers galore for stuff that happens in the 2 first episodes. You should watch them. You’ll be surprised by how much you enjoy it!
The first episodes (and later ones in flashback) show us that the Emperor is a patient man that cares more about the safety and welfare of those around him than his standing or reputation. A man unwilling to risk the lives of his subjects. A man that believes peace to be valuable and is willing to pay the price for it. Also, an Emperor who errs on the side of freedom, giving the people of the various states over which he reigns, the possibility to govern themselves. All things considered, Il should be the ideal Emperor as far as naïve fairy tales have taught me.
Yet, in time, we come to clearly see the failings of his approach. The very act of leading a nation means limiting their freedom. What is the point of an Emperor who doesn’t make decisions for his people. By avoiding all risks you also render gain unlikely. Tiny losses chip away at your nation until you find yourself greatly reduced. In the end, inaction can be just as harmful as aggressive moves.
This is where pacifism and kindness clash with duty. Where the greater good means the sacrifice of the few. This is where the weight of the crown can become unbearable and why a kind man like Il could not imagine forcing such a burden on someone he loved – such as Soon woo.
And of course, this is also where ideologies clashed violently.
It’s difficult to ever consider murder as a good thing. I’m not even saying it was here. In fact, there is plenty of indication that the story and characters will condemn Soo won for his actions no matter the ultimate outcome. But putting the particulars of succession aside, what I found so interesting and rare in the story of Yona of the Dawn, is how dispassionately it treats the question of the responsibility of leadership.
At fist glance Son woo seems to be a slightly flighty power-hungry usurper, motivated by greed and revenge. The narrative hints at him having personal reasons for betraying the throne and his immediate actions are ruthless and hard to justify. In a traditional tale, this would be your unrepentant evil. A villain through and through. His betrayal both grand and ultimately more personally painful to Yona as a close childhood friend and the object of her affections, can never be forgiven.
And yet, once his character gets properly developed, we see a man that is in many respects, similar to Il and yet very different in his execution. Soon woos willingness to take risks with lives that aren’t his own, to directly influence and guide his subjects hands rather than giving them the freedom to government themselves, to act and potentially make mistakes, is what marks him as the better leader.
And it has not gone unnoticed. His efforts quickly bear fruit and his people can reap the benefits. Little by little we discover a man uninterested with personal glory who deeply cares about the people of his nation. A man who wants the best for his Empire and is willing to do what it takes to get it. A man who is quickly earning the trust and loyalty of his subjects, unifying his nation and readying them for what changes may come.
Well, at least so far. People have notoriously short memories, one mistake and they are likely to be pounding down the palace doors. After all, his mistakes are going to be a lot more dramatic than simply ignoring a bad status quo and letting situations slowly deteriorate. His mistakes will be explosive, with immediate ramifications.
Now that’s an interesting moral for an epic to take on. Compassion comes with its own responsibility and sometimes just being good is not good enough. I’m not saying Yona of the Dawn isn’t the only tale to impart that particular wisdom but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it done this effectively.
King Il was a good man and a doting father. He had to be, that’s the point. Sadly, the most powerful thing he could do, was die. The progress sparked by his demise far surpassed anything he could do in life.
In case you somehow missed me bellyaching about this over and over again (and skipped most of this post), Yona is incomplete. The ultimate confrontation between Hak, Yona and Soo won hasn’t happened yet so there’s a tiny chance everything I just wrote goes out the window. However, can you tell how fascinating this confrontation would be? Arrrgggg……