Yona of the Dawn
In the kingdom of Kouka, Princess Yona is the only child of the current king and a spoiled, vain girl who pines after her cousin Soo Won and bickers with her bodyguard Hak. On her 16th birthday she goes to her father again to try and convince him to let her marry Soo Won only to find that Soo Won has committed regicide and is prepared to silence her for catching him in the act. Yona and Hak go on the run and she struggles to find purpose and confidence when she hears an interesting mandate from Heaven: remember the old stories of Kouka and find the dragon warriors who helped found this country, use their power and the red dragon will rise again. So Yona continues to stumble and rise as she sees what her country was really like under her father's "peaceful" reign and learns how even the little power she has can grow and be used to do something greater.
For a new director this is a remarkably strong series and I think that's because of both the original material and the, well, directing. The first five or so episodes are a bit rough, the series has a tough time incorporating all the flash-backs needed to establish the character's emotional connections while still advancing the plot and it was a real reminder to me about how different anime and manga pacing can be. But that wait is worth is and once Yona finds her determination the show is off for a great run with moments of high action and slow contemplation and Yona herself ends up being one of the most well-thought "sheltered girl enters the world/a child grows to become a king" types I've ever seen. If anything the anime has made me appreciate the manga even more, before it aired I had a few moments of "but is this really as strong as I say it is, will it really appeal to anyone else?" and I can can now firmly say yes. I'm not fond of the manga-ka's other work, Mizuho Kusanagi had Mugen Spiral and NG Life published by TokyoPop, but here I can appreciate the forethought and deliberation she's put into the story as well as the distinct characters and how the comedy manages to balance out fairly well with the more tense moments.
The one major change Yona made was to switch up the order of a few arcs, in the manga she's traveling around the kingdom and meeting the various dragons and once she's gathered all of them she's asked what she wants to do next. It's a very natural question, the manga has been leading the reader to this question as well and she's not sure and, much like how the very beginning of the story used flashback chapters to give Yona and the reader time to think about how she was going to adapt, the story switches focus to Soo Won and signals that he is going to become a much more active player than some people expected. In the anime his story is bumped forward, it happens right before the green dragon arc starts and I can understand why from a pacing perspective, if it had been kept where it was then the story would have ended with him and that would not have worked thematically. But I do still prefer the manga's order of events for two years, the first is that Soo Won and Yona do have meet again and in the manga it was a complete shock for everyone. Yona hasn't seen him since she fled and the reader has barely seen him as well since the coronation, it's an even bigger shock than the anime's masterfully done cliffhanger (which is saying something since that will probably be one of my favorite scenes of the year).
My other reason is a both larger and smaller quibble, in the manga we see Yona grow from someone who must borrow (willingly and not) others power to someone who is able to contribute to change as well, then we see her decide where she wants to go next, realizes her words seem to mirror Soo Won's and then we see that Soo Won is taking a remarkably similar path to Yona's. In the anime however we see his reasons first and then Yona's, I don't think that it made much of a difference to most viewers but did seem a little bit as if she is still trailing after him in her own story. The anime handled that as gracefully as it could, Yona declares her intentions and then realizes the similarities so it's clear that her ideas are her own, but I still wish we could have had kept the order. I do love how the story parallels these two young people, with Soo Won we see someone who wants to become a ruler, someone who prefers to manipulate people from behind so that he's not doing all of the work. Whether this is a short term plan and he'll abandon it once all of the higher level officials catch on (and become more of the colder, public persona we see) or not remains to be seen, Yona is completely different however. She has power but no way to apply it except in the smallest of circumstances and is learning how to work with other people and to take the lead when things go awry. It seems a bit nitpicky to say that one is a leader and the other is a ruler, especially since Soo Won does care about those little details as well, but there's a fierceness to what Yona does that Soo Won hasn't shown yet.
To talk about the story in a different way, barring a few instances (mostly regarding names*) I've been really happy with the translation that Crunchyroll used and I hope that Funimation either uses the same script or a very similar one since I noticed some nuances that I never saw in the scanlations I read. The scans I read were competently done by people who could clearly understand both English and Japanese well but the flow and the word choice in these official subs was fantastic. It really highlighted how the story feels like a legend at points, that we have Yona with a prophecy from Heaven guiding her and Soo Won's dismissal of all things grand which I completely missed reading the manga and I'm usually not that dense. There were points where the characters' deliveries didn't quite match how I imagined the lines but I can respect the staff's choices there.
Continuing with the technical side of things, I don't normally talk about voice actors in these reviews but I did want to mention that I ended up really liking the cast and for good reason, they've been doing drama CDs for the series for years! I did feel like Yona's voice was a tad too high and girly a lot of the time, and laughed when Jaeha sounded exactly like Archer from Fate/Stay Night for his first few interactions, but all of the other characters played exactly as I expected to which is always satisfying (and thank god that original casting director years ago gave Yun a voice actress instead of an actor). I do have a few mixed feelings on the music however, by the end of the show I loved it but it started out a little bit rocky. Part of it was because the series' main musical theme was also the opening theme song which, while lovely, just did not work for me. The main musical theme is going to come up in a lot of episodes but opening and ending songs usually only crop up at especially intense moments so it was giving me a bit of unexpected mood whiplash, especially since that main theme was almost overused in the first five or so episodes. But by the end of the series it being used much more selectively and the very upbeat, dance tune-style second opening grew on me (although seeing the visuals being reused from the first, instrumental theme really threw me off at first). The final time the main theme was used in the series, where Yona is admitting that she's met Soo Won again and she doesn't know how to feel about him and she's told that that's okay, was a really great moment. This is the kind of strength I want to see from characters, both a boldness in battle and admitting when they don't know what to do, that's not a weakness but a chance to learn from other's strengths. It's tough to sell Yona based on just the first few episodes since she is such a brat (and kudos to Perriot for tying that flash forward, which helped show people this, into the ending and still leaving plenty of room for a second season) but it works here, it simply does.
A couple of years ago I had a discussion with a friend where we wondered where all of the girl power titles from the 90s, present on both sides of the Pacific, had gone and the only title I could think of then was Yona. Yona of the Dawn is one of the true successors to the 1980s and 1990s epic shojo fantasies where heaven and earth force the characters to become greater than they ever dared dream. I really hope the series manages to get a sequel since there is more than enough material for another season and it's clear that Studio Pierrot enjoyed the adaptation. I was a bit worried about them at first since many of their shows are merely okay but they really seemed to understand what was important about the story and just seemed to have fun with the semi-frequent fight scenes and by making the mascot character even more adorable. The manga has had a boost (around 40% in sales) which is a good sign, although not fantastic, but the first DVD isn't even out yet and it appears to be because a member of the production committee dropped out and the staff is having to scramble to find a replacement (which is bizarre and I hope doesn't hurt sales too much in the long run). For people who still need to check out the story (Pierrot did a good job at both giving the story a semi-ending and leaving it open for further adaptions), you can find it on both Crunchyroll and through Funimation's website/hulu. For those who are already finished with the series and are debating checking out the manga or just want to read something similar, I actually made an entire post over on tumblr here so go forth and consume great media!
*I still am really confused by a few of the names, I believe that France has also gone with "Yun" instead of "Yoon" in their manga release and I can understand taking out the hypen in "Jae-ha" and "Shin-ah". However, going from "Kija" to "Gija" and "Zeno" to "Jeno" was really bizarre, especially since those are distinctly different spellings in Japanese and the seiyuu sounded as if they were still saying "Kija" and "Jeno". Some fans have speculated that it has to do with how you romanize Korean names, Kouka was explictly stated to be based on Korea by the manga-ka and it's more obvious in Kusanagi's art, and generally American licensors have to get approval about how to spell character names. Which still leaves a puzzle, either Crunchyroll/Funimation decided on their own to ignore the katakana to do something else (apparently they're still changing the spelling of "Soo Won" from episode to episode too) or someone in Japan wanted a more accurate spelling than they even have in the manga. It's rather frustrating, completely unexpected, and I hope that any anime-first fans who venture online aren't confused by manga-first fans continuing to use the same spellings that they've been using for literally years now.