starlady: Korra looks out over Republic City (legend of korra)
[personal profile] starlady
I finally finished this show a few weeks back, and I was really blown away by it in the end. It's easily one of the best animated shows of the past decade, and although I think Avatar was, in the end, a more polished work, to me Korra is better. Partly that's because of things like the setting (I'm a historian of modernity, and the 1920s setting was always going to be more appealing to me than Avatar's premodernity, but more on this later), and the music and the animation being better than Avatar, just because of the time that passed between them. But I also think Korra told a more complex story than Avatar did, and even if it didn't always succeed perfectly, that more complex story is the one that I think is more mature and more interesting.

Which isn't to say I don't love Avatar, because I did, but I think the contrasts between the two shows are telling. When you think about it, it's clear that Avatar is in many ways a very thoughtful take on the classic setup of children's literature: a group of orphans, or at least independent children, saving the world from evil. If you look at the Gaang, all of them either don't have parents (Sokka, Katara, and Aang, the latter of whom is mourning his entire culture and ethnic group, but not his parents specifically), or their parents are antagonists who have to be dealt with: Zuko's father obviously is the entire problem of the show, and Toph actually invents metalbending in the process of escaping from her parents. That's a pretty telling detail, actually. 

By contrast, in Korra, all of this is far more complicated. The characters are older to start with, and parents and children are shown to have active and at times actively difficult relationships throughout their lives, as are siblings. Tenzin and his siblings in S2 mirror the difficulties that Mako and Bolin have, just as the strained relationship between Lin and Su in S3 does, and Lin and Toph perhaps echo Aang and Tenzin. The antagonist of S2 is Korra's uncle, and she spends a great deal of time fighting her cousins. Asami's father's betrayal shapes her whole life in the series, and their relationship is only repaired at the very end of the show. If family is something that people can depend on in Korra, it's also something that people have to work at.

The depiction of romantic relationships in Korra is also far more YA than middle grade. While Avatar was almost parodically in tune with children's literature in its insistence on pairing off Aang and Katara at the end of the show (and, to their credit, Korra does show that they had a successful marriage), in Korra none of the younger characters are still with the people they were dating in S1 by the end of the series. The Korra/Mako relationship in particular is shown to be not good for either of them in S2, putting the lie to Korra's infatuated certainty that they were meant to be together. To their credit, both of them realize this. Note that this theme of "not all relationships are true love" is built into the series' backstory in that Tenzin and Lin broke up over her not wanting children, while Korra and Asami's romance is shown to have arisen out of a very strong friendship. Varrick and Zhu Li's marriage has similar origins in a long-standing unromantic association.

Korra also complicates Avatar in a thoughtful way: not only is Aang shown to have not always been the world's best father (despite, I'm quite sure, his best efforts), Toph is shown to have been actually bad at her job, and the world they created is also shown to be outgrowing their age. I said above that I like Korra better because of its modernity; I really liked that that modernity of the setting is also a modernity that's allowed to happen in politics as well, as Korra alters the role of the Avatar from a premodern sort of wandering sage with unquestionable political authority to more of a contingent, situated role--just as the Earth Kingdom goes from a bloated empire (hello, Qing China) to a collection of independent states with their own independence, just as Republic City threw off its undemocratic council for a democratically elected president. The Air Nation too evolves beyond the shape it held in Aang's day, and before--a shape that is clearly shown in S3 to not work for the present era and the present Air Nation.

The villains are far more complicated than Ozai was too. The problem with them, as I remarked on Twitter at one point and as Toph explicitly tells Korra, is that each of them have a point: none of them were wrong to want what they wanted, they just all went way too far in the name of their ideology and ideals. And significantly, as Asami points out, Korra's victories over all of her antagonists involved incorporating the good parts of their ideals into the world while discarding the extremism. Kuvira is the exception to this, actually, which I also think is pretty telling, just as the fact that Korra's final reconciliation to her own trauma and survival comes through working together with the very man who caused her trauma in the first place is quite a significant narrative choice.

Another thing I loved about Korra was the open but also argued with anime influence. It can't be a coincidence that Hiroshi Sato is a dead ringer for Hayao Miyazaki, particularly since some of the best episodes in the show, the Avatar Wan two-parter in S2, are very clearly very, very Miyazaki-esque. (The music, too: the use of the gamelan to denote the spirit world in S2 was so amazing, omg.) And the ends of both S2 and S4 owe a lot to Neon Genesis Evangelion--the S4 finale in particular and the Eva callbacks there sent shivers down my spine.

Anyway, again, this wasn't perfect. In particular, I'm quite wroth that Nick shortened S4, since I think the missing episode would have most liekly delivered more Korra/Asami and Varrick/Zhu Li character bits; some of the emotional beats in the last three episodes felt a bit rushed. Hopefully they'll all get more of that in the comics. And I liked S2--I know a lot of people didn't, and I actually stopped watching the show for a while because of that, but I wish I'd clued in earlier. S2 was actually pretty great, but S3 and S4 were even better. All in all, instant classic.

P.S. I haven't read all of [personal profile] beccatoria's essay on Korra because it's 10K words (omg), but the parts I have read, I've liked!

ETA: Amazing post on the evolution of bending between the shows and within Korra.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-25 12:13 (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
(Thank you for this! Mulling.)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-25 12:22 (UTC)
skygiants: Lin Bei Fong, from Legend of Korra, pointing to her eyes (got my eyes on you)
From: [personal profile] skygiants
Avatar still has more of my heart, but I think you're right that Korra is a more ambitious and challenging show. In the beginning it tripped a lot over its own ambition -- S1, especially, was trying to tell a story that it just didn't have the skill or scope yet to do -- but by the end I was incredibly impressed with the complexity (and, yeah, modernity!) of the story it was trying to tell.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-25 13:07 (UTC)
autumnus: A purple monochrome portrait of Zoe from Dreamfall, with drawn stars in background and "the Dreamer" written on bottom. (Default)
From: [personal profile] autumnus
I don't know about the whole villains issue. I think it makes sense from a: this is a childrens/YA show point of view.

Media is so overly saturated with the narrative of hero/villain as a good/evil dichotomy, it is refreshing to also remember good people can mess up in a spectacular ways. Also, a lot of the real life villains do start the path with good intentions or might have a good point that you miss if you write them off as evil. In a world where more and more people seem to believe cause justifies the means, it is a good reminder, especially considering the audience.

Anyway yeah definitely looking forward to the comics. :)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-26 05:15 (UTC)
cofax7: climbing on an abbey wall  (Default)
From: [personal profile] cofax7
I know! I loved the way the show, by the end, foregrounded all the women in active roles. The men were there, but the women were the ones driving the plot. It was done so organically, too, that it was barely noticeable until you were there. So great.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-08-26 18:37 (UTC)
umadoshi: (LOK - Korra smiling (sugarplums))
From: [personal profile] umadoshi
Awesome post!

I don't know when I'll get a chance to go back and rewatch Korra, what with all the things that need watching for the first time, but I really hope to sometime. I'm very curious to see how I feel about things, knowing where the show winds up. I don't think it'll ever match ATLA in my heart, but I loved some things about it a lot, and I suspect I'll love it more a second time around.

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