Avatar: The Legend of Korra – 03

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My take on “Korra” is pretty much the same after this week’s episode as it was after the two pre-airs – I’m finding the plot a lot more interesting than the characters.  That’s rather unusual for me, as I almost always focus on character first, but that aspect may come around in time.  For now I’m finding most of the performances rather flat (including J.K. Simmons, oddly enough) and the dialogue mostly on the generic side.  I’m just not feeling this cast like I did the first one (and yes, that connection happened from the start last time) and the voice talent seems to have that peculiar disease that’s endemic to American cartoons, a mixture of overacting and flat line readings that the first show seemed to do a better job avoiding, despite it’s mostly inexperienced cast (and indeed, maybe that was the secret).  But it’s still early days yet, and characters can grow on you.

One thing I find sort of amusing is that Bryke seem to have sucked all the air out of the shipping wars before they can even begin this time, intentionally or not.  I never cared too much about the romance side of the first series but the wars themselves were fun to observe, and it really seemed as if Mike and Bryan fanned the flames on purpose.  Here, it appears as if the ship sailed in the second ep – there’s no effort being made to hide the fact that Korra and Mako are the future couple.  The gaze at each other across the bay from their respective towers, they dream about each other, they sleep on each other’s shoulders.  I don’t see a lot of chemistry with them yet, but the deal appears to be closed.  I don’t have much of a rooting interest – I like Bolin better as a character so far (perhaps he’s destined to marry a woman named Anne) but I’m a little worried be may end up the designated buffoon, the guy there to make the others look smart and formidable.  Of course it looked like that might be Sokka’s fate too, and he grew into one of the more interesting members of the original cast.

In terms of premise I’m much happier with the way things are going here.  I’m enjoying the world-building that’s been happening for these episodes, right down to the very clever newsreel-style episode recap at the beginning.  Seeing the Avatar dynamic in a kind of steampunk 1930’s setting is really delightful, and it’s fascinated to see technology and what’s effectively Eastern mysticism butt heads in a very direct way.  And it’s not as though professional bending has given Benders any kind of refuge – they may be watched and listened to by the masses, but they’re still being exploited by a sleazeball getting rich off their abilities

Most of the drama – for the first season at least – looks like it’s going to come from Amon, the revolutionary and “Equalist” with his army of “Chi Blockers”, and the political firestorm he’s brewing up around himself.  I like the moral ambiguity of this setup, as it’s clear that Amon’s POV is not entirely wrong – and we see he actually has a commonality with Bolin and Mako in that both their parents were killed by rogue firebenders.  The plot involving Bolin being kidnapped by Equalists while working for the “Triple Threat Triad” (yes, this Avatar universe has street gangs) was strictly routine, but it gave us a fascinating look inside Amon’s cult of personality (and Korra looking very cute as a flapper).  He’s apparently developed the ability (previously limited to Avatars only) to permanently take away a Bender’s ability, and claims that the Spirit World has spoken to him and told him to restore balance.  I think it’s fair to ask – does this world look like it’s had balance brought to it by Avatars and Benders?  Will it be worse off for the gangsters who were Amon’s test subjects to have their bending taken from them?  Amon’s methods are certainly dubious, but if I were a non-Bender in this world, I think I’d find his message very tempting.  And his speech about “all wars through history” having been caused by bending certainly has echoes in the real world.

It’s interesting to blog an American cartoon obviously influenced by anime in the midst of all the anime I cover – the differences really are striking.  Japanese actors really approach seiyuu work so differently than American actors do, and there’s much more willingness to demand more of the audience.  I think that’s a function of the fact that apart from sitcoms and the “Adult Swim” styled pot humor on Cartoon Network, even the best American cartoons (and there’s no better right now than “Korra”) are still viewed fundamentally as kids’ entertainment, where in Japan animation is simply another medium for telling a story.  It must be said, though, that the art and animation (and music for that matter) on “Korra” are really stunning.  The difference in budget is clear, and the fight scenes this week were beautifully animated and nicely choreographed.  There’s no American cartoon closer to the anime experience than Avatar, but it’s still so fascinatingly different.

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  1. K

    it really seemed as if Mike and Bryan fanned the flames on purpose.

    I didn't see that at all. Occasionally there might have been a misleading trailer (although that was all on Nick not M&B) but the series made it abundantly clear in the first series who was going to be the end couple as well. It was always Aang & Katara. There was never any indication of Zuko & Katara except in some fan's head. I was never a big shipper either (except maybe Sokka/Suki) but I could always tell who was going to end up with who in the series.

    I think the only one I was unsure about at first was Zuko & Mai but they grew on me.

    Now as for Korra…I do love the world building a lot but I have to admit unlike you I am becoming attached to the characters. Maybe it's not instant love yet but it wasn't like that so quickly with the Avatar characters either.

    I also don't really see Bolin as a fool, just a bit naive being protected by his older brother for so long. He obviously has a good heart but I wonder if his naivety will come into play in his development (and perhaps Mako's development too about letting Bolin grow up). Korra also is obviously very sheltered and I wonder how that will come into play with her character.

  2. J

    Hmm, you actually summed up my likes and worries for this show right now. Actually, that really made me ask want to ask you something as regards to your writing style, Enzo:

    If I may, lemme say that I dig much more these kinds of posts of yours, where it's less summary and more opinions (another series I see you doing this with is GoT…American syndrome, lol?). Just saying, there have been many times where reading your impressions on other series, like Mirai Nikki or Steins Gates, left me wanting more…You write about literally about what happened. But the person just saw that, so it comes off as a bit redundant. But hey, that's just me, and I don't mean to be rude; just wanted to share you my opinion 🙂

    Anyway, about the episode…It's more of what you just said though, lol:
    -Really digging the setting and mood. The trench coats, the factories, dat scarf…
    -You nailed it with Bolin. But I'm a bit on the extreme end: I'm hating this Korra and Mako stuff. All he does is grunt and complain, while Bolin was friendly and close to Korra since the beginning. I hate to see these cartoon girls fall for the cold and apathetic guy. I'm also assuming Bolin will clear off the way and never again intervene in this couple, despite he was the first to invite Korra to the arena because of her looks. Even if it's the second episode, I can see where this will all go if they follow this kid-show atmosphere…
    -Amon is totally a bender.
    -I'll have to disagree with the animation: it's definetly on the good side, no question about that, but something that has always left me unsatisfied about Avatar is its choppy style: they barely have any InBetweens if you ask me, it's just keyframes. As a result, I can't help but find it a bit lacking in the fluid side of movements…

    One good thing though: we're only three episodes in, and there's been so much stuff going on, which is awesome. The first series had more of a single-episode adventure format in its first season, so Korra's good. Unfortunately, just that up to now: 'good'.

  3. K

    About Mako…I would hope that if he has a relationship develop with Korra he won't be a jerk to her. Obviously Mako has some issues but for his character type they already showed that he has a soft side towards his brother. Usually with these type of characters that side takes longer to open up.

    Obviously Mako is a good person, he just needs to lighten up a bit. I am hoping for a little more humor to his character. Though I can see him have a comic side similar to Mai, more deadpan.

  4. It's never an active decision to me about which series to express more "opinions" in posts – generally speaking, I try to put as much analysis and as little recap in as possible. The funny thing is that some series you cite in each category are ones where I've read the source material, and some I haven't.

  5. J

    Yeah, maybe it's just me 😛 It's just that during Mirai Nikki for example, it seemed to me you were *so* careful not to spoil anything (not that there's anything wrong with that!) that sometimes you may have limited yourself a bit as regard to what to write about. I dunno, I'm not the blogger, so I guess it's not my place to talk 😛

  6. There may be something to that, but you also cited S;G – which I hadn't had any experience with before the anime. So I can't see the pattern, if one exists – it's an interesting topic.

  7. J

    Granted, Bolin's a bender, so he'll likely be more useful than Sokka was. But, alas, it's just like you said–I fear he may end up being the buffoon.

  8. See, I think the fact that Sokka wasn't a bender was what made him interesting. He was the one character in the Gaang who had to try and make his impact without bending, and as a result we saw him trying to find his way using traditional martial arts, etc. It finally settled that he was the one in Aang's retinue who had the best sense of big-picture strategy, and he was vital in their ultimate success.

    I'd point out that he was also the most pragmatic in the group – it was he who basically pushed the potential benefits of an alliance with Zuko.

  9. J

    Yeah, it's common knowledge that Sokka's brains was what differentiated him from the rest the most. But eh, in my opinion it wasn't a 100% success, because ultimately, I recall him as being the guy with the most comic relief–the buffoon, lol. Sure, he was the arguably the strategist, but that's not an attribute that makes him a unique character: in a story, I think that skill can be easily given to anyone for plot's sake; anyone can come up with a plan to save the day when needed the most.

    I actually downloaded and rewatched Book 2's finale from the first series, where I still think the series was at its peak of glory. Nostalgia aside, it was very interesting to compare it with Korra: Aang's series had its flaws here and there, but it was alright. To me, The Last Airbender stands as a groundbreaking show for american cartoons, so some small issues don't compare with the greatness and enjoyment that series provided me with when young.

    But we're with Korra now, God knows how many years it's been since the first series, and its original audience (kids, mainly) has now become teenagers at the very least. And true indeed, Korra's cast are a bit more grown than the kids we saw in Aang's adventure. But Korra's narrative or progression hasn't blown me away like back then, it's like an 8/10. So, lastly, I remain dubious as to this sequel: how will they try to drop my jaw this time? Are they even going for that? There are lots of potential for this series, so I'm just hoping the studio will tap into those…

    It did take a whole season for the first series to really hit its stride, so I guess it's no winder if they're taking their time to deliver the goodness. And honestly, if this is supposed to be the 'slow, poor' delivery (in comparison to what we're in store for) It's awesome!

  10. I agree, S2 was the creative apex for Avatar. But the series did have summits in the final season – the "Ember Island Players" bit may have been the funniest in the series, and the payoff of finally seeing Zuko redeemed had some real emotional highlights.

  11. w

    What fascinates me about Amon is that he and the Equalists are a threat literally custom-made to hit Korra's weakest point.

    Korra is a brilliant fighter. Her solution for almost everything is punching it in the face (figuratively.) This has got her through almost every challenge that she has faced so far. But she can't punch the Equalist movement in the face–there's too many of them, and just enough truth in their words to sting. Most of the Equalist soldiers move too fast for her to hit them. And if she even tries getting close to Amon, he could just suck out her bending and probably render her completely broken.

    The solution to all of this, strangely enough, is Korra's airbending lessons. If she improves her spiritual side and learns to approach things sideways, rather than straight on, she might have a chance. We've already seen her improve, so airbending mastery is hardly beyond her grasp. The question is whether or not she will have the time to reach that level, and as we've seen from the next episode preview patience is not Korra's strong suit.

    So yeah–maybe none of the characters are as immediately amazing as Uncle Iroh or Toph, but the smartness of the writing in this series has completely sold me on this. And I disagree with you about Korra–from the very first episode I thought that she was a fantastic protagonist. The fact that she is very clearly the wrong person for the situation she has found herself in makes her even better!

  12. h

    I always watch/read things for the characters first, and everything else second, so I know what you mean in your first paragraph. I didn't realise it when I watched the episode, but you're right — the plot was keeping me more engaged than the characters, which rarely ever happens. (Out of all the characters so far, I like Tenzin the most, but he didn't have much screen time in this episode.) I'm still on the fence about Mako, but I suspect that he'll grow on me. I didn't even completely click with the original Avatar series until 'Jet' and 'The Storm'. These guys are clearly capable of writing great character material, so I'm expecting it very soon now that the basic foundation of the series has been set.

    On the note of Bolin:

    'Of course it looked like that might be Sokka’s fate too, and he grew into one of the more interesting members of the original cast.'

    Yep. In fact, I can pinpoint the moment where I began to see Sokka as more than just comic relief/the buffoon — it was in the episode 'Jet', which was a fair way into season one. I think Bolin will develop in time, just like the other characters. The next episode looks interesting.

  13. R

    i still think that not the same energy bending that Aang used on Firelord Ozai, maybe some kind high level Chi Blocking technique.

  14. J

    Maybe he's a *gasp* wind bender~! Using some super powerful wind technique inside the enemy's body to stop his chakra flows or something :B Oh the irony: Korra's final enemy, a wind bender.

  15. K

    I also agree that the plot is much more fascinating at this point in time. I was expecting the pro-bending plot point to take up the next couple of episodes, but I`m glad more light is being shed on Aman and the revolution.

    The characters haven`t had too much time to shine, so it`s expected that they will seem not as compelling.

  16. S

    While this is a "kids' American anime", how has no one commented on this being, easily, the most subversive political message most of the audience will see in popular media? This storyline is going to be right out of Animal Farm. Just replace "Equalist" with "Communist" and you're pretty much there. Right down to factory meetings in the 1930s, angling for revolution in the country.

    They've also got henchmen and they're attempting to take over the local gangs. It's pretty clear where they borrowed the ideas for this story from.

    And only established creators could get away with this type of story, given the play Marxist thought still has in a good chunk of the country's thought. This is a really rare beast of a series, plot wise.

  17. a

    I have to agree that I like the plot more than the characters. It's a brilliant mix of Code Geass and Gakuen Alice in my opinion. The divisions between benders and non-benders ( I like Mako's character but he feels like a stereotypical bishie. They should add a dimension of weakness to him. He wants to appear strong so to hide it. Man, that would seal his character's likability. I also I agree that I didn't like how they shipped the Mako and Korra right away. It gives us less thrill and more expectations. Aside from the things you mentioned, Korra decided to save Mako before Bolin. You can check out the last few minutes and you'll see it in the escape sequence. Sibling rivalry is suppose to be more interesting and angsty and this, I'm just hoping it'll improve in the later episodes.

  18. A

    Am I the only one who facepalmed quite a lot throughout this episode? I know this is essentially a show that is targeted at the kids to teenagers crowd, but that doesn't mean they have to make some of the characters act so stupid to make Korra look good. For one, what the heck is the need for those invitations to be shown at the door when they were clearly being distributed freely to the public by that Equalist campaigner. And to draw a map of a so called "secret" meeting place on the back of the flyers your giving out to people has got to be the idea of someone with a few screws loose. And when the "Avatar" can so easily stumble into the secret gathering, where the heck are the police?

  19. A

    The best part of the episode lmfao.


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