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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Legend of Korra: Beginnings Part I and II

Let me rave about Beginnings.
Only ... I don’t even know where to start really. These two episodes not only revealed the origins of the Avatar, but fleshed out nearly every single story note that the show has ever had. Re-watching the original series will be a brand new experience, as now the viewer is armed with backstory that sheds light on everything from the lion turtles to the nature of bending to humanity's relationship with the spirits to the cosmic forces that shape the world. I’m still reeling a little bit from just how expansive and inclusive it all was.
The entire thing is framed by Korra’s experience as a survivor of a spirit attack that left her washed up on the shores of the Fire Nation, bereft of her memories. Thankfully, instead of something that’s going to be wrung out over the rest of the season for maximum angst, this Easy Amnesia is cleared up by the end of the two-parter, rendering it a simple plot device that provides the narrative excuse for her to float back in time to her very first incarnation.

After a brief run-down of past Avatars, including Aang, Roku, Kyoshi and Kuruk (sadly we stop before getting to Yangchen) Korra comes face to face with a youth named Wan, who introduces himself as the very first Avatar, and promises to show her how the cycle started.
So we’re thrown back – not just thousands of years but also into a unique art-style, where Wan begins his journey towards becoming the first Avatar by stealing food from the wealthy Chu family (you can tell they’re bad guys not because they’re trying to catch a thief, but because they’re trying to catch a thief whilst being fat and mildly obnoxious).
The real beauty of this story is that it's an impeccable example of the “show, don’t tell” rule – something that The Legend of Korra has struggled with. Yet here it’s as though the writers finally remembered how to best tell a story, and as a result we’re given just enough exposition to understand the necessities of what’s going on, whilst being trusted to figure most of it out for ourselves. For example, the introductory sequence shows us that Wan lives with a man called Yao who inexplicably seems to be half-man, half-tree. No one comments on it, and the only clue we’re given regarding his condition is that he reacts nervously at mention of spirits.
Later on, we watch as a lemur-spirit called Aye-Aye leaps into the body of a hunter and becomes one with him, his face taking on characteristics of the lemur that remain even after he’s left his body. Suddenly, Yao’s appearance makes a lot more sense, and we’re privy to a dash of exposition when Aye-Aye informs Wan that such possession can only last a little while before the human dies.
This information then becomes pertinent in the final segment of the episode in which Wan battles Vaatu, risking his own life by allowing Raava to possess him for an extended period of time. It’s beautifully done, showing the audience what it needs to know without intruding on the flow of the story, or insulting the viewer by spelling it all out for them.
Other aspects of life are elegantly demonstrated without the need for any great detail. Wan’s conversation with the hunters prior to the lion-turtle’s appearance initially makes no sense, talking as they do about “getting fire” and “hunting spirits” – but then why should it? The characters aren’t discussing things for the benefit of the audience; they’re having a conversation amongst themselves about things they are already well aware of. It’s only by waiting and paying attention that the pieces of the puzzle are brought together and become clear to the viewer.
As it turns out, all the cities of this distant past are built on massive lion-turtles who regularly share the gifts of the elements to a chosen few so that they might defend themselves out in the wilds. Not only is this a beautiful call-back that provides more context to what was deemed by many to be a Deus Ex Machina in the original series (in which Aang is granted the gift of spirit-bending by one such lion-turtle) but it sheds light on the origins of bending itself. It’s clear that the people who receive this “gift of fire” are not fire-benders as we know them. They have no martial art techniques; instead they simply push the fire out of their bodies without any of the elegance or grace that comes from the years of training that modern-day benders have to undergo.
At this point I feel the need to brush up on my mythology, as I get the feeling that a lot of this backstory was derived from various ancient myths and legends from around the world. For starters, Wan very much feels like an Expy of Aladdin, or at least a quintessential Trickster Archetype who uses wits and wiles to get himself in and out of trouble.
And yet his deception in gaining fire from the lion-turtle so that he might use it to steal food from the Chu stronghold is highly reminiscent of the myth of Prometheus, who likewise stole fire from the gods to share with the humans. Both are subsequently punished, though whereas Prometheus was chained to a rock from which an eagle ate his innards daily; for Wan it is thankfully merely banishment.
(There is also a hint of the lesser known Maori/Polynesian myth of Maui, who also stole fire for the sake of humankind, this time from a goddess: Mahuika. More pertinently, whilst Prometheus is generally portrayed as a wise and benevolent figure, Maui is most definitely another Trickster).
More ancient tropes found across various legends emerge throughout the storyline: first when Wan decides to spare the life of a helpless spirit rather than let it fall prey to the hunters, and then when he makes a terrible mistake he then resolves to make right. But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
Though I say that Wan’s punishment is “merely” banishment, it’s obvious that this world is a highly dangerous one. Spirits run riot throughout the world, not necessarily with evil intent, but with a disregard for humans which results in animosity and fear on both sides. As we learn later, human settlements are spread so thinly that it takes Wan two years to find another lion-turtle, commenting that most people are unaware that there even are other civilisations out there.
It transpires that all the cities of the worlds are built on giant lion-turtles, and each one shares the gift of a particular element with its people. Though there are plenty of myths that have various patron gods helping their favourite mortals with gifts and advice, this particular plot-point is rooted deep within the mythos of the Avatar world.
As we know from the original series, it was the likes of dragons, badger-moles, wind-bison and the moon that taught the first benders how to hone their craft, and sure enough, we see Wan grasping the art of fire-bending by following the steps of the dragon dance that Aang and Zuko perform in The Firebending Masters
Later he comes across a settlement of pseudo-airbenders, gifted with the ability to manipulate air, but clearly without the ability to hone it properly, as demonstrated by their tattoos (which at this early stage do not reflect the arrows of their bison mentors, but seem to be some more primitive symbol).
Having already befriended the spirits after saving a cat-deer from certain death, Wan goes in search of other adventures, unbeknownst that his example has inspired others from his village to go out and establish new settlements beyond the control of the Chu family. Meanwhile, Wan himself grows in maturity and skill, but not before inadvertently halting a battle between two spirits: the trickster himself tricked by a dark spirit into freeing him from the clutches of a lighter one.
Turns out that Raava, the spirit of peace and light was keeping Vaatu, the spirit of darkness and chaos, under control for the past ten thousand years. With hints of the Ouroboros or the Yin-Yang symbols, these two forces have to be kept in balance or else Vaatu will consume the Earth.
Wan soon finds out first-hand why this is so: when spirits across the world become “infected” by Vaatu’s influence, they start to wage war on humankind. Going from The Trickster to The Atoner, Wan offers to help Raava in her endeavour to re-entrap Vaatu, and the genesis of the Avatar is revealed when lion-turtles around the world imbue him with the elements of air, earth and water so that he might have a fighting chance against Vaatu.
As Wan grows in wisdom, Raava grows in humility, shedding her pride and cold demeanour (along with her size) in order to bond with Wan and teach him the ways of bending. They make an odd pair, but Wan begins to embody some familiar-sounding concepts when he promises her that he’ll help “bring back balance to the world”, when he attempts to break up fighting between various factions, and finally when he states that he’ll be “the bridge between our two worlds”. They’re the three key duties of the Avatar, all beautifully mapped out and demonstrated throughout the story.
And ultimately it’s only by the two of them combining their energies that they are able to defeat Vaatu and entrap him within a tree during the Harmonic Convergence where the two Poles meet in the Spirit World. But at the end of Wan’s life, after trying in vain to stop conflict and strife between humans, Raava tells him “we will be together for all of your lifetimes”. Is this decision made because of the world’s need for an Avatar? Or is it partly (as I like to think) because of her own reluctance to be parted from him?
Whatever the true reason, it leaves open some questions about the exact nature of the Avatar. Was Wan going to be reincarnated anyway, the only difference being that now Raavu goes with him? Or did she specifically create the process of reincarnation so that he would live forever (in a sense)?  
When Avatars go into the Avatar State, are they tapping into Raavu’s power? Is that why they can undergo such a personality change when their eyes start to glow? How much of an individual Avatar is in fact an individual, and how much is Raavu? In the original series I felt that the likes of Kyoshi, Roku and Aang were more-or-less different people who simply inherited the ability of the four elements, much like the way Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer had no real connection to past Slayers beyond the fact that each one inherits the innate powers of her predecessor.
And yet I found it fascinating that on waking up, Korra says: “I remember”, suggesting that on some deeper level, they are essentially all the same person, with the same soul – and Raavu along for the ride to provide their massive amounts of power.
Speaking of which, there are other tantalizing questions left unresolved. Was the spirit water that Korra was lowered into the same oasis that Wan was healed in thousands of years earlier? And does the great tree that Vaatu was trapped inside have anything to do with Koh’s hideaway? It certainly looked like a similar tree.
And what does all this mean for what’s happening in the present-day? I became so engrossed in Wan’s story that it was rather jarring to remember that it was all simply backstory to the current drama surrounding the Water Tribes and the conflict with Unalaq. Clearly he’s up to something regarding the portals and presumably Vaatu is behind the antagonism of the spirits – but I seldom like to try and predict what’s going to happen in any given story. Just let it unfold in its own time and there’s a greater chance of being surprised and pleased by it.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I think it's safe to assume that the name “Wan” was a play on the word “one” – as in, the first Avatar.
I was a little disappointed at the complete lack of any female characters, sans one large white kite-like spirit. I only say that because this show is – or was – usually quite good at involving the girls. Though having said that, it’s worth noting that the innate power of the Avatar – all the Avatars – is depicted as feminine in nature.
Nice to see the Fire Sages again.
It’s no secret that Bryke are fans of/heavily influenced by Hayao Miyazaki, but this was possibly the most blatant tribute to his films that the show has ever had, most obviously in the range of quirky spirits lining up to use the bathhouse… er, oasis. As well as this, the cat-deer was highly reminiscent of Yakul in Princess Mononoke.
I’ve mentioned the Art Shift of the backgrounds in the extended flashbacks, but it’s worth saying again that it really does give it the sense of a primitive, earlier world. Making it more stylised and less refined gives off the impression of an old storybook.
The best one-shot character award would have to go to Aye-Aye: not only with a distinctive design and a wonderful voice actor, but enough depth of character to make me shiver at his transformation and shed a little tear at his farewell to Wan before disappearing back into the spirit world. (Edit: it's a shame we never see him after this, though I wonder if he'll return in the upcoming Korra comics – and if so, will he recognize her "stinky" scent?)
It was a beautiful moment when the hunters described Wan as using fire “like an extension of his body” (foreshadowing proper bending) whilst he’s standing on the bridge to the oasis (foreshadowing his role as a bridge between the spirit/mortal world).
Another stunning image was that of Vaatu’s form appearing for a split-second in the flash of lightening within the clouds that formed over the spirit/human battle. Likewise, the blaring, discordant noise that accompanied his energy beam was a great sound effect.
Believe it or not, I actually found the Vaatu-versus-Wan battle more compelling than Aang-versus-Ozai at the conclusion of the original series. The stakes felt higher, and I always felt that the Aang/Ozai battle suffered from there not being a personal element to their fight, or in Ozai not being a particularly three-dimensional character.
Now, I couldn’t call Vaatu three-dimensional either, but the combination of Wan striving to fix his mistake and his teamwork with Raavu managed to elevate the battle to something that felt truly momentous. The Avatar theme playing over Wan’s final defeat of Vaatu was the cherry on top.
All in all, this was a brilliant prequel/origin story, and when you think about it – there aren’t many of those. Buffy the Vampire Slayer made out the Slayer line to have stemmed from a woman chained and violated by a dark spirit at the hands of an ancient version of the Watcher’s Council. The Star Wars prequels squandered the opportunity to explore how a great man could fall from grace by portraying him as a petulant youth throwing multiple hissy fits. Merlin and Smallville each purported to be the extended origin stories of King Arthur and Superman, only to get bogged down in storylines and characterization that never actually went anywhere.
The strength of any prequel lies in a delicate balance between delving into the backstories that the audience already knows exist (resulting in that wonderful “eureka!” moment when they see how all the pieces fit together) and bringing unforeseen material to the story so that it’s still a fresh and surprising viewing experience. This did that, and did so damn near perfectly.

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