The Ending of The Legend of Korra Season 2, or Let’s Talk About Setup

With the recent conclusion of season 2 of Avatar: The Legend of Korra, I’ve seen a number of complaints that a lot of the finale seemed to come from “out of nowhere.” Notably, the two aspects fans appear to take issue with involve Jinora and Korra herself. While I have my own issues with the writing, characterization, and pacing of the series, I find that Korra set up the pieces in fairly obvious ways which make me find it so surprising that people are accusing the show of employing Deus Ex Machinas.

Before I go on, obviously there’s a spoiler warning here.

First, in regards to Jinora, she was shown throughout the second season to have a strong connection to the spirits. When Tenzin rescues her, she disappears as a spirit separated from her body, then reappears during Korra and Unalaq’s fight still as a spirit, and uses her strong affinity for the spiritual realm to locate and draw out Raava’s diminished being from Vaatu where Korra (who is not as spiritual as Jinora) could not. There’s no need for an elaborate explanation as to “how she did it,” except perhaps that one needs to remember that neither Raava or Vaatu can truly destroy each other and that there must always be the tiniest fragment of one in the other. Yin and yang and all that.

Second, when it comes to Korra I find that people think that Korra as a giant blue spirit somehow didn’t make sense or work as a part of Korra’s narrative. When Tenzin explains to Korra that before people bent the elements, they bent the energy within themselves, it’s a callback to the The Last Airbender and how Aang learns how to energybend from the last lion-turtle. Korra’s spirit has become imbued with that very same energy, and it’s no coincidence that the shade of blue that Korra’s spirit becomes in order to fight Vaatu is the same blue that can be seen within Aang when he takes someone’s bending away.

The other crucial component of Tenzin’s explanation is that Korra needs to find within herself not Raava but her own spirit, the very core of who she is. This giant spiritual form of Korra wears her standard outfit instead of the coat she came in, showing that this is her default self-perception, but what’s even more notable is the way that Spirit Korra fights. Rather than doing any sort of elaborate bending moves or showing any signs of formal training, Korra is a brawler at her roots, and there’s probably nothing more indicative of this than the fact that giant blue Korra performs an Argentine backbreaker on Vaatu/Unalaq. Korra from the very beginning of her show is portrayed as a very direct, confrontational individual, and though her spiritual side is lacking, by the end she is able to connect to it in a way that suits her, a way which strengthens her identity.

I think the other elements of The Legend of Korra Season 2 are more contentious, but I hope that people critical of those two aspects of the show look back and see that they were not so sudden after all.

The Legend of Korra and the Conflict of Fighting Styles

Avatar: The Last Airbender was an enormously popular show, but its sequel The Legend of Korra has been a bag of mixed opinions among fans. Although there are many reasons for this discontent towards the new Avatar, including the writing, characterization, and the different format (seasons are shorter), the one that I find most intriguing is the general complaint that the quality of the fighting went downhill in the transition. I find that it speaks a lot to the difficulties of creating a sequel which is trying to progress the world of its story, to change its status quo, but also maintain the status quo which brought fans to it in the first place.

The Last Airbender exhibits Wuxia-esque action scenes, informed by many classic Chinese martial arts styles (waterbending is tai chi for instance), which gives the fights in the first series an overall grandiose quality. Movements are elaborate, meant to evoke a sense that the very motions benders take are part of what give them such mystical strength.

The Legend of Korra, however, involves much more straightforward uses of bending. Here, amidst the large population of Republic City and the popularity of pro-bending, the manipulation of the elements comes across more as a sport, a structured system within the bounds of the law (though still easily abusable in its own way), much like what judo is to jujitsu. Gone are the classical gestures and poses, replaced by simple and direct actions.

Given that the new series is meant to take place 70 years after the original and highlights how a number of social and technological developments have impacted everyday life, it’s clear that the less majestic qualities of “modern” bending are meant to also be a sign of this change. Even when I mentioned that on Twitter, however, one of the responses I received basically said that it didn’t matter if there was a story reason for the change, if it’s less fun to watch then that’s the end of it.

Certainly the guy had a point, and the new type of fighting could be seen as a kind of downgrade, but of course this depends on your definition of what a good fantasy martial arts fight scene should be like. Contemplating this aspect of individual perception, I’ve come to realize that perhaps part of the difficulty The Legend of Korra faced in its bending was that it had established a way of visual presentation which captured the hearts of fans in the previous series, but then tried to fight against the very entrenchment of accepted visual style they created. The wuxia style in The Last Airbender is one of the many reasons the series garnered fans, defining for many what “cool fight scenes” are meant to be, and to remove that aspect is to undo in their eyes the very identity of Avatar‘s combat.

Essentially, if fighting in The Last Airbender is classic Chinese martial arts, then fighting in The Legend of Korra is modern mixed martial arts. Though I can’t say to what extent the fanbases between Avatar and MMA overlap, the disagreements over the style in Korra remind me a lot of the arguments I’ve seen concerning MMA as an optimized style ideal for the very sport it created and fostered, a scientific approach to what has for a long time carried an almost metaphysical connotation. Though effective, neither modern bending nor standard MMA look “pretty” by the standards of fans of the more classical styles. Consider that good old question of  MMA: “why are those fighters humping each other on the ground?” Probably if The Legend of Korra were less modern Ultimate Fighting Championship and were more like the first UFC, which was meant to be a clash of various martial arts styles from Karate to Greco-Roman Wrestling, then perhaps it would have found greater appeal.

Non-Desire for Exoticism in Anime

The impression I generally have of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is that it possesses attractive qualities similar to anime, especially when it comes to the more episodic types of magical girl anime. The way MLP respects its assumed younger audience while presenting a variety of characters with fleshed-out and admirable personalities who show many valid ways for girls to be girls and more generally for people to be people reminds me most strongly of Ojamajo Doremi. However, it is the case that not every MLP fan is an anime fan nor vice versa, and it is even the case that some anime fans found themselves more attracted to My Little Pony, undergoing a transformation from otaku to brony. While this could be argued as a failure of anime to retain its audience, and sometimes fingers are pointed at whatever current trend there is, I think it is important to not just look at what anime “had then” and what it “lacks now,” but to also consider the possibility that different anime fans came to anime in the past with varying expectations and areas of adaptation.

Picture two anime fans of the same show who love the story and the characters equally much. The first fan loves the fact that anime is from Japan. It’s different, perhaps even exotic, and to view animation from another country with its own tropes and cultural assumptions and elements is part of the fun. He’s not necessarily a Japanophile, nor does he think that things are better if they’re from Japan, but the fact that it isn’t his own culture adds to the appeal.

For the second fan, however, that cultural difference feels more like a barrier. Rather than it possessing an inviting quality, the culture gap is something which the second fan feels he must work through in order to get to the story underneath. Certainly this fan genuinely enjoys this anime, but if he could get the same show only with the cultural elements naturally familiar to him, then he would much prefer that.

There’s plenty of middle-ground between these two types, but I think this hypothetical scenario is one example of what has happened with people who might have been anime fans but aren’t, or at least anime fans who have found greater resonance with cartoons which are not anime. My Little Pony is similar to Ojamajo Doremi in a number of respects, but MLP assumes an American audience first where Doremi assumes a Japanese one, and having the characters behave in ways more culturally familiar can have a significant impact on the connections people make with a show, even if it were basically the same work as the one that is less culturally close. This can even be as simple as information and access just being easier in your own language.

I can’t find the source, but I recall at an interview or a pnael for Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel The Legend of Korra, the creators stated that when making the series, they specifically had their Korean animators look at American body language and mannerisms. Like MLP, Avatar is a show which bears similarities to anime in a number of ways, but this cultural consideration was seen as a way to convey some of those “anime-like” qualities to people who are not necessarily receptive to anime, and perhaps by extension, those who are tolerant of anime’s differences but could do without them either way.

This is not an indictment of the first fan for prioritizing Japan too much, or the second one for not being open to other cultures, nor do I think that this explains everything about the landscape of fandom between anime and other cartoons. There is plenty more to discuss, including fans of both anime and American cartoons in other countries (including Japan!). Instead, I wanted to just bring up the idea that fandom can be quite a malleable thing, and that we may assume there are more connections within a fandom than there might actually be.

Through the Looking Glass (Translator’s Note: Looking Glass Means Mirror)

Here in the English-speaking anime and gaming internet communities, analyses of translations are never uncommon. Whether it’s to praise a localization or to condemn for whatever reasons such as inaccuracies or censorship, it’s something that comes packaged with media coming from other countries.

One thing we do not see as often though is how Japan reacts to localizations of our cartoons and video games. As such, I’ve compiled a list of some interesting posts, blogs, etc. which look at the world of Japanese-English adaptations from various angles.

Adventures in Localization, MW2 Edition

The most recent thing to come up, apparently the Japanese release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is marred by poor translations overall, which are leading some Japanese games swearing that they will buy the Asian English-language version of the game before this. Sound familiar?

Sakae Moon Street

See this Japanese fan discuss those wild and crazy cartoons from America such as Ben 10, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Code Lyoko! He mostly posts plot summaries and information on voice actors and such, but also posts fanart sometimes, and has a gallery full of his older works. He also speaks some English and has even translated a few posts, such as in his review of the Avatar episode, “The Blind Bandit.”

I think that “Colosseum”, “Macho” and “Sumo wrestler” are loved particularly in the American cartoon. The picture of this film is wonderful. And there are a lot of highlights as for the action scene. I think this action scene is rivaled to “Matrix” or “Ghost in the shell”.

Toph’s character is like a princess more than I had thought. She is keeping the weakness secret on the other side of strength of vender power. I like it. However, of course, she is tough too. And I am surprised because Katara grew up tougher. The director of Avatar wants to show that Katara looks senior compared with Toph, isn’t it?

Dekadenbiyori

In the blogger’s own words, “I don’t know why, but translated Japanese things attract me.” Dekadenbiyori is quite unusual though in that it reviews the English translations of Japanese works FOR Japanese readers, something which I imagine doesn’t have the largest audience but is still a fascinating subject. See here as he tears apart the poor localization of the Shakugan no Shana light novel and its inability to not make the main character sound “special.” You don’t need to know Japanese in order to understand his disdain for this translation.

Burning Becky Review

Japanese Super Blogger and Mitsudomoe fan Tamagomago writes a review of a most unusual manga called Burning Becky. The comic’s style is heavily based on American super hero comics, right down to the cover with a logo in the upper left corner as well as English sound effects and the very fact that it’s a manga about a super hero. Tamagomago himself wrote the post as if he were an American speaking Japanese. This one isn’t so easy to read so I’ll provide a little sample. I had planned on translating the entire article here for English-speaking readers to enjoy, but that hasn’t happened. At least not yet.

アメコミのいいところの一つは、ダイナミックで豪快な、まるでイラストレーションのような描写力があるかな?少ないページ数にたくさんのキャラクターが出てくるために洗練された方法かもしれないね。もちろん、それは作家さん次第なので、全部ではないよ。

One of the good points about American Comics is that they’re so dynamic and exciting, one might say that they’re practically illustrations in their descriptive power. This is likely the result of  refining techniques for the sake of including so many characters on so few pages. Of course that’s dependent on the individual artist and so it’s not universal.

Nickelodeon Turtles, Heroes in a Gak Shell

I will tell you that I know exactly zero people who found out about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles being sold to Nickelodeon and didn’t have a strong reaction about it. Generally, the reaction from people, including myself, was surprise. Where did this come from? Isn’t TMNT celebrating its 25th anniversary? What’s going to become of our beloved childhood franchise? Reading comments on blogs and such, including Peter Laird’s, a lot of people think that there’s something wrong with the move. As someone who’s been around Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for pretty much all of my life, I’d like to talk about it a little, and what the future might hold in store for fans of the series.

A lot of people around my age, when they think TMNT, remember the 80s series and its cowabungas and Krang and questionable pizzas. They’ll say the new 2003 and on series produced by 4Kids just isn’t the same as the original. Of course, the funny thing about this is that in the eyes of many fans of the ORIGINAL TMNT, that is, the Mirage Comics created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the 80s cartoon was a travesty. I think even Eastman and Laird regarded it in that manner for a long time, much like how Tomino Yoshiyuki saw the Gundam franchise. But just like Tomino, they came to terms with how, while the 80s series didn’t really live up to their image and intent for TMNT, it still possessed a lot of fine qualities which made it so memorable and enduring.

One of the franchise’s main strengths is that its core concept is hardy enough to be twisted and molded into thematically very different stories. The original comics started as a parody but eventually became their own gritty universe. The 80s cartoon was fun and light-hearted and encouraged kids to pick favorites and eat pizza, like what Naruto does with kids now and ramen. The 2003 cartoon was somewhere between the two, with an emphasis on both toys sales and character development, possibly best represented by the time the turtles all went into the future and stayed there for a really long time. The TMNT movies got progressively worse, and they had Vanilla Ice, but I know I am not the only one who thought Go Ninja Go was the greatest thing ever as a kid. So while I might cringe at the thought of Nickelodeon trying to replicate that 80s success today, an attempt which would require a LOT of changes seeing as the old cartoon is really a product of that era, I’m also confident that it’s not going to ruin the franchise any more than any of the other adaptations have sullied its name. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get another Avatar out of the deal.

On another note entirely, have you ever seen how the 80s cartoon portrays sushi? You’d think that it wasn’t animated by Japanese people at all! I get the feeling that when they were drawing it, no one told them it was supposed to be sushi. I wish I had a screenshot to show you guys what I mean.

Avatar Finale, or Shut Up About Dangling Plot Threads

They don’t matter. I don’t care how much you want to see them explored, it does not detract from the ending.

Good to see it all over.

…Unless they make a season 4.

Fan-generated Fiction as some call it

I recently listened to the Ninja Consultant podcast concerning the sexualization that occurs among fangirls, and the fact that this has become more prominent in recent times, with not only yaoi becoming a common sight at conventions but also modern works such as Dr. Who and Avatar: The Last Airbender being consciously aware of this fanbase. The topic of fanfiction comes up in the discussion, which is to be expected given that fanfiction and fangirls practically go hand in hand, but it reminded me of the fact that at the beginning of my own internet-based fandom I too was into fanfiction.

When I first began using the internet, my first fandom was a NiGHTS into dreams fanfiction site. I loved the Sega Saturn game to death (and still do), and I sought out other fans of NiGHTS. It was there that I found a site called “Nightopia on the Net” which would later change its name a few more times. It was here that I not only discovered other people with a passion for NiGHTS, but also stories that expanded upon the few plot details we were given as players of the game into a rich and vibrant (at least in my young eyes) universe. I’ve never read the Star Wars Extended Universe books, but I suspect the feeling was similar to anyone who is a fan of those, a feeling that the world given to us in these initial stories is so vast and unexplored that one can’t help but wonder what else is out there.

At some point, a few years down the line, I read fanfiction less and less. By this point I had been checking out fanfiction from various sources based on all sorts of series and would even actively seek out more unusual titles and concepts. Something in me began to sour, and I could no longer take fanfiction until I almost stopped reading it entirely. Back then, my reasoning was that I disliked the stories being produced for my fandoms, feeling that more than any sort of technical errors the problem was that the writers did not understand the characters. The characters’ actual personalities as displayed in their respective shows were nothing like the personalities displayed in fanfiction, and I asked (no one), “What’s the point of using these characters if you’re not going to actually use them?”

As mentioned in the Ninja Consultant discussion, it seems as if some works these days are simply there as fan fodder. Characters are given basic traits which appeal to the “shipping” side of fandom, and fans are free to ignore or cultivate any “evidence” as to whether or not their “One True Pair” could thrive. Setting aside any original creators’ desires to actively engage this line of thought, by all rights these are the people who are responsible for me leaving fanfiction in the first place.

But really was I, and am I, all that different?

Why do people enjoy pairing unreasonable characters together? To put it simply, it’s because they find the pairing to be hot. No big mysteries there. It’s what makes the Zutara pairing in Avatar so popular: a conflict of emotions, the fire/water dynamic, the idea that “if only they would get together, they would be great.” Of course, the conflict comes from actually getting them together.

Is there something wrong with this? Wanting to dive deeper into a world, to prove through fanfiction that there is so much more to a story, one can say that trying to find deeper subtext in the relationships presented is its own form of exploration. Hell, I can somewhat relate to making unreasonable pairings. I have a rather straight-laced friend who I would like to see date girls that would be all over him 24/7. Why? Because it would entertain me to no end.

Perhaps there is a threshold, and it is crossed when fans begin to believe that their opinions constitute the truth about a work, or even what should be true. This isn’t about creator’s vision vs spectator’s vision or anything of that sort, but rather to what extent people and groups begin to believe their own hype. Other than that, I think people are free to believe in whatever they want.

Even then, such a statement borders on the idea that there’s such a thing as a “right” fan and a “wrong” fan, and really, even if I find certain fans or their reasoning distasteful, I am just one person and I am not a judge of fanfiction. More importantly, I am not a judge of the heart.

After all, as Sasahara once said to Ogiue, no one can stop you from liking something.