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The Legend of Korra: East Asian Philosophies with Western Influences

This sequel to the ever popular Avatar: The Last Airbender works hard to stand alone, but doesn't always hit the mark.

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Image Credit: Netflix

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a masterpiece. It’s a show that I’ve come back to every few years and it still holds up.  And if you haven’t watched it yet, what are you doing reading this? Go watch The Last Airbender! A recent resurgence in The Last Airbender’s popularity has also got people curious about its sequel - Legend of Korra. With time and new fans, this has only gotten more and more divisive. So indulge me a bit, as I over-analyse a cartoon for teenagers.

The Last Airbender was a truly unique world that was mostly based on East Asia but with its sequel show, the two creators decided to base this world in a more Americanised landscape. The Legend Of Korra is set in Republic city, which is ostensibly just New York with some Asian aesthetics. This Americanisation doesn’t just apply to aesthetics; it also applies to the themes of the show itself. It bases itself more on contemporary political ideologies, which is great, and leads to the show not only differentiating itself from TLA, but also helped craft this series into a much more complex and mature affair. Yet it unfortunately neglects the East Asian philosophy that underpinned and made the original show unique.

In Season One you’re introduced to the show’s villain, a violent revolutionary called Amon, who believes that non-benders are oppressed and exploited by the privileged bending class. His goals and motivations throughout the show are to take away power from the elite to create a more equal society - I’m sure you can guess what political ideology this allegorises.

In a world where certain people can kill you with magic, he may have a point. The metaphor for bending as wealth is ludicrous as bending can only be taken away, whereas wealth can be redistributed. This is actually a common reasoning behind the arguments against socialism, in that it misconstrues socialism as wealth destruction. Once Amon is defeated, none of his points are ever addressed or solved, the oppression felt by non-benders seems to just disappear, as if they were all just making it up.

There’s an unwillingness to apply the same critical eye to capitalism; this is evident in Season Two. The main issue of this season is that in an ever modernising world, one’s connection with nature is being weakened, which is the source of bending. This is the core of a lot of East Asian traditions. For example, in Taoism the main goal is to live harmoniously within nature, not just in the external world but within your internal self as well. This can be seen in Zuko’s redemption arc in TLA Season Three. There’s a reason why “spirituality” has seen an increase in interest in the West, in an ever growing capitalist society. The daily grind of working longer hours, with lower pay is making it difficult to find any sort of fulfilment in life. But the Daoist line of thought  in TLA seems to be forgotten in Legend Of Korra, because despite the ever growing disconnect with nature, benders seem to be more powerful than ever. There doesn’t seem to be any drawback, so why would benders care about this rift with nature?  The end of the season sees Korra open up portals between the spirit world and the physical world, and things are just solved. The issue of factories damaging the environment is never brought up, there’s no calls for regulation of industrial expansion, the emerging questions of trying to create a civilisation that respects the environment is never explored.

The superiority and spread of Judeo-Christian values and culture was one of the main driving forces behind colonialism and it’s an argument used today to argue against immigration. During the British Raj, the practice of Yogic exercises was banned in India, only for it to become a new fitness regime in the 21st Century, erasing all spiritual and philosophical components that came with it.

The reason I bring this up is because the creators of this show arguably colonise the canon of the show itself. Spirits have always been an important part of the show, and Asia has always had a different interpretation of spirits than Europe. Spirits were not the ethereal essence of the dead; instead they were their own beings with their own issues and morals just like humans. This can even be seen in Islam, with the concept of Djinns being spirits who are neither wholly good nor bad. In Legend of Korra, they explore the story of the first Avatar, who learns that spirits are more complex and morally grey than he thought. Unfortunately, all this gets thrown out of the window when the original spirits of Raava and Vaatu are introduced. They represent Yin and Yang, two diametrically opposed forces that sustain and reinforce one another. It’s very easy to think that it represents duality, such as good and bad, but they are an indivisible whole. Once you reject the notions of duality, you’ll be on your first step towards inner peace. This notion of rejecting duality can be found amongst many scriptures from the Bhagavada Gita to the Tao Te Ching.

Legend of Korra ignores all of this in order to retell their own Jesus allegory. Ravaa represents God and Vaatu represents evil/Satan. When Wan separates the two, Raava goes on to destroy villages, and it is up to Wan to imprison him. Wan becomes the reincarnation of Raava - it’s God vs. Satan with the avatar being Jesus. The creators reject a fundamental core of East Asian philosophy to perpetuate the notion that a western outlook is the only valid way to see things. It colonises the mythos. Detachment, balance, and rejection of duality, can exist under a certain form of capitalism but there is a political theory that seems a bit more complimentary.

Season Three’s main antagonists are a group of anarchic terrorists. These aren’t allegorical like Amon, they self-identify as one. The only issue I have with this season is that in order to attack an actual philosophical position, the creators of the show made the main villain Zaheer, dumb as all living Hell. You see when the creators are facing against characters that have an actual ideology; their approach is to create a straw man. The motivation driving Zaheer is to create a world with no rulers and no governments, a world where man may realise they have the capacity to govern themselves. “Chaos is the natural order,” he states. Zaheer’s position is quite similar to Buddhist Anarchism, formulated by Gary Snyder in  his 1961 essay. He focuses on the similarity of the two positions and how both complement and strengthen one another. Traditional Buddhism often ignores sociological and historical factors that could create suffering and stop people from reaching a state of enlightenment, in favour of focusing on psychology and self-improvement. Snyder addresses this by showing how a state of anarchy can help remove much suffering in the world.

Zaheer throughout the season is shown to be a deeply spiritual person, quoting Gurus, constantly meditating and being one of the few people to enter the spirit world. His beliefs inform much of his opinion on anarchy, yet his view of anarchy is just one of chaos and eradication of society. This naïve view is pretty common. The definition of anarchy is to create a society free from horizontal hierarchy, and the establishment of a true direct democracy in which power is dispersed amongst everyone equally.  It is not to usher in a kind of Mad Max dystopia. Anarchy is an old and complex political belief that has legitimate criticism. Instead the creators took the lazy route, and equated anarchy with chaos.

Legend of Korra is a good show, and if you loved The Last Airbender I would recommend it wholeheartedly, but the original show was something unseen in almost all Western media. It was a show almost devoid of Western influence or white saviour tropes. It had an incredibly important message of learning from other people and other cultures, and in differentiating itself from The Last Airbender, the creators of Legend Of Korra were too afraid to imagine a world that could be different to our own.

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