5 Ways THE LEGEND OF KORRA Proves it Can Contend With Traditional Anime

Currently airing its 4th and final season, The Legend Of Korra, despite Nickelodeon pulling the show from the air and making it online-only, is still a huge phenomenon. Panels for the show at both Comic Con and New York Comic Con were jam-packed, and the show’s critical acclaim is still going strong.

Given that this final season is most likely the last we’ll get of the world that began nearly a decade ago with Avatar: The Last Airbender, it’s a good time to look back on the question that The Escapist posed back during the first season of Korra: Can Americans make a decent anime?  As writer Chris O’Brien posits, this shouldn’t even be a question. He points out that “anime” is simply the Japanese abbreviation for “animation,” similar to the American usage of the word “cartoon.” “Anime,” he concludes, “is more of a style than a genre.”

Anime has certain conventions, to be sure, but they’re across a wide variety of genres, from horror to fantasy to slice-of-life. The only unifier is the style (and even then, that varies from show to show). Geographic origins don’t matter, and this is most prevalent in Korra than it was in Avatar. Because it’s more explicitly aimed at an older audience–specifically, people my age who grew up with Avatar–and assumes that this same audience are active watchers of, or at least aware of, anime, Korra combines American sensibilities with Japanese-derived visuals to create a truly American anime.

5. Quick, Efficient Pacing and Self-Contained Storytelling

Each season of Korra–or “book,” in the franchise’s parlance–hasn’t gone above 15 episodes; Book 2, Spirits, is the longest with 14. The reason for this lies back with the series’ origins. Avatar creators Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino were contracted to produce a 12-episode miniseries. To keep the production on schedule, Konietzko and DiMartino wrote every single episode themselves, with veteran animation directors Joaquim Dos Santos and Ki Hyun Ryu helming the whole season.

But, as Konietzko explains in this Tumblr post from 2012, while the original plan was for stand-alone 12 episode arcs, with Nickelodeon ordering more in that amount as they desired,  things changed during production of Book 1. Deciding they liked how things were coming together, Nickelodeon upped the episode order to 26 (which consists of Books 1 & 2) and ordered another season of 26 episodes (Books 3 & the currently airing 4).

To keep the now-expanded production more tightly focused, given that a wider amount of creative talent were brought back from the original series and elsewhere, the creators decided to stick with the model of crafting tight, standalone story arcs. The payoff is that while there is one unified story across the series, the arcs are well-organized enough that they can each be enjoyed on their own.

This isn’t uncommon from traditional anime. The Gonzo anime The Tower of Druaga–a continuation of a 1984 Japanese arcade game–is only 24 episodes long. But those episodes were split up into 2 arcs: The Aegis of Uruk, which aired in 2008, and The Sword of Uruk, broadcast in 2009. While there’s a unified story in both arcs, they were packaged and sold separately here and in Japan because they tell a clean, focused story across 12 episodes each that stands alone. See also: Code Geass.

So it is with Korra. Each Book has involved Korra (Janet Varney) and her supporting cast fighting a different villain with a different agenda. While the characters change and grow over the course of the series, the series’ various arcs can be watched and enjoyed independently, with any drastic changes at the end of one book clearly recapped in the other. The only real downside to this is that, occasionally, plot trumps character. (For example, a decision Korra makes in Season 1 and many of the events of the later half of Book 2 both seem to come out of nowhere, with little explanation offered.)

Quibbles aside, the show’s embrace of such a storytelling structure echos that of series like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. You can watch the show all the way through, but if there’s an arc or part of one you’ve been told to skip by friends who’ve watched it or general Internet chatter, you can. In Korra‘s case, a huge chunk of Spirits can be avoided pretty easily (and really should be).

4. Complex Characters

Now, when I say complex characters, I don’t mean that Korra has a deep personal tragedy that she’s striving to atone for. She’s not Batman. But neither is she Goku: that is, she has more driving her than the generic “I must protect the world and all my friends!” attitude seen in most shonen anime.

This all stems from the decision to make Korra a headstrong teenage girl who discovers she’s the Avatar at a very young age. Besides averting the circumstances and personality of Avatar‘s Aang, Korra, because of her age, is more complicated. With hormones in full swing (something that explains the series’ bigger emphasis on romance) and a not entirely invalid sense of entitlement from having mastered three of the four elements so quickly, Korra tends to make impulsive decisions that aren’t always the best. She then has to deal with the consequences, which makes for more human character development.

She’s stubborn, impatient and reckless; in other words, Korra’s flawed. Because she’s so confident in her own abilities, she gets angry when things don’t come easy. This plays out across the series, from her struggles with learning airbending in Book 1 to her dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder in Book 4. But the other characters also have layered complexities to them.

Firebender Mako (David Faustino) and his brother, the earthbender Bolin (P.J. Byrne) are great examples. Growing up as street thieves before becoming famous pro-bending players (short version: Quidditch with teams of three who can control elements with martial arts moves). the two initially seem pretty clear-cut. Mako’s the dashing, handsome one (indeed, he manages to be both Korra’s love interest and the team’s resident non-bender/gadget genius Asami (Seychelle Gabriel)) while Bolin is the funny guy. But both characters eventually expand their roles.

Mako, after the events of Air, becomes a hotshot detective whose success allows his smarminess and cocky attitude to outshine his good qualities, which leads to trouble for him and Korra. Bolin, meanwhile, becomes a movie star and briefly engaged to Korra’s Aubrey Plaza-voiced cousin in Spirits, events that force him to do some heavy maturing while still being hilarious. The adult characters aren’t exempt from this kind of growth either.

Aang’s adult son, Tenzin (J.K. Simmmons, the unsung hero of the series’ stellar voice cast), mostly seems to fit in the Yoda mold, but he has his own struggles too. He wonders if he can live up to his dad’s legacy and be a good example for the reemerging Air Nation. Amon (Steve Blum), the main villain of Book 1, initially comes across as an unsympathetic terrorist, leading the Equalist movement to campaign for equal rights between Benders and Non-Benders by violent means. But his revealed back story paints him as a decidedly more complicated figure.

3. Like Anime, But Not

To go back to O’Brien’s article again, he points out that a lot of what defines anime in the Western world is its Japanese origins. While many Western cartoons have been animated in Japan (did you know Toei Animation worked on the original Transformers? They did), Korra is not. Yet, the work done by Korea’s Studio Mir, in everything from character design to background to shot composition, is so identical to normal anime that it doesn’t even matter.

What’s more, Spirits actually was produced by an anime studio, Studio Pierrot, the guys behind a vast range of shows like Bleach, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho and the recent Tokyo Ghoul. While they were originally set to animate all of Book 2, production difficulties forced Mir and Pierrot to divide the season between them. The results were decidedly mixed: many critics complained that Pierrot’s designs of the characters were off-putting and not as visually exciting as what Mir was doing.

Still, even with one of the great Japanese animation studios turning in not-so-stellar work, Korra has always been a visually striking show. Its rich environments and stunning fight scenes don’t just look like anything else on Nickelodeon, they look like no other American cartoon, period.

Thanks to advances in animation technology, as well as longer production time on the series, Koneitzko and DiMartino (who are just as involved with the look of the show as its story) and their team are able to not only effectively ape anime aesthetics, but make them their own. For all its story problems, Spirits is full of stunning sights, with various spirit creatures that recall both Hayao Miyazaki and kaiju movies in their appeal and appearance. Book 3, Changes, adds to this with a globetrotting scale and astonishing combat sequences involving Korra & Co. against the Red Lotus, an anarchist organization led by the so-called “Bad Benders,” which include a lavabender and a waterbender with no arms. It’s awesome stuff.

2. Remarkable Soundtrack

Music plays a big role in anime, and one of the biggest keys to success in the complicated (to put it mildly) Japanese music industry is to have a song licensed for either an opening or ending sequence to a series. But the original soundtrack to a show is just as important.

So it is with Korra. Avatar composers the Track Team–Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn–returned from their award-winning work on the original series, which blended Western and Chinese instrumentation, to work on Korra. Taking into account the new series’ 1920s time frame, the Track Team upped their game accordingly. The blend of East and West orchestration is still there, only now there’s a jazz music strain, filtered through both big band music and the sounds of Dixieland jazz.

The result is a marvel, with both action and melancholy weaving throughout the score. The jazz leanings are not only a great help in the series’ historical setting, it’s also a great way to introduce people, particularly kids, to a music that once reigned supreme over American culture.

Sadly, only the first season’s soundtrack is available for streaming on Spotify, but it’s definitely worth a listen.

1. Addictive 

Like all popular culture, anime can create some powerful memories and really get viewers emotionally invested. (For instance, I vividly remember watching a friend of mine tear up while watching Clannad.) Whether it’s the visuals or how broad the characters tend to be, anime resonates with a lot of folks. Korra does this better than any other American animation today.

This has proven true multiple times over the course of the show. I remember cheering wildly for Korra when relationship trouble brewed between her and Mako in Book 2 (sorry guys, but Makorra ain’t my thing). The web of complex characters and their struggles have resonated with audiences. Social media blew up two weeks ago when Nickelodeon dropped the trailer for Book 4, which showed a new look for Korra and all sorts of epic revelations.Of course, not all reaction has been positive; another friend of mine was so angry at how Spirits ended that to him, the show became non-canon (of course, Book 3 changed his mind).

This also plays out in the fandom. From the myriad of fan art Konietzko routinely reblogs on Tumblr to the waves of fan-made merchandise, Korra has taken geek culture by storm. More importantly, it’s not only given women who grew up watching Avatar a character of their own to hold up, it’s also provided a role model for the next generation of young girls. It’s wonderful stuff.

So, in conclusion, while it may be written and storyboarded in America and animated in Korea, The Legend Of Korra is just as much anime as Gurren Lagann or Aldonah Zero. Geography shouldn’t matter for good animation. Quality and craft does. Korra has those in spades.

Cover Image via


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Categories: Lists and Editorials

Author:Tom Speelman

A lifetime of reading comics and watching television has left Tom with an inexhaustible supply of pop culture knowledge from the obvious to the obscure. Rather than keep it all in his brain for use at parties, Tom turned to writing a few years ago to help him share that knowledge with as many people as are remotely interested. Tom writes for several websites including The Mary Sue, Strange Horizons, Loser City and others. For even further rambling, follow him on Twitter @tomtificate.

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6 Comments on “5 Ways THE LEGEND OF KORRA Proves it Can Contend With Traditional Anime”

  1. 10/30/2014 at 1:35 PM #

    Amazing post! Primarily because it convinced me to check out Korra ASAP, and I’m one of those people who think Americans can’t make a good anime. Maybe this one will prove me wrong.

  2. 10/30/2014 at 1:35 PM #

    I think it does! I hope you enjoy it; thank you!

  3. 10/30/2014 at 3:09 PM #

    Reblogged this on tomtificate and commented:
    Had this one brewing for a while. I stand by so come at me, Internet!

  4. 10/30/2014 at 3:20 PM #

    My friends and I always pick up The Legend of Korra (and RWBY) whenever we talk about anime, because, to us, the effect is seamless between them. It’s that same artistic effect through both cartoon mediums. Great post on pointing out everything that is amazing about Korra!

  5. 10/30/2014 at 3:25 PM #

    Thank you! And yeah when I see Korra and Avatar cosplay at cons, I’m totally cool with it. It’s great stuff.

  6. 11/12/2014 at 10:19 PM #

    While it’s true that “Geography shouldn’t matter for good animation,’ that doesn’t mean anime can be made outside of Japan.

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