Sunday, March 29, 2015

Character Analysis: Soo-Won, Akatsuki no Yona



Let's be real: Akatsuki no Yona is a wealth of riches for a blogger.  Even the minor characters have complexity and depth and I could, and should, write at length about almost all of them.  Perhaps in time, I will.

But right now I want to write about Soo-won.

I want to write about him because he is so much more than the apparent antagonist of the series, and I cringe when he's reduced to nothing more than a paper-thin villain that Yona and the Happy Hungry Bunch must defeat to find their happy ending. Both the mangaka and the structure of the narrative make it clear that he's more than that, that he is as vital to the tale being told as Hak or Yona or ay of the dragons. 

Make no mistake: Soo-Won is one of the three main drivers of AnY's plot, and the unraveling of the mysteries surrounding him - the eventual revelation of his goals, his motivations, his inner thoughts and his beliefs - are part of what will determine where this story goes and will ultimately determine how we view him and the other characters in the series.  To that end, he deserves a thoughtful and nuanced analysis that explores not just what he says, but what he doesn't say, not just what he does but what he refuses to do, and why the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding him is so vital.

That's what I hope to accomplish here.  The analysis has three parts:

I. An Uncharacteristic Betrayal
II. A Kindhearted King
III. The Known Unknowns




I. An Uncharacteristic Betrayal

Caught in the act of murdering King Il
 The reason that most people despise Soo-won - and the rationale for his role as the series' antagonist - can be traced back to one singular event: regicide.  The moment Soo-Won lifts his sword against Yona's father, King Il, the die is cast: he is a betrayer and a usurper.  And yet the narrative demands that even as we (and Yona, and Hak) condemn Soo-Won for what he has done, we must also recognize that even this great betrayal is more complex than it appears - it's not a simple matter of a power-mad nephew deposing a saintly king.

Explaining his decision to Yona.
Because it's easy, after all, to lionize King Il: Yona remembers him as a protective, doting father, and Hak admires the courage that undergirds his staunch pacifism.  He is, we initially believe, a very good king...until we find out, much later on in the story, that Kouka isn't exactly prospering under Il's reign.  He's ceded part of Kouka's territory to other countries and corruption reigns in Awa; citizens far from the kingdom are starving and cursing Il's name, hoping that their new ruler might offer succor.  The generals have grown lax andthe officials corrupt, and as the manga progresses the narrative demands that both Yona and the readers perhaps revise their view of the former king.  He certainly didn't deserve to die, and yet it's clear we're not meant to idolize him or ignore his faults.  King Il is flawed and human, and whatever the reason for the choices he's made, not all of them have been to the benefit of his suffering subjects.

King Il's decisions allow for corruption throughout the kingdom.
 It's just as easy, in turn, to villainize Soo-Won.  Just as the manga initially presents us with a saintly, gentle King Il, we're presented with bloody Soo-Won holding a sword: a murderous, violent image, to be sure.  But the manga also complicates this narrative.  For starters, Soo-Won makes it clear that Yona was not supposed to be present and should not have been involved; he didn't expect her to be awake or to come to her father's room.  He even goes so far as to offer her a rationale for his behavior (more on that later), and - most importantly - he takes measures even in this heated moment to avoid causing both Hak and Yona harm.  When his advisors demand that Yona be killed, he commands them only to seize her (and because Hak pops up literally moments later and Soo-Won knows his protectiveness well, I am inclined to believe Soo-Won expected and anticipated that his arrival knowing it would prevent further danger to her life).  He commands his men not to give chase to Hak and Yona once they leave the palace grounds, and he's obviously both disturbed and upset when to find that Tae-Jun has gone rogue, disobeyed his orders, and caused their "deaths."

Soo-Won grieving over what he thinks is Yona's death.
 Again, this isn't meant to excuse Soo-Won's actions.  It's a bad look to go around killing kings and your dear friend's fathers, whatever the reason.  But just as we can assume King Il isn't the saint we thought, I think it's fair to assume Soo-Won isn't the demon we thought.  Although it's tempting to view the moment of his betrayal as a revelation  of the "real" Soo-Won and to assume that his love, kindness, and compassion beforehand is an elaborate lie meant to fool Yona and Hak, I think that's a misreading of the manga.  The clues that the manga gives us instead imply that Soo-Won is a kind and compassionate and loving person who regrets what he's had to do, who nevertheless is ruthless enough with himself and the world to do what he thinks must be done for reasons I suspect he has not yet fully revealed and that we cannot fully understand (which we'll discuss more in the third section.)

II. A Kindhearted King


Because here's the kicker: Soo-Won isn't a terrible, power-hungry, ambition-mad king.  He's a good one.  And he still cares deeply for Yona and Hak: the two people in the world who, it's clear, mean everything to him.

For starters, Soo-Won starts his reign by basically trying to clean up all the problems plaguing Kouka.  He secures the loyalty of Lee Geun-Tae, which has been wavering, and helps with matters at the Udo Mines and in Chi'Shin.  He goes to clean the corruption out of Awa and to investigate the situation with Yan Kumiji, only to find that Yona and the pirates have gotten there first.  He wants to shore up Kouka's defenses and to protect the country from invasion and keep it strong.  It's worth noting that a lot of AnY centers on Yona's desire to find and stamp out injustice wherever it is; Soo-won's goals often (and I suspect not coincidentally) align with hers.  More often than not, they're headed for the same destination from different directions.

Geun-Tae recognizes Soo-Won as a dangerous foe.
 It's true that Soo-Won can be manipulative; he often presents a cheerful, absent-minded front to others that hides his ruthlessness and strength.  This is the front that deceives Geun-Tae for a time.  But there's also a kindness and a gentleness to Soo-Won that isn't a false front.  We see it in his childhood frolics with Yona and Hak, as he daydreams aloud with them about the future even when he's obviously pained by what future events will hold, and how it will divide them.  He shows genuine sorrow when he thinks that Yona and Hak have died; he expresses tenderness and regret to Yona in Awa and he spares her from discovery by his men.  And in spite of his actions toward King Il, it's clear that he refuses to harm either Yona or Hak.  He even goes so far as to express to Yona in Awa that he understands her feelings and expects to be punished for his deeds - but that he must first complete the mission he has set out before himself.

Soo-Won hides Yona from his personal guard in Awa.
That's the crux of the ambiguity in Akatsuki no Yona.  We're meant to understand that Soo-Won is probably not a terrible person, or at least as terrible as we think - and yet he's done a terrible thing.  Even worse, by making that choice, he's severed relationships with the two people in the world he obviously holds most dear and in many ways still strives to protect.  And so the logical question, I think, is why?  It's clear Soo-Won isn't after power for the sake of power; in spite of his claims to Yona that his goal in killing King Il was to avenge his father, it's clear he has something else in mind.  And that leads us to what is most important about Soo-Won: namely, everything we don't yet know.

III. Known Unknowns

A tender farewell.
 AnY presents its readers with a jarring, incomplete, and contradictory set of facts.  We're made to understand that King Il is a pacifist - but he's a pacifist who isn't afraid to stop fights with his bare hands, and a pacifist whom Soo-Won claims is responsible for the murder of his father, Yu-Hon. He forbids Yona from carrying or using weapons, but we never know why.

Soo-Won's father is the one who kicked all the priests out of the castle - and yet Soo-Won busies himself reading forbidden spiritual books that his father had previously banned.  And though Soo-Won claims to Yona on the night of her birthday that he killed King Il to avenge his father and to become king, he also implies to her in Awa that there is more to his reasoning: that there is something he must do (presumably before he dies or allows her to have her vengeance).

Reading forbidden books.
On top of all this, we have Yona as the purported reincarnation of Hiryuu.  She gathers the four dragons, and Zeno - the only Dragon who has been alive since the time of Hiryuu's original reign - encounters Soo-won...only to express something like shock or surprise at the sight of him (a reaction that Soo-Won himself notes, but doesn't seem to understand).


It's uncertain why Zeno shows such surprise upon meeting Soo-Won - and Soo-Won himself seems not to understand it.
 I'm not saying this to offer some grand hypothesis - I can only make guesses like everyone else - but to point out that the key narrative that undergirds the series and provides the character's motivations is largely unknown.  We don't know the reasons behind King Il's behavior or his pacifism.  We don't know the real story of what occurred between Il and Yu-Hon any more than we know why Yu-Hon booted out all the priests and banned certain books.  We don't know what Soo-won might know that Yona doesn't know - her ignorance of what's happening around her and her desire to combat that ignorance has, after all, been a central theme of the series.  And we don't know why - even though Yona is the apparent reincarnation of Hiryuu - Zeno reacted to Soo-Won with shock and surprise any more than we know why Soo-Won and Hiryuu seem to share a resemblance.


Fans have noted that, differing hair colors aside, Hiryuu and Soo-Won share a resemblance.  Whether this is a matter of coincidental art or something more purposeful is hard to say.
In light of everything we don't know, then, I think it's dangerous to judge Soo-Won too harshly or to dismiss him as a token pretty-boy baddie.  If Akatsuki no Yona seems intent on anything, it's on showing readers that characters are almost always more - or can become more - than they seem.  Tae-Jun - who could have easily been a throwaway character, left to be greedy and short-sighted - starts to change and grow as the series progresses.  Geun-Tae is a sharp and terrifying warrior under his lazy, carefree demeanor.  Hak suppresses his deep love and affection for Yona beneath his role as bodyguard and Zeno hides centuries of pain and loneliness behind a cheerful demeanor.  King Il, in spite of his noble goals and ideals, made questionable choices that damaged the country.  And of course Yona herself realizes she is more than an ignorant, pampered princess: she awakens herself to the world around her and becomes a warrior.

Given all that, it's incredibly likely that Soo-Won is more than a mere monster or murderer.  His heart, determined though it is, also holds kindness and sorrow and grief and love; he continues in his own way to protect the friends he cherishes. And though it's clear the rehabilitation of Kouka is one of his aims, I am sure there's far more to what he's doing.  Perhaps, as the manga sheds more light on Yu-Hon's fate and the banishment of the priests, as we learn more about Hiryuu and the purpose of his reincarnation, we'll find out what that is. 

Before the coronation, after considering his regrets.
Although Akatsuki no Yona is a grand epic with sweeping scope, it's worth noting that the start of the series centered on three dear friends: Yona, Soo-Won, and Hak.  Those three drive the plot of the series and it is among them, I'm certain, that the resolution rests.  And if we look at Yona and Hak as the story progresses, we see that they, too, are conflicted.  For all Hak's rage - and he does try to go after Soo-Won when they finally meet again - Jae-Ha correctly identifies Soo-Won as someone dear to him; for all Yona's sorrow, she can't let yet go of the hairpin Soo-Won gave her long ago.  Far from indicating that neither of them can move on from the past, I think the conflict that both Hak and Yona feel over Soo-Won is evidence of how complex this is  even for them - in the midst of their pain and hurt they understand there is a lot going on that they don't yet understand.  For that reason alone, it's worth taking a look at Soo-Won and realizing that, like everyone else in this series, he is neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil, but instead simply human.





27 comments:

  1. Very well written and great perspective on the story! I am very glad that you wrote this blog. This is a quite fascinating anime with great potential depending of what the author does with the story. Your analysis was well thought and beyond the empty banter I often see on other blogs and that merrevolvingee around "who ships who" or "who should be with who". Soo won is my fav. character in the show, then Yona next, and of course Hak. So much can be done with Soo won'character that I am looking forward to the next raw Evans of the manga.

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  2. Very well written and great perspective on the story! I am very glad that you wrote this blog. This is a quite fascinating anime with great potential depending of what the author does with the story. Your analysis was well thought and beyond the empty banter I often see on other blogs and that merely revolves around "who ships who" or "who should be with who". Soo won is my fav. character in the show, then Yona next, and of course Hak. So much can be done with Soo won'character that I am looking forward to the next raw Evans of the manga.

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    1. Thank you very much! Yes, the shipping can definitely get in the way of the actual plot - the anime and the manga deserve more credit than that. I'm glad you liked this!

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  3. I have only watched the anime (thank you Femservice and your excellent writeup), and have not read the manga (curse you CrunchyRollManga and your cheeseparing 63 titles), but I would not be surprised if Yona ended up marrying Soo Won. She wouldn't do it out of love, as such, but out of a sense of duty, and what's best for the country. Somewhat like Princess Flavia.

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the anime! For the manga, check the Tumblr tags - there are translations availables for the chapters up to....maybe 70ish?....and then a blog called Kira Kira Treasure Box posts summaries/translations of the latest chapters.

      I would be FASCINATED if Yona married Soo-Won. It would be interesting if she did, since it's the second thing her father forbade her (weapons being the first) and she has violated that precept too.

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    2. I hate Soo-Won. Because even though his motives and attitudes are noble, he completely ignored the feelings of Yona about her father.

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  4. I'd like to add something to your observation. Hak had a flashback once of him and Soo-Won. Not when they were kids, but when they were about their current age. Soo-Won said he wanted Hak, and Hak said he can have him once he marries Yona. Hak would become Soo-Won's right arm. Soo-Won became visibly distraught, hiding his face in Hak's shoulders, remarking on what a beautiful dream that would be. I think at this point, Soo-Won knew that that was simply an impossible dream. Il forbade Yona from marrying Soo-Won, one of the few things he would forbid her to do. As much as Soo-Won loves Yona, he also knew that he couldn't marry her. I wonder what the reasoning behind that is. If they had been allowed to marry, none of this would have happened. But again, there has to be a reason for that. Seeing as Il and Soo-Won knew of this "marriage ain't happening" arrangement, I wonder if they both communicated about such things behind Hak and Yona's knowledge. They obviously have different views on each other that Hak and Yona can't see. Could it be related to his goals?
    Also, Il mentioned his wife being killed by rebels. Il wasn't even supposed to be king, it was supposed to be Yu-Hon. But their father chose Il. What was their father's idea behind that placement? Perhaps Soo-Won's sorrow is a product of his ancestor's mistakes.

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    1. also, Il specifically says that he will be the one to choose his successor, when telling Yona why Soo-Won can't be king/marry her. Why is he so adamant about not letting him be King?

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    2. (sorry to add on again) Il also uses the excuse of "your mother was killed, everyone in the king's family faces these danger. do you want this for Soo-Won?" in response to Yona after she keeps pushing the subject.

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    3. When II told Yona in the first episode that " I can't give you Soo won", when I went back looking for clues and re-read that chapter and re-wacthed the pisode, the next sentence II added immediately after saying that was : " I can't give you a weapon", implying that SooWon is a weapon perhaps and he hates weapons? Correct me if I am wrong...there are way too many things that the author has yet to clarify! For now Soowon is getting the bad rep. When it comes to who ships who which is only second to how interesting the actual plot is of course, I do ship Soowon and Yona. But like you, I felt as Soowon just gave up from the beginning of ever seeing a future with Yona and bottled in his feelings or suppressed them. Many seem to favor Hak because him being with Yona is the right thing the author should do, because he deserves her, or yet again because he loved her since childhood but never got her attention. However, I feel sad for Soowon instead, he never got the chance to even let his feelings for her develop because for some weird reasons. Like you said, I felt like since the beginning he knew deep down that he could never be with her for some weird/unknown reason that has yet to be revealed. That is how I understand the story! He knew Yona loves him but "Chose" to ignore it. Instead he has tried since the beginning to push Yona in Hak's arms. The story does not add up!!! Every time he wants to think of yona, notice how his guards react as if he doesn't even have the right to but instead should only focus on Kouka?

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    4. You´re right CemauraFaith, I always thought SooWon did not allow himself to fall for Yona. I also noticed that "things happen" when he wants to think about her. I think his only chance to become a king was to kill King II and marry Yona. I guess that that was his original plan, as Yona was not supposed to appear that fatal night. Even though he is a regicide, Soo Won is my favourite character. I belive he always knew Yona´s feelings for him because he is no fool, though that is what he wants everybody to think of him. I´m dying to know his past and his father past. I want to unravel his mistery!! I love this story!!

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  5. I think he will have a bigger part in the prophecy such as about the sword and shield. While I think hak is the sword I think soowon is the shield and ultimately the kai empire is the enemy.

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  6. That was a good analysis! I'm glad i found this blog coz i was searching why soo won killed yona's father. I felt that there is a deeper meaning behind it. After reading the manga (until the latest chapter) 3 times, i thought i missed some important points but indeed there are still somethings remained unanswered in the story. :)

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  7. I understand all that, but I still don't like him. Thinking of him as a person, I can't redeem what he didno matter the reason. His worth as a character? Nah. Well, he IS a complex one, but - an interesting one? Not really! This theme is SUCH a frequent one in different plots - books, movies, animes, you name it! And, remembering all the characters in their respective stories that are like him (I know hundreds of them), Soo Won doesn't actually seem all that prominent as a character. Why, just remembering Uchiha Itachi from "Naruto" makes Soo Won seem like a pale ghost in comparison.

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    1. I like your comparison to Itachi Uchiha from Naruto...when we see it from that angle, so many things make sense. I'll have to disagree on the "uninteresting character" bit; as author said above, there's so much we don't know, and unlike the convoluted mess that Naruto's plotline was, this time it is central to the story.

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  8. Very well written analysis, I'm so glad that not everybody hates Soo-Won (who is, IMO, the brightest character of the manga) :3 And if you happened to take a look on chapter 117, it's becoming more and more interesting :D

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  9. Have people heard of the saying "The road to hell often paved with good intentions". It means that even if your goals start with good will/intentions it does not necessary end as you want things to be. Maybe Soo Won truly wish to help Kouka but do people notice that in less than one year of being king he already start conflicts and wars which I don't see an end to. I believe the darkness is something he didn't mean to bring about but eventually lead the country to that path. Like I said for now Yona group goal and his is the same but there will come to a time they must cross path with each other in the future.

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    1. Umm, it is a good point but I would like to bring it to your attention that the wars were inevitable. The neighboring countries were already taking some of Kouka's territory. He wants a kingdom so strong that no attacks it. That is why he is forming treaties and negotiating. Once, I thought he had fallen prey to the power game when he tried to take Kouka's territory back through war but even after the mess with the happy hungry bunch, the villagers finally were united with their friends in Kouka. Additionally, he is managing the internal affairs of the country quite skilfully as portrayed in the manga. As long as he doesn't lose the vision of his true goal, he is fine.

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  10. Amazing analysis. Well done and so interesting to read!!

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  11. I am so thankful not everyone hates Su-Won. Well, he's not my fav. either but he is intriguing. When I read the hate comments about him(on a site) I was really surprised. To me he was a great king and a kind, compassionate but at the same time ruthless and manipulative person. An interesting combo. He is a character of immense depth and is mysterious too. So not matter how I tried to look at it, I couldn't see why he received so much hate even after his intentions started getting clearer. He is human,with his own faults and feelings which he can't show freely due to his position and goals. A clear hint of his character comes from the chapter in manga where they all, still children,escaped from the castle.
    Anyway, a great character analysis! I know a lot of others already said it but you truly nailed it. His character analysis I mean.

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  12. I loved your analysis!!! thanks for publishing it!! Soo Won is my fav misterious character in Akatsuki no Yona.

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  13. Allow me to comment. But there is something bothering me about zeno the ouryuu. You see he even ask soo won if he desires the four warrior dragons. Why is so ? and why did ouryuu doesnt feel anything about the first meet with yona ? And what will happen to yona and hak after the other dragons power will soon vanish ? Makes sense. Keep waiting for the next release..

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  15. Sorry for all the mistake in advance, I never posted before and English is not my first language. I love this manga to death and I feel such a strong need to share for the first time ever XD thanks everyone for your understanding!

    1. My theory is that soo won is the dragon king's body (coz Zeno did said the dragon king is only human) and yona process the red dragon's power. When yona dies the power will go back to soo won and the reincarnation is complete. After learning this soo won father don't want anyone finding out so he chased away the priest who knows the prophecy. He wanted to kill yona but her father protected her by killing him. Yona father banned the legend books and stop wars because if there's no war there is never the need to summon the dragons so yona life will not be in danger. Also that's why he don't want yona to marry soo won.

    Soo won on his coronation day said he will not need the power of the gods ( dragon) and also said no when Zeno ask if he desires the dragons power. I think soo won knows. Soo won can not sit around and watch the kingdom fail, it's his kingdom (being the reincarnation of dragon king) he loves his people and can no longer watch them suffer. That's why he always say he loves people and on some flash back told Hak that human are interesting or something like that. He killed yona's father maybe because he promised yona father if he become king he will not kill yona and seek the dragons power instead he will make the country strong with the power of the people. He even said that on many occasions. The king have to die and soo won have to kill him because soo won want to burden the pain, the sin and the world himself and without the distraction/emotions such as yona and hak's friendship in the way. That's why when he learn they died he said his left arm and warmth is gone. Now he's truely alone and can finally focus on what's at stake.

    2. Only one of them can live to become one fully awaken red dragon king. soo won say he can't die yet he still have something to do. He intended to make the kingdom strong again (coz he know yona can't, giving she was a pampered princess and all and that's why Zeno didn't come to them sooner even though he have always been watching and he even told yona she don't have to live as the pervious dragon king and bare the burden of Ye nation), Soo won keep saying that's his only goal. After he achieve this goal he will die as an atonement for killing yona's father and with his death she will be the fully combined awaken red dragon King. It will be a bitter sweet ending coz even with his death she will always have part of soo won inside her.....and she will become a great king with the protection of hak as her shield and soo won was the sword that cut down all her enemies.

    Soo won have so far been saving the country and making it strong again with the least amount of casualties. It's going to be a giant plot twist where the bad guy everyone should be hating will become the ultimate hero. He is the hero in this story. It reminded me like RG Veda from a long time ago.

    I feel soo won is the most misunderstood person in the manga. Everyone keep seeing him as the bad guy by simply holding on to the fact he killed one weak king.... whom no one cared about and some even cheered at his death. We only looking in the point of view of a little girl whom lost her father and a boy losing his best childhood friend but this manga is about so so much more.....

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  16. Hallo, thanks for your analysis of his character since he is my favorite character.
    I think there is some connection between King Hiryuu and Soowon. All the dragon warriors don´t mind him or are even attracted to him and then Zeno s question: Do you want the four dragon warriors?....


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  17. Finally a site where I can find a more understanding crowd to Soo-won's plight. Great analysis, although I do feel that the gods and this and that divine being involved is a bit over the top, that part of the plot does make sense when its viewed from yona's perspective.

    Note: have any of u ever realized that people in power, no matter how they gained that power or authority-whether through legitimate means, bloodless or bloody coups, or as in Soo's case regicide-have always been criticized for every action they take regardless of whether or not they're actually corrupt, selfish or kind and compassionate towards their people.

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  18. This is the best written thing I've read in the past four months, and I read a lot. I completely agree with everything you've written here, and I too am curious to find out more about him. Thank you for posting such an in depth, and well written interpretation of Soo-Won's character.

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