Friday, June 8, 2012

Korra, Mao, and Ourselves

Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
- Mao Zedong

As my blogging here has tapered off over the past several months, I've resisted the urge to write anything about Avatar: The Legend of Korra. With just four episodes left in this season, though, I've just got to get some things off my chest before we hit whatever cliffhanger Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have in store for us. With last Saturday's "When Extremes Meet," Korra's been shown the door of Republic City, and my prediction is the next three episodes will have her gain some ground against the Equalists--just look at the titles: "Out of the Past" (finally some answers about Tarrlok's, Amon's, and presumably Aang's past) and "Turning the Tides," a title that bodes well with a cool waterbending pun--before being served some cataclysmic setback akin to Azula's lightning at the end of The Last Airbender's season two. (Basic dramatic structure requires that the end of this season go badly for Korra if the second season is going to end with her victory.)

So why's the show so cool? Because it's matured, it's topical, and it's morally gray. The animation is awesome and the fighting intense, but as with the first show, The Legend of Korra's hook is how the protagonist navigates a murky moral landscape to achieve the spiritual maturation required for a physical victory. And if that was there with The Last Airbender, a kids' show which opened and closed with genocide, it's on overdrive with Korra. Which is why I believe it's not only better than Ben 10, The Clone Wars, or other competitors for the same demographic, but it's equal to Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, The Wire, The Sopranos, etc. It's one of the best shows on television, period, and it's pushing kids' programming into places it's never been before.

Switching Genres: Why Republic City Matters

I'm a film guy, I suppose, so bear with me while I make some cinematic comparisons. But my thesis here, that I'd just like to talk through, is that Republic City is the most important character in Korra because (compared to The Last Airbender) it changes the theme of the show, the plot lines, and even the very genre we should classify this in. Aang and friends travelled the world, hitting every type of climate and country, plus every type of society, from the camps of the swampbenders to the majesty of Ba Sing Se. There was steam power, particularly noticeable in the Fire Nation's airships, but the main source of technology was bending-driven (the submarines and trains). The Earth Kingdom was rustic--all of the show was rustic, set in some kind of nineteenth-century Qing Dynasty. For me, it was a wuxia (wushu) film, a Mandarin-language genre featuring swordplay and weaponry as much as lush cinematography and themes of national and personal honor, love, vengeance, etc. The genre's been around for decades, but recent examples include Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Martial arts are the lingua franca of these films: he who has best mastered the martial arts--including many specific varieties particular to a specific school or clan--is the master of all his enemies. He can even master the environment, as wirework moved actors up into the tops of the bamboo forests that had so often framed battles on the ground. These warriors were also consistently the most mature and spiritually centered characters in their worlds, and it was the villain's loss of self-control that lost them their battles. This is a pretty tranquil example, with a master versus student, but watch how Chow Yun-fat holds himself, particularly after 2:09.

Isn't this airbending? Bending was Avatar's metaphor for the martial arts, which themselves are a synecdoche of a greater mastery of self-control. This was evident throughout, with characters like Iroh and, conversely, Zhao exemplifying the polar opposites of this duality (think of "The Deserter" when Aang goads Zhao into destroying his entire flotilla without ever throwing a punch himself). It was then made duly explicit in season two's episode "The Guru," an exploration of chakras and chi that had never been seen on Western television, at least that I know of.

So then we came to Republic City. The trailer came out and we saw cars, gas lamps, fedoras, and all the evidences of a twentieth-century Asian city. The show's makers said they mixed sites like Vancouver, New York, Shanghai, and Hong Kong--the same Hong Kong that was the center of Cantonese cinema--kung fu films--from the 1950s until the city rejoined China in 1997. This is where we got Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and scores of others. This was also the genre in which martial arts often met western technology, western fighting techniques. If Bruce Lee could travel to Rome or fight Kareem Abdul-Jabar, then what new threats would Korra be up against?

I thought about all of this in the month's leading up to the pilot's release, but one comparison stuck in my mind more than any other: Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China, from 1991. I think in the years leading up to the reunification, a lot of Hong Kong films were particularly interested in issues of nationality: were they Chinese or were they British? How did they join these two portions of their society and how would they change after the English left? And their films found a resonant parallel in the period of the late 19th to early 20th century, when European and American influences were first forced into their cloistered society. Western powers were unilaterally carving China up into spheres of influence, and Chinese attempts to assert its sovereignty proved ineffectual. The best known example, even if it is an incomplete reading, came in the Boxer Rebellion from 1898 to 1901, which ended with the capture of Beijing.

I promise I'm working my way back to bending, so bear it in mind as you read this pretty simplified account I just found of who the Boxers were and why they failed:

In northern Shandong province, a devastating drought was pushing people to the edge of starvation. Few people there were thinking about making peace. A secret society, known as the Fists of Righteous Harmony, attracted thousands of followers. Foreigners called members of this society "Boxers" because they practiced martial arts. The Boxers also believed that they had a magical power, and that foreign bullets could not harm them. Millions of "spirit soldiers," they said, would soon rise from the dead and join their cause.

Guns changed everything. Before, a Chinese fighter (element bender) would spend years studying martial arts under a master, gaining mastery of skills and his temperament that allowed him to dominate all rivals. Now, suddenly, foreign fighters appeared who had none of those qualities but who did wield firearms, and the scales shifted--the world was out of balance. Martial arts no longer mattered. Self-mastery no longer mattered. Power came from the barrel of a gun. It was, I presume, a hard lesson to learn. Once Upon a Time in China's protagonist Wong Fei-hung--a historical person who became a folk hero as a symbol of Chinese resistance to foreign domination (and hence the protagonist of many, many other films as well)--understands this. There is another character in the film, though, Iron Robe Yim (note the bullet-proof vest connotation), who symbolizes the Boxers and their apparent inability to grasp what was happening. He is Wong Fei-hung's equal in combat, but he loses his cool, loses the fight (one of the greatest in film history), and then loses his life when he charges head-on into a brigade of British rifles. Though he's Fei-hung's rival he's not the film's villain; he dies in his arms, whispering the lesson finally learned--too late--that fists cannot fight bullets. He's a symbol of China's moral decline in the late Qing Dynasty (and the decadence of Hong Kong's late British capitalist period?): he's reduced to an animal because he cannot bring himself into the new world brought by the European guns. (Check out this short but thorough analysis on the character.)

At the end of The Legend of Korra episode "The Revelation" an Equalist with some fancy new technology trounces the "Fabulous Bending Brothers" Mako and Bolin. He then says something like, "You benders have got to learn that there's no place for you any more." Similarly, when Amon crashes the pro-bending championship with his electric gloves, he says modern technology has put the power of a chi blocker into anyone's hand. The benders are out of date, and like the Boxers they're about to get swept aside if they can't figure out how to adapt. It's up to the viewer to decide if they even should adapt, because history, if we believe Mao Zedong's famous maxim, seems to be on Amon's side.

So when I first saw Korra's trailer I was excited by the possibility of DiMartino and Konietzko breaking out the bullets; I remember having a discussion about it with my eight-year-old, saying that would really give Korra some motivation to learn airbending, to blast the darned things out of the way. But so far no guns, and I'm no longer expecting them. Instead the show skipped straight from satomobiles and transistor radios to science fiction. The electric gloves are certainly futuristic, and Hiroshi Sato's platinum robot tanks go a little beyond modern warfare to the realm of The Terminator, Aliens, and whatever that last Hugh Jackman film was. So when I say Republic City has changed Avatar's genre, I guess I partway mean that it's taken us from wuxia to kung fu, but I also mean that it's taken us straight into sci-fi: imagine what the world will look like for the next avatar, fifteen years after Korra's death, and then for the avatar after that. When Sozin's comet returns, the firebenders just might be meeting it in their spacepods.

That's not a bad thing. It reinvigorates the Avatar world in a way I hadn't anticipated. And it diminishes the importance of bending. And because of that, it dovetails perfectly with Amon's agenda.

Who Is Amon?

That's the question all the fans online seem to keep asking. Is he that kid Zuko visited in "Zuko Alone"? Is he Jet, secretly not dead and seeking vengeance against all benders at age 90? For a while I thought it would be cool if he were Aang and Katara's non-airbending son Bumi, who was secretly not just a waterbender but a bloodbender who's now seeking to gain dominance over this enormous (bending) father figure he must have dealt with.

But I don't think who Amon is is as important as why Amon works. First of all, he's a threatening presence because of his mask. That alone was a stroke of genius, because it's so simple but it's sparked this firestorm of conjecture among fans, and that keeps bringing them back (I mean, hey, I want to unmask him as much as the next meddling kid). And it's a scary mask to boot, some really top-notch character design: I think one reason Amon works so well is the iconography of the Equalists. The chi blockers look like spidery Star Wars sandmen, not the greatest, but that red circle on Amon's mask and the sun rays on his banners evoke nothing but the Hinomaru, the circle of the sun, the symbol of Japanese nationalism and, in this context, imperialism.

I don't know enough history to give a real lesson, but I know that the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in northeast China in the 1930s was brutal and bitterly resented. I've seen Fist of Fury and other films about it and know, at least, that Bruce Lee really didn't like being told "No dogs or Chinese allowed." It was a national and ethnic disgrace. So I can imagine that the kind of regime the show creators would have Amon establish would be quite similar to how the Chinese saw the Japanese ruling them: Amon's personal fiefdom built on a foundation of blood and terror, all around a cult of personality similar to the Emperor's before World War II. The common Equalists thrive on a rhetoric of egalitarianism, but I believe--just from the character design--that Amon's intentions are nothing short of fascist.

So to me who he is doesn't matter as much as what he does and what he represents--and the same goes for Tarrlok, who's now come out of the bad guy closet (he wasn't hiding it well anyway). (And I was proud of Loretta for blurting out "He can bloodbend!" just seconds before he stood up and shut Korra down. I'd been caught off guard but the eight-year-old called it.) The flashbacks have been tantalizing and the interpretation of one astute viewer has gained a lot of online traction this week. {Please take a moment to read the analysis.} I suspect this will prove to be pretty accurate, although it may omit a few story points that will come out of the woodwork later (where's Zuko? he's the only other original character besides Katara who's both absent in the flashbacks and alive in the present), and it stops short of making the connection between Tarrlok and Amon. I don't know what that connection will be--are they, Palpatine-like, two sides of the same person (my daughter isn't phased by their having different voice actors); is Tarrlok working for Amon; is Amon working for Tarrlok; are they both just fortuitously helping each other? The only definite in my mind, prompted by an online reveal a few weeks ago that bloodbending can burst organs, is that Amon is blocking people's bending through bloodbending some region in their brain. The revelation that bloodbending can occur at any time only confirms that for me--and compare Yakone's eyes in the flashback with anyone Amon touches in the present.

And this is why I wanted to post something, even though it can't be conclusive, before tomorrow's "Out of the Past" episode. A lot of questions will get answered, I think, because Korra needs some things to go her way for a little while before things really fall apart and she gets her bending taken away or something. I'm glad she's leaving Republic City because I think it will give her a chance to escape the technology, get back into her wuxia avatar self, and make contact with Aang or some other force from the spirit world. What that will do for viewers is give us a breath from the show's urban freneticism and let us remember Aang's spiritual journey and the amount of time it took him to understand his spirituality.

And then hopefully Korra will come back to the city, team up with Dirty Harry Lin Beifong, finally reach the avatar state, lightning bend all the electricity out of those stupid robot suits, get her airbending on, and then breathbend (yeah, I said breathbend) Tarrlok and Amon right down onto their knees. That'd be cool, but what I really appreciate about the show--grudgingly so, I guess--is that it hasn't gone there, it's not just fisticuffs. Instead it let me post this on facebook the other night:

"Put my eight-year-old to bed with a discussion of organized crime, Guantanamo, habeas corpus, wiretapping, and a government's legitimate use of power against its own citizenry. That's why The Legend of Korra is such a cool show (plus bloodbending triad societies, of course)."

We really did hit on all of those issues. We live in New York and we've been to the World Trade Center site with her, so she understands a bit about the world since 2001 (she was born in 2004). But she didn't know there were people in jail who we think are dangerous but can't prove are dangerous, so we're just keeping them in jail, like how Tarrlok rounded up the nonbenders last week--she asked, "What if there really were some Equalists with them? Wouldn't that be a good reason to shut off their electricity, to keep them from using their electric gloves?" Astute, and complicated by the innocent bystander/racial profiling issue. Korra's War on Terror parallels are pretty great and, for a kids' show, pretty profound. I don't say that to be dismissive of kids' shows--obviously I'm a fan--but just to say that if your primary concern is to your own story, there's only so much you can do to bring in themes from the outside world. But I really appreciate that Tarrlok is in a position of authority, apparently in a democracy, but he's abusing it for his own ends, and that Amon, who could come off as flatly villainous as Ozai, instead says a lot of things that really make sense and jive with our notion of democracy and egalitarianism. Yes, the benders shouldn't oppress the nonbenders; yes, Tarrlok is doing it just as much as the triads; and, yes, taking someone's bending away was the glorious climax of the first series, now transformed into the ultimate threat of the second. Was what Aang did good or evil? Who "deserves" to have their bending taken away? What about the Obama administration killing most terrorists, even at least one American citizen, instead of taking them into custody? Is that any less morally ambiguous than Bush renditioning and detaining suspects in secret facilities?

Korra's not going to answer all the questions like these, but I love that the bad guys have some good ideas and the good guys are ready to use their bending to get their way, just like the bad guys say. Thinking it through to next season's conclusion, I suspect Korra is going to face a moral dilemma as intense as Aang's before he confronted the Fire Lord. If faced with a gang of bloodbenders, one could either imprison them, kill them, or take their bending away. Bloodbending was originally introduced (in the episode "The Puppetmaster") with a story about using it to escape from prison; apparently that's what was originally tried with Yakone anyway, and it didn't go so well. So scratch that. I think the current Korra wouldn't hedge too much at the prospect of killing Amon or Tarrlok, but a lot could happen between now and then, as she accesses her full avatar spirituality, to make her choose to remove that from the table. So that leaves taking their bending away as the only viable option, a beautiful dilemma for her to face given the nature of the Equalist threat throughout the show. She will be doing exactly what Amon says the benders do--using her power to force her will upon others--and what he, hypocritcally, does, by using his bending (assuming his powers stem from bloodbending) to remove others' power. She will, in other words, become Amon's moral equivalent. In order to defeat him, she will have to become him.

I tried this out on Loretta this afternoon:

Me: "Was it right for Aang to take the Fire Lord's bending away?"

Her: "Yes."

Me: "But isn't taking someone's bending away evil?"

Her: "Yes."

Me: "So is Aang evil? He took Ozai's bending away."

Her: "Yes... But no!"

Me: "So how is that different from Amon taking people's bending away, even bad guys like those triad guys? If Korra takes his bending away, will she be any better than him?"

Her: "No...I guess so...I don't know!" She grinned at the dilemma and gave up.

The paradox is so well constructed precisely because there's no right answer, something oh too rare in the world of children's television. Maybe it will prove so difficult for Korra to solve that capital punishment, a nonstarter for Aang, will enter back into the discussion--when is killing someone the higher road? (again, as with Obama's security strategy) That's heady stuff, and it's being packaged in a slick program that, like I said, also raises the bar for 2D animation and action sequences. And I haven't even started on its depiction of women or of middle-aged characters.

There are problems (Mako rings flat, the city council deserves more airtime, Asami undergoes a character transformation in five seconds that took Zuko three seasons, and Pabu and Naga, for all their good qualities, just don't have the chemistry of Momo and Appa), but overall what a show! Not only is it entertaining, I think my daughter will be a better citizen--and person--when we finish watching it. And that's the best thing you can ask for from a show.