By: Michael Dante DiMartino & Tim Hedrick (story)
The Story: Presenting…the Avatar origin story.
The Review: There have been many times when I wished that instead of a watered down spin-off, we had gotten a direct sequel to The Last Airbender. It wasn’t always because of Korra either, believe it or not.* Airbender left behind a lot of unanswered questions about its own mythology, frequently raising hopes it would return to those points later on, only it never had a chance. It was too busy overthrowing evil overlords in the present to look back on the past.
Consequently, we’ve taken for granted the whole notion of having an Avatar to begin with. In both Airbender and Korra, the opening voiceover repeatedly states that only the Avatar “can bring balance to the world.” In Airbender, we naturally assumed this meant finding peace among the four nations and that seemed to be the understanding among the characters in that series as well. Somehow, we always ignored the basic questions of how the Avatar first came into being, who assigned him/her the balancing act, and what regulates the Avatar’s cycle of life and death. These two episodes provide us direct answers to all these issues, making them by far Korra’s most important chapters on top of being crucial to the Avatar canon as a whole.
The episodes also just wonderfully entertaining, filled with that irresistible combination of epic and innocence that we haven’t felt since the series finale of Airbender. Undoubtedly, this is the natural result of taking the story into the far past, where human society was simpler and humans themselves more simple-minded. But the appeal of this era goes beyond that. With the spirit and physical worlds more closely connected, there’s a potential for imagination that’s been increasingly stifled as this series continues to modernize. It’s been kind of fun seeing technology bring Korra’s world closer to ours, but it’s much, much, much more fun seeing a world where the only cities are the ones built on the massive shells of lion-turtles, where spirits of all shapes and kinds wander the lands, and where the war between good and evil is not just a figure of speech.
Emily Guendelsberger of A.V. Club has an excellent analysis of the episodes’ spiritual meaning under the principles of Taoism and Buddhism, so I won’t traipse over territory she’s already covered so well. I will add, however, that no one should overlook the importance of how our introduction to Wan, the first Avatar, paints him as a thief, a trickster, a rebel, and even a bit of a bully. It’s only after suffering exile and great hardship that he can reveal the virtue that makes him worthy of his later power. In many ways, this parallels Korra’s present lack of outstanding virtues, and promises that she’ll become a more deserving Avatar later on.
Although I rarely comment on the animation on this series, given its consistently high quality, there’s no way I can fail to remark on how breathtakingly beautiful these two episodes are. It may entirely be due to a switch in animation studios, but I tend to think it’s the substance of the story itself which has inspired such visual excellence. The sheer number and individuality of the spirits are clearly reminiscent of the Hundred Demons Night Parade, and done in a style that references Mushishi** and the works of Studio Ghibli. The bending sequences are also incredible, reaching choreographic heights we haven’t seen since the glory days of Airbender.
Conclusion: Two episodes that remind you why you fell in love with the Avatar world in the first place, leaving you both disappointed and hopeful when they ultimately bring you back to the present.
– Minhquan Nguyen
Some Musings: * Although, to be honest, it was mostly because of Korra.
** If you haven’t read Mushishi the manga or seen Mushishi the anime, I must give you my heartiest recommendation to go out and do so as soon as you can. They are hauntingly beautiful, moving, thoughtful pieces of work.
– I have no idea what the name of that spirit who begrudgingly accepts Wan into his oasis is, but his delivery of “Hmm…I think it’s on the other side of…None of Your Business Valley!” and the self-congratulatory hyuking afterward is the first time I’ve genuinely laughed at an episode of Korra in a while. Actually, I think that spirit may be my favorite character on this series, period.