On…The Legend of Korra

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Apologies for my absence, but I’ve just moved into my new flat in London! Anyway, I have no proper internet set up yet but I do have limited access to public wifi which is what I’m using now. The lack of a solid internet connection does have some perks though, mostly because it finally gave me some time to watch some good TV series. The Legend of Korra (sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender) was one of those on my list.

Now, I have to confess, I did not watch every episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I watched the first two seasons (or books) but I had the final episodes of the last season spoiled for me, and I just didn’t go back and catch the ones I missed. But then I heard about The Legend of Korra, a sequel set in the same universe but slightly further into the future and I was intrigued. Indeed, one of the strongest points of the Avatar series, in my opinion, was its beloved setting and its imaginative world. It was also a slightly simplified microcosm of a world, where there were definitive territories and the conflicts between them were essentially just power struggles. What was great was how it resembled our world and drew on elements of the feudal-era, but interwove that key fundamental difference: the ability of ‘bending’. For those who haven’t watched the series, bending is sort of a psychic/telekinetic ability that certain humans possess in the world of Avatar, and it allows them to manipulate a particular element: water, fire, earth or air. In the world of Avatar though, there is one special person who has the potential to learn all four types of bending and that person is called the Avatar.

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The Legend of Korra then, tells the story of the new Avatar called Korra, who at the start of the series, has already mastered water, fire and earth bending. She is tenacious, full of energy and her trainers remark that she lacks restraint. Whilst her physical abilities are strong, she seems to lack the spiritual side of powers that other Avatars of the past have had. Now, it is time for her to learn air bending but the only teacher in the world, Tenzin, tells her he is preoccupied with matters in the city and that he does not have the time to teach her. Undeterred, Korra embarks on a journey to learn air bending, which involves travelling to the world’s first industrialised city: Republic City. Whilst there, she discovers the criminal underbelly of the city, participates in a new sport called ‘Pro-Bending’ and uncovers a sinister plot involving an anti-bending protest group run by a mysterious masked man called Amon.

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Now there are plenty of throwbacks for fans of the original series. Many of the characters have direct relations to the characters we loved. Katara appears in the first episode as one of Korra’s mentors and as a healer. Tenzin is Aang’s son, and he lives on Air Temple Island with a wife and three adorable children. Through Korra’s adventures, we meet Lin Beifong who is Toph Beifong’s daughter. Fans of the original series will surely find a lot to love here, as the show is just packed with references and cool fanservice to Avatar: The Last Airbender. It is a proper sequel, one which references the original series liberally whilst not letting the original overshadow its successor. The show is very firmly about Korra’s generation: a new generation growing up in a new type of world full of industrial and technological improvements.

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The new characters are a lively bunch. Korra meets the two brothers Mako and Bolin when she sneaks off to watch a pro-bending match. The brothers are in a competitive pro-bending team with lots of spirit and aspirations to rise to the top of the league. Mako is the more aloof, serious older brother whilst Bolin is the goofy younger brother. Later, they meet a beautiful girl called Asami, who almost runs over Mako on her motorbike, and subsequently becomes romantically interested in him. Of course, this puts tension on the team, as Korra has a secret crush on Mako, creating a love triangle which entangles the characters even more. Whilst the combination of these characters isn’t quite as compelling as I found Aang and his friends, I feel there’s a lot of potential in there to develop it further. I think a lot of the relationship building stuff gets lost in the fast-paced nature of the show, but it’s a fairly reasonable sacrifice to make when the overarching plot is so much more interesting.

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One of the coolest features of The Legend of Korra is the new, slightly more futuristic setting. Republic City was Aang’s visionary utopia, a city where the different tribes could live together in harmony. Of course, like most utopian projects, things quickly take a turn for the worst and the city is ruled by triads and gangs who terrorise the average citizen with their superior bending prowess. Furthermore, the city is threatened by a protest movement called The Equalists, who see bending as evil and benders as oppressing the non-benders.

There is technology involved too. The Equalists utilise advancements in technology to ‘equalise’ the playing field, using things such as electric gloves or mech suits to take on benders. The whole technological angle reminds me of more a steampunk setting, rather than the traditional feudal Japanese setting of the original series. Plus, these advancements seem to have pushed certain types of bending into the forefront. Metal bending (a variant of earth bending) seems much more prevalent now, and indeed, much more useful, and the police force of Republic City primarily use metal bending to chase down suspects and cuff them. Electricity bending (variant of fire bending) is used liberally too. Although the city still has many traditional elements, these are called into conflict with the newer developments.

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This is most exemplified by the new sport called Pro-Bending. Whereas older folk like Tenzin see it as an embarrassment and a cruel mockery of the ancient noble art of bending, the younger generations love it and see it as an exciting competition. I particularly like the fact that each team must consist of a fire, air and water bender, which seems to showcase how far the series has come since Aang’s time. Republic City, in this respect, succeeds as a melting pot for the different tribal nations.

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With this new setting, it seems to have opened up the writers to new themes and new types of conflicts. Indeed, my first impression of The Legend of Korra was how mature the themes were for a show which is presumably aimed at younger audiences (it’s shown on Nickelodeon after all). The Equalist movement presents a rather radical view of the world of Avatar, and its members aren’t your ordinary warmongering villains. Instead, they are simply people who feel oppressed and disenfranchised by the various bending forces in the city. It’s hard not to sympathise with them. We see firsthand how the bending triads are terrorising the city and extorting the common worker for their own personal gain. Even the city politicians, the councilmen, are all elite benders in their own right and it’s suggested that their positions of authority are gained through bending prowess and the prestige that comes from that. So when Amon, a charismatic but enigmatic figure, rises up and gives these normal non-benders their own powers and technology to fight back, the show starts asking some hard moral questions about social unrest, inequalities between different classes of people as well as the use of terrorism in light of the imbalance of power.

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I was pleasantly surprised by the consistently good writing of The Legend of Korra. Not only did it manage to handle very dark and oftentimes, incredibly complex themes, it does so in such an enjoyable way. The serious moments are interspersed with hilarious moments of comedy, and the greater socio-political climate is seamlessly woven into the more personal narrative of Korra’s life. It manages to mix together all these elements to create a show which is highly entertaining but thought provoking as well. Indeed, I found myself transitioning from laughing at loud at the hilarious antics of Tenzin’s kids to feeling great concern over the fate of the conflict-ridden city in a matter of moments. This show moves at a fast pace, and there is never a moment of filler. It’s a refreshing change in a genre which is usually full of nonsensical filler, and the show feels much cleverer for it: it’s carefully designed to only show you what you need, and nothing more, which of course, leaves me desperate for more.

Furthermore, as a cartoon, it has a wonderful art style. Mixing the more traditional Asian imagery with elements of fantasy, steam-punk and even at times, sci-fi, the world is gorgeously realised through smooth and detailed animation. The fight scenes in particular are some of the best animated sequences I’ve ever seen, with fluid but exciting movements and perfectly choreographed martial art spectacles. Bending as well has received a bit of an update since Aang’s time, and the use of combined elements as well as people discovering new ways of utilising the elements (rocket powered hands, anyone?) are really cool to see.

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Overall, The Legend of Korra is a fantastic cartoon. Its realistic portrayal of a world which combines magic and technology is incredibly innovative, and the writing is just top-notch. Dialogues between characters feel meaningful and the overarching plots are very clever and well-written. The Legend of Korra is truly a neat little package of 12 episodes so far. I think there’s a lot going for it, even if you didn’t watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, so I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys a show which combines both drama and action. So I look forward to its second season with great anticipation, and I feel this is quickly going to become one of my favourite TV shows.

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