Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Things That I Love: The Legend of Korra

When it comes to television series, I'm almost always late for the party.  I tend to hop on board the love train after one or two seasons have passed, when the show is safely critically acclaimed and therefore worth investing my time.

Such was the case with Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, The Legend of Korra.  I learned about Avatar at the same time as its much-maligned film version, and thought little more about it.  But after Doug Walker from That Guy With the Glasses did a review of the film/series, I became intrigued enough to check it out.  While Avatar was not readily available,* Korra was.  And oh my God, after one episode, I was in love.

A little context: since childhood, I have been an absolute nut for great animation.  Until I was 10 or 11, I was convinced that I would become an animator, and spent my afternoons doodling comical dogs and dragons on large sheets of paper.  Disney was the default style, though other animation houses always challenged.  Still, my world really expanded in my 20s, when I was introduced to anime.  The fluid, realistic movements; the mature, complex story lines; the complete willingness to be dark -- really dark.  Though staples like Neon Genesis Evangelion and the creepy Akira intrigued me, the anime that really caught my fancy was Serial Experiments Lain (the likely subject of my next post).

Both The Legend of Korra and Avatar are basically anime.  Yes, they are both created by Americans and yes, the characters' lip movements actually match their words, but otherwise, they follow all of the anime conventions.  Of the two, Korra seems more committed to the anime approach, with the characters looking as though they stepped out of Cowboy Bebop, and their faces constantly going off-model when they get agitated.

You mentioned the Mako!  Never mention the Mako!

But What Is The Legend of Korra About?

Spoilers for Avatar and Korra ahead!

In the Avatar/Korra universe, the world is divided into four nations: the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads.  Each nation has people capable of "bending" an element, or manipulating it to that person's will.  In the Earth Kingdom it's earth, in the Fire Nation it's fire... you get the idea.  However, just one person can master all four elements -- the Avatar.  The Avatar is kind of like the Dalai Lama: a spiritual being who is reincarnated over the generations.  In the Avatar/Korra universe, the Avatar is reincarnated in a cycle among the four nations: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water.  The Avatar's task is to maintain "balance" among the nations.

In Avatar, Aang was born to the Air Nomads.  After running away from his destiny and accidentally getting frozen for 100 years or so, Aang learned that the world was now at war, with the Fire Nation colonizing the other nations and seeking to wipe out their benders.  Aang had to learn how to bend fire, water, and earth, and joined with his friends to successfully defeat Fire Lord Ozai.

Fast forward 70 years.  Aang would go on to mate with his friend and longtime crush, Katara, and have three children, the youngest of whom was Tenzin, an air bender.  Aang also got together with his friend, Fire Lord Zuko, and helped society jump forward a couple of centuries in technology.  Instead of the largely feudal and pre-industrial society of Avatar, the Korra universe seems to borrow heavily from the early 20th Century.  The roads are filled with "Sato mobiles," radio is popular, and news reels reminiscent of the ones that ran during Saturday matinees recount previous episodes.  Oh, and in the 70 years since Aang's victory over Lord Ozai, he managed to establish a city the size of New York called Republic City.

Aang would die at the age of 66, and the Avatar cycle would shift to the Water Tribe.  Korra, a Southern Water Tribesman, becomes the new Avatar, showing her abilities at the startlingly early age of four.  Then, instead of traveling the world to learn from bending masters, she is kept cloistered at the South Pole by the Order of the White Lotus, while her masters come to her.  All except Tenzin, who must attend to troublesome issues in Republic City, where he is a council member.  So Korra decides to leave the Southern Water Tribe and stay with him on Air Temple Island, across the bay from the city.

Of course Tenzin resists at first, but ultimately gives in.  Of course Korra sticks out like a sore thumb in the Big City.  And of course she has a love interest, and even a love triangle, which gets impressively complicated despite Season One being only 12 episodes long.  Yet despite these conventions, the show gets so much right.

Why Korra Works

Animation.  There are many things that make The Legend of Korra a fantastic show.  The most obvious is the damn gorgeous animation, which is a step above the original series, and above every other series that I can think of.  That includes animated shows legendary for their visuals, like Batman: The Animated Series.  Computer animation and hand drawings appear seamlessly woven together, and the movements are always fluid.  (Though that may be less the case in Season Two.  More on that later.)  The character designs are graceful, and Republic City has appealing touches that make it appear like a cross between 1920s New York and medieval Japan.

Given how complex many of the character movements are, that's saying quite a lot.  Korra does not shy away from lengthy, intricate fight scenes, such as during the "pro-bending" tournaments where benders battle in a ring for a championship.

But it's not just that the animation is amazing during major action scenes.  It also captures tense moments very effectively.  Scenes where Korra or other characters are getting blood bended are so intense, so gripping, that you just can't look away.  It reminds me of Serial Experiments Lain, where another monster sought to control the main character with the jerk of his hand and a scary, intense gaze.

Characters.  The characters are also compelling for the most part.  Some fans may be justified in griping that the Korra characters are not as deep and compelling as the Avatar characters, but that may be because Avatar spanned 61 episodes while Korra, so far, has aired 15.  Yet even within the 15, we have met several compelling characters.

There's Asami Sato, who initially seems destined to be Season One's "rich bitch" villain, until she learns that her father is evil and gives up the only life she has ever known to fight on the side of right, never once complaining.  Not even after her boyfriend dumps her for Korra.  Tenzin and his family are also fascinating, with the stern Tenzin being one of the world's last air benders, always feeling the weight of the Air Nomad culture on his shoulders.  Lin Beifong is another favorite; the daughter of a character from Avatar, she initially seems like a jerk, but later reveals herself to be a jerk who is also a badass, willing to sacrifice herself to get others out of harm's way.  Mako and Bolin, two pro-bending brothers whom Korra befriends, have potential.  It would have been nice if Mako could have gotten a bit more development before he became Korra's boyfriend, or if Bolin were less dumbed-down in the later episodes.  But their childhood spent in the streets is a rich storyline yet to be fully tapped.

Then there is Korra.  In Season One, I thought that she struck just the right balance between arrogant and vulnerable, self-righteous and comical.  She is an Avatar who has known all her life that she is THE Chosen One, as opposed to past Avatars who learned when they were 16.  It's amazing that she's as grounded as she is.  Korra is ready to go to war, but unlike Aang, she doesn't have a Fire Lord Ozai to bring down.  Instead, her obstacles are subtler, requiring her to use skills that are not her strong points.  In Season Two, she seems a little more dour, but I'm hoping that lifts as the season progresses.

Storylines/Themes.  It is too early to weigh in on Season Two, but Season One was unafraid to tackle the scenario of what to do when there is no Big Bad to fight.  What is the Avatar's purpose in a "peaceful" society, where there is no black and white, only gray?  Where the ones who were the heroes (benders) may now be the oppressors?  Many fans have rightly noted that the series creators do not explore this theme as much as they could have.  However, even if Season One is only 75 percent successful, that is still one hell of a 75 percent.

When Korra first comes to Republic City, she learns about an Equalist movement headed by a mysterious figure called Amon.  The Equalists resent the benders' power and control, and given that benders not only head the city's power structure, but also spread fear through organized crime rings, it's not hard to see why.  Yet the Equalists come across as fringe characters until Bolin gets kidnapped and taken to Amon's "revelation," where Amon demonstrates that he can deprive benders of their abilities -- permanently.  From there, Korra must overcome her greatest fear -- that she will lose her Avatar powers and be reduced to nothing -- and bring down Amon.

Not only is that a compelling storyline, but it also features several twists that no amount of trope knowledge can prepare you for.  For instance, it's easy to surmise that Councilman Tarrlok of the Northern Water Tribe is a shifty slime ball with some connection to Amon.  However, I was not prepared for what that connection was, or his character changes along the way.  

If anything, the ambitions of this storyline makes it unfortunate that Season One has only 12 episodes, and that each of Korra's planned four seasons are self-contained.  This storyline could easily have flowed into the second season.  There could have been more time spent outlining the power imbalance between benders and non-benders, and especially Korra's life choices after she is temporarily deprived of her bending powers.  Instead, her bending powers are restored roughly 10 seconds after she gets in touch with her past lives, and everyone is saved!

Here is hoping that one of the future seasons will pick up that dangling thread.  I would love to see some sort of inverse of the Amon storyline: say Asami decides to save her father's company not by taking away benders' powers, but by creating gloves that give non-benders bender-like powers.  How would the bending elite react then?

Other Points, Questions, and Quibbles

Kolin For-evah!  Count me among those who think that Korra is better matched with Bolin than Mako.  Their personalities are more in sync, and while Bolin has moments of cowardliness, I suspect he would have an easier time being honest with her than Mako does.  Too bad the show's creators decided to turn him into a sideshow clown.

Where Is Season Two Headed?  One good thing about this series is that it's hard to predict.  Yes, it appears that Korra's uncle Unalaq, the chief of the Northern Water Tribe, is a cold, calculating baddie, but it was easy to think that of Tarrlok as well.  (What is it with guys from the Northern Water Tribe?)  While he might be a bad guy, I suspect we'll learn that he's not the Big Bad.




Eska is!



Just kidding.

What Is Korra's Overarching Goal?  Avatar's journey was pretty clearly defined: a peaceful monk who just wanted to be normal must fulfill his destiny by battling the greatest evil on earth and restoring balance to the world.  According to the creators, Korra's goal to become more spiritual... which seems rather vaguely defined.  In practice, it could be awesome, but I have no idea how they'll portray that for four seasons.

How Does Blood Bending Take Benders' Powers?  So Amon is a powerful blood bender.  But while blood bending paralyzes and causes pain, it isn't clear how it permanently removes bending power.  If just blood bending is enough, wouldn't that make any water bender powerful enough to erase another bender's powers?  So much for needing the Avatar to giveth and taketh powers away.


While Korra has its imperfections, it is a great series on the whole, and I eagerly await each new episode.   

* Meaning that I could not access the show without paying money.  Since then, I have found legitimate websites that showcase the Avatar episodes for free, and have been slowly working my way through the first season.

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