“First Suk Ju will be killed to show Kang what it feels like to have one of his own blood killed, then I will fill this house with suspicion and instability, little by little until fear and hate boil them alive, and with certainty, they burn their world to the ground.”
Yaksha is the best show I have seen in a long time, it has everything a well written drama should have and more. If Game of Thrones and Spartacus: Blood and Sand adopted a Korean child its name would be Yaksha. Lasting only twelve impressive episodes Yaksha is the only drama I have sat through once and then immediately after completing the last episode I watched the series again. It’s a complex blood filled tale of feuding families, swords, sex, carnage, slavery, loyalties, deception and the pursuit of power. It really fuses a dense cloud of characters all with different goals and crowd pleasing elements of battles, lust, and even a bit of humor. Yaksha like Game of Thrones and Spartacus supports itself with incredibly strong storytelling, writing, acting, and focus.
Set in the ancient Korean city of Hanyang in a tumultuous period where the political scene is unstable and multiple ambitious politicians are grabbing power. A young king will do anything to strengthen his shaky position in court and his biggest rival for power is Vice premier Kang. The King’s childhood friend and our main character Baek Rok (Jo Dong Hyuk) leads a secret force loyal to the king, the “Black Cloud Swords.” Baek Rok lives for his king, his brother Baek Kyul (Seo Do Young), The Black cloud swords and his currently missing ex-lover Jung Yeon (Jun Hye Bin).
The first four episodes deal exclusively with the political mind games and manipulations of the king and others. The king uses his Black Clouds to carry out his “dirty deeds” and the Vice premier Kang uses his influence in the courts and police force to weaken the King. The vice premiers son in law who’s in charge of the police force also happens to be Baek Kyul. Their manipulations play out like an elegant game of chess. In fact these first four episodes I think easily could have been stretch into an entire season and it feels a little crammed with many interwoven plot lines and characters being introduced rapidly. It’s paced with precision though and with a tight grip on the storytelling and a real understanding of who each person is it makes the complexity easier to tolerate. Just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on things, episode five happens and everything changes.
If the first four episodes were an elegant chess game episode five turns the table over and lights it on fire. Basically the Black Clouds get betrayed and led into a trap by Baek Kyul who is filled with more ambition then brotherly love. In a heart breaking scene the characters you have grown to love are essentially wiped out leaving the King in a compromising mood. Baek Kyul is honored, the Black Clouds decimated and the political scene of Hanyang is revolutionized but In a miraculous twist Baek Rok is alive and washes ashore a hundred miles away in an outskirts town of Japan, he is taken as a slave and a gladiator. The rest of the series Baek Rok story is one of redemption where he must fight for his life in the arena while trying to find a way home to exact revenge. Back in Hanyang the King and the Premier are still playing games using people and orchestrating events to secure loyalties to prevent a coming civil war. But a new player of the game emerges Jung Yeon as a new “lady of the house”, one whose motives are unclear, but is ruthless in all aspects.
The strength of this series is quickly noticeable in its characters; they are all tremendously interesting and fully engaged in their own schemes. Ambitious morally ambiguous (and bankrupt) characters are what make for interesting stories and this story is bursting with them. I’ll just say that there are way too many too name but these are some of the best. Baek Rok is amazing I rooted for him every single second. His brother had a lot of depth to him and at first he is easy to hate for what he did to Baek Rok but I grew to enjoy all his layers. Jung Yeon is a beautiful devious lady and I was left trying to guess her next move. While a gladiator Baek Rok befriends a gambler whose name I don’t think they ever said but he was a hilarious bastard and their friendship I felt really attached to. There is a lady who runs a bordello who is incredibly sneaky and fun to watch.
This show balanced drama, action, political intrigue and humor very well. For instance while in Japan Baek Rok doesn’t speak Japanese so he needs everything translated but the translations are always misinformed, even though I don’t speak either language but I still found the bickering this caused to be hilarious. There’s lot going for this series, the sets are well made, it’s well shot, the sword fights are choreographed interestingly, there’s plenty of blood and the characters all tie it together nicely. I don’t watch a lot of Kdramas but if there are more like this one I will have to pick some more up, seriously if you can recommend a similar show let me know in the comments! If you are in the mood for a smart adult themed Drama I would say check this one out.