Sunday, November 3, 2013

Manga Review: Akatsuki no Yona

In the past few years I've gotten library cards to even more libraries and I've been able to see that some of them have had a very devoted staff member, or perhaps more than one, whose been championing buying manga for years now and I've had a chance to read quite a few things which are harder to find these days. Some of my favorite finds have been in what I've dubbed the "epic shojo" category where the stories are large, the casts are huge, and each conflict is multi-layered and complicated to the point where the line between hero and villain can get very blurred indeed. Which has lead me to wonder, where did all these stories go? Was this some fad of the late 80s/90s, similar to the "Girl Power!" trend in the West from around the same time? But in the West we have a thriving YA book market which must have been inspired, both the characters and the writers, by that culture so why don't I see at least a few epic shojo manga out there today? After thinking for a bit I realized that this is close to being an "epic shojo", although with a distinctly post-2000 flavor, so not all hope is lost yet!

Akatsuki no Yona (Yona of the Dawn, The Girl Standing in the Blush of the Dawn) by Mizuho Kusanagi

Princess Yona was a naviie and a bit spoiled young princess who was doted on by her father and protected by her bodyguard Hak (even if they had a bit of a tsundere relationship). The only thing she wanted in life was to marry her cousin Soo Won which was oddly forbidden by her father (also that her hair wasn't as flaming red but that was even less likely to happen). No matter, she planned to ask her father again after her sixteenth birthday party but upon arriving at the king's room she finds him dead, stabbed by Soo Won and who frames her and Hak after they flee the palace. Broken she tries to adjust to life outside the palace and finds that with her father's death a veritable political maelstrom is brewing with each of the five clans that make up the country weaseling around trying to gain power and favor with Soo Won the new king. After a period of mourning Yona snaps and finds the strength to vow revenge against Soo Won and that she will find out the truth behind the things he said about her father and why her father was keeping secrets from her. But to get revenge one must have power and she's going down an odd path for it, on some odd advice she turns to an old legend for help. The story goes that centuries ago her country was founded by a great dragon and that four of his fellow dragons blended into the human population, waiting for the day their king will return to seek them out. So far this plan is working surprisingly well, although it seems like there was a lot more truth to that old legend that even Yona realizes.

As a note, the scanlations are quite a few volumes behind the Japanese releases and I have both skimmed through some of the Chinese scans I was able to find and track down a few people on tumblr who are reading the Japanese raws and translating bits and pieces and summarizing others. So I am going to talk about where the scans are up to and where the story seems to be going after that since after looking around it's become clear that the "major" arc the scans are on wasn't the "main" arc of the story but rather the first major one and I can see what the second major arc is now (and that knowledge also lets me guess at how the rest of the story beyond that arc will play out as well).

I feel a bit odd writing such a long summary and honestly that does cover at least one, maybe almost two, volumes of the manga but given how the story it setting itself up (it's going to take probably years in-verse, doesn't have a "first episode twist/reveal", etc) I feel like it's just one of the stories which needs a lot of background before you can discuss it. I'm also torn about how I feel about the pacing, on the one hand when I was reading the series I had no problems with the length or progression of each arc (and while each arc is longer than the previous one so far no arc has been so long this has become a problem), I always end up worrying that a long series or even just a series with long build-up will scare off potential fans*. It's not quite epic in scale, yet at least, but as I mentioned above if Yona collecting the four dragons was supposed to be The Major Arc of the story then this would be a little different. Instead the story is becoming a classic "let the king-to-be see the people he will rule from the vantage point of one of them" with Yona realizing that there were some terrible things going on under her father's rule and trying to figure out why. Was her father unknowing, unable to fix them, or did he know but not care as the peasants seem to think? It's certainly nurtured the seeds of doubt that Soo Won planted when he told Yona that her father had been keeping many secrets from her and now it seems like the country is in a much more delicate position than she ever could have guessed.

Speaking of major arcs, as of the current manga in Japan Yona has managed to find all four of the dragons and form a band of badassery with them and when I was glancing through tvtropes I realized something about the story, we the readers know more about that legend than Yona does. It's both subtle and not, as of the scans each of the dragons has chosen to follow Yona partially because they have their dragon ancestor yelling inside their head that the time has come to follow their king, very unsubtle, but Yona doesn't know that. She thinks they've all chosen to follow her since she's won them over, which she certainly has done as well, but that combined with a note on tvtropes (more or less, Yona like the dragons' descendants also has an improbably strange hair color, red like the Red Dragon King) makes me wonder how much more there is to that legend and the idea that Yona might actually be fulfilling a prophecy of sorts, not simply taking advantage of it for her own needs like she believes, certainly gives the story a different, more epic, feel to it. I'd be frustrated if this gave her an 11th hour superpower, especially given the circumstances she's already been through, but I doubt the story will do that.

To talk about Yona herself, I rather like her as a character. While it does take more than a single chapter for her to process her father's death and choose what her path will be, I believe it was closer to a volume's worth of chapters, it felt like a very natural progression and she has ended up being a complete badass and a determinator as a result and I always love to see characters grow into those roles. Actually, some of the scenes make me wonder if  Mizuho Kusanagi ever wants to write a horror manga since the way some scenes are drawn, when Yona is at her most intense and prepared to kill someone, there's this "pause" like the pause right before a scare that I feel like makes them extra effective. I was also rather pleased that despite the fact Yona has a good sized reverse harem going on (six people currently, seven if you count Soo Won) there's not much romance in the series. Of course, with Soo Won committing familicide the story established that Yona and Hak would one day be the OTP pretty firmly (first guy wins and all of that) but other than a couple of tsundere-esque advances on Hak's side the story has been relatively romance free which I like. Of course, I would like there to be, you know, more main female characters, not just ones who show up only for one arc but given how large the cast has already grown and all the juggling it takes to show everyone's viewpoints I'm not holding my breath here.

So yes, Akatsuki no Yona isn't quite the same as the epic shojo of the 80s and 90s but it's slowly growing into something similar, just with a 2000s flavor of styling. And when I say that I mean the artwork, pacing, types of characters and their interactions, and I'd argue that humor has been incorporated into more and more genres of manga in the past decade, a la Fullmetal Alchemist's very serious tone at points broken by a single panel or two of humor. You can find all these things in older manga of course but if this is what the next few years of epic shojo look like then I think we're in good shape and just hope that I can find more of it!

As for it's chances at being licensed, well, I'm not super hopeful. As noted earlier, it's already getting to be pretty long and since it's a long proven fact that each successive volume of manga in a series will sell less than the first (I wonder if that's the same for regular novels in the US as well) that's going to make publishers a bit shy. It's published in Hana to Yume which means that Viz could get it which I do think is it's best chance, they've published other manga from that magazine in their Shojo Beat line and that's really where it fits in the best. However, the manga-ka has already had two series published in the US (NG Life and Mugen Spiral, I've tried a bit of each and didn't care for either), by TokyoPop, and I have no idea how well those series did. Other publishers would know, they'd have access to places like BookScan which could tell them, and if they sold poorly then I think that would be the final nail in the coffin in getting a long, adventure-first-then-romance, shojo manga published over here. Finally, this is just me but I do wonder if the fact that Viz already has a longer, 10+ volume, shojo that features a red headed heroine (who hates her hair color) caught up in royal family politics with the word "Dawn" in the name would make them nervous about splitting the fanbase and diminishing sales for both series, although there's no way to ever ask them this**.

*which is silly given the size of the Game of Thrones and Doctor Who fandoms out there, plus if you're not willing to take some time to let the story set-up then clearly this is not a good story-fan match for you.
**the other series in question is Dawn of the Arcana which I tried out and did not like the relationships so I stopped. I'm told it gets better but I was so disgruntled by the time I finished the first chapter I didn't see any reason for ever picking it back up.