In outline it's like Fushigi Yuui, but more hard-edged and all set within the fantasy world, rather than making it an alternate reality for characters from contemporary Japan. There's a girl fighting for the future of a kingdom and recruiting a gang of male warriors in a plot that loosely has a quest structure.
It's also excellent. Strongly recommended, even though it doesn't take us to the end of the story and they're clearly going to make a second season. (Anything else would be unthinkable. It must be coming, surely?)
Yona is the daughter of a gentle, ill-regarded monarch. King Il of Kouka is middle-aged, a bit bumbling and a pacifist. His enemies call him weak. He hates weapons, has never sent his country to war and instead has been submitting and ceding territory to more aggressive empires. Yona at the start of the story is a typical teenager. It's her sixteenth birthday. There's nothing royal about her. She's self-obsessed, squabbles like a child with her bodyguard Hak and worries about how she can get her long-term crush Soo-won to notice her as a woman.
This first-round Yona is useless. She knows nothing about what's really happening in the kingdom or what her responsibilities might be as the heir to the throne. She has no power. She doesn't know how to fight. She's never had to lift a finger for herself and can't do anything but rely on others.
That's not my judgement, by the way. It's Yona's. She's harder on herself than anyone, when her world's been turned upside-down and she's dissecting her own inadequacies in order to address them, one by one. Yona is this show. It's not enough just to call her "the best thing about it". She's the show's heart. She's one of anime's strongest heroines, because of how far she travels and how hard she struggles to become what she wants to be. When she decides to learn archery, for instance, she practices and practices and practices. She fires two hundred arrows in the middle of the night until her hands are raw, every night, episode after episode. She cries. She gets scared. There's never a fight in which she wouldn't get crushed like an insect, including the ones she jumps into the middle of. However she's also determined to do her duty and she'll burn with fury when she sees cruelty.
She lost her mother to assassins long ago. She loses (in some sense) everyone who's precious to her except Hak. You can see how much it hurts her, but she never gives up. She's magnificent. She'll make your eyes prinkle.
She can be funny too, though. She and Hak are obviously destined for each other, but they interact like five-year-olds. Hak tries to break this sometimes, mind you. He's aware of Yona sexually and is having to fight it, although occasionally he tries to stir it a bit by being aggressively provocative. Amazingly, Yona doesn't even notice. She's oblivious. It's as if, in her head, she and Hak are the same gender. Much of the show's comedy is in the Hak-Yona double act.
There's a heavy theme of kings and government, I think, with particular emphasis on what might be perceived as weakness. King Il is a pacifist and there's a lot of discussion of this. Is it true, as his detractors say, that he's undermined the kingdom by not standing up to enemies? We see more than one way of ruling a country, the lesson of which might perhaps be that principles and wisdom aren't necessarily related. It's possible to be a good but naive man, giving a free hand to wicked men elsewhere. On the other hand, someone can be both pathetic and clear-sighted about what needs to be done. If a terrible man were doing a good job as king, should he be overthrown? Yona's seeing the kingdom at first hand, including some nasty bits that one really hopes her father hadn't been aware of.
Is it political? Sometimes, perhaps, although I think you'll see more on an Eastern political compass than a Western one. It slips around on the political axis, I think. It's clever and it's being elusive, exploring the ideas. Sometimes it's showing us the point of view of right-wing dick-waving, e.g. restoring Kouka to the great nation that it was! Praise the emperor! Banzai! (In fairness, many of the characters are right-wing dicks hankering for war and that's not to imply that the show's championing their point of view.) The question of giving up territory in particular is quite a hot potato in East Asia right now. However it's also engaging deeply with that pacifism issue and examining too many sides of the question for us even to be able to read its point of view. I want a second season partly because I really want to see where the show's planning to take these themes next.
Hmmm. Maybe I should track down the manga? It started in 2009 and it's still going, with 17 volumes so far. Apparently this is a very faithful adaptation.
Back to the plot! Yona picks up a bunch of boys, although most of them are dragons with superpowers and this anime isn't about shoujo wish-fulfilment. Thus there's only a modest amount of homoeroticism. Hak seems particularly popular, although I did notice that House Husband Yun doesn't mind being mistaken for a girl or getting marriage proposals from men. (Mind you, Yun also marks himself as a graceless brat the moment he opens his mouth.)
The boys are entertaining. Hak is abrasive and likes winding people up. Kija struggles a lot with the world's unfortunate tendency to be less polite, refined and well-mannered than him. Sinha's had a soul-destroying life and he doesn't have the first idea about dealing with people, but this can sometimes make him adorable. This show isn't a comedy, but it has a memorable cast and they're often very funny together.
I wasn't wild about the Good Pirates Who Don't Kill. Oh, they're watchable and dynamic characters, especially the Captain. I liked them as people. I'm just not a fan of heroic pirates in fiction, especially when you add in the Batman Factor.
An anime fan I know at work found ep.1 boring. I disagree, but I can see how someone might think that. Yona in ep.1 is still a teenager with Princess Problems. However the universe is about to give Yona an almighty kicking, after which you can rest assured that everything will change. This is a fantastic show. If you can watch it all without adoring Yona, you're mad.