Today marks our first foray into what I am tentatively calling Story Shots, or brief examinations of specific, well-done story facets. For our first adventure, let’s examine the main antagonist from the popular anime/manga series Yona of the Dawn: Su-Won. As a note, I am only up to volume 21, so please don’t spoil anything in the comments, at least without warning. For those who aren’t that far yet, warning: spoilers ahead.
Yona of the Dawn follows the story of princess Yona of the kingdom of Kohka. She lives a spoiled life, where she is doted upon by her peace-loving father King Il and her bodyguard Hak and dreams of marrying her smart, sophisticated cousin Su-Won (royalty, amiright?). All of this comes crashing down, however, when Su-Won kills her father on the night of her sixteenth birthday, forcing her to flee for her life with Hak while Su-Won takes the throne. From there, she gathers a motley crew of super-powered people known as the four dragons from the age of myth (as well as “genius pretty boy” Yun) and goes around helping people in the kingdom she never truly saw growing up.
As mentioned above, Su-Won is Yona’s cousin, three years her elder and the same age as Hak. At the start of the story, Yona is head over heels in love with him–a passion she finds difficult to abandon even after he murders her father and nearly kills her–and it’s established early on that she, Hak, and Su-Won have been a pretty much inseparable trio (at least in spirit) since they were children. Su-Won is shown to have been a kind, soft-spoken, and beautiful child with a keen intelligence and deep affection and loyalty for his friends, and it’s clear from volume one that such qualities are lauded upon him by others even as an adult.
That is, of course, until he puts his treasonous plan into action, killing the king, chasing Hak and Yona out of the palace, framing Hak for the king’s death, and bullying the tribes into establishing him as king. It’s basically the perfect set-up for an ultimate villain, right? Well…not exactly.
Because the thing is, Su-Won is a really, really good king. Though he does terrible things to attain the throne, once he has it, he immediately turns his vast intellect and cunning toward bettering and protecting the kingdom. He helps his citizens reinvigorate a languishing economy, battle foreign drug lords (without sparking international war), free kidnapped and enslaved citizens from foreign work camps, and more. Likewise, he maintains the same charm, compassion, and kindness (at least to his friends) that won over Hak and Yona in the first place. He doesn’t lust for excessive power, riches, or expansion, and when he encounters Hak and Yona out in his kingdom, he doesn’t even seem to bear them any lasting ill will, occasionally working with them to help Kohkan citizens. In essence, he’s the antagonist you hate to love.
Why it’s effective
Su-Won checks a lot of generic villainous boxes. The protagonist was in love with him, he was a dear friend of both of the main protagonists, and he’s smart and powerful enough to pose a real threat throughout the story.
What really makes him work, however, is his complexity. Like all human beings, Su-Won is a mix of good and evil, good intentions and horrible actions. Because of this, both the reader and the characters can not only empathize, understand, and connect with him, but also judge him more accurately against their own belief sets, moral compasses, or logic. Su-Won is not simply some shadowy figure that exists for Yona and the audience to hate, but an individual person with a unique set of values, goals, and morals that are, because of their dimension, more readily available to interact with and critique.
As the most obvious example, I’ll point to how this complexity shapes and informs his relationships with Yona and Hak.
In the beginning of the story, Yona is so devastated by Su-Won’s betrayal she’s nearly catatonic, relying completely on warrior bodyguard Hak to drag her to safety. Likewise, Hak, who had determined that he would spend the rest of his life protecting the future king and queen of the kingdom, is thrown into an internal tailspin of grief and rage over the great wound that is Su-Won’s betrayal.
The experience naturally brings them closer together, but as their paths cross with Su-Won over time, you get to see how their perceptions of him change, as well as how it affects them. Yona, as she grows in maturity, comes to see Su-Won in a more gracious light, even admitting he might be the best option for king. Hak, meanwhile, lives driven by grief and rage over Su-Won’s betrayal. Because Su-Won is not simply some cardboard cutout for them to collectively decry and destroy, it creates opportunities for all of them (and the audience) to grow in relationship to each other, to Su-Won himself, and to the themes and moral questions the show is trying to explore.
There’s a lot more I could say about Su-Won, but as these are meant to be fairly short, I’ll cut off here. What about you, though? Any thoughts on Su-Won or Yona of the Dawn in general? Any complex antagonists you enjoy? On a separate note, is this something you enjoyed or would like to see more of? Anything else you wanted me to cover? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to sign-up for my newsletter for Story Shots and updates.