Ghiblisgiving: Porco Rosso

Up to this point all the films covered were movies I had never seen before, but as we enter the 90s phase of the studio we also enter the movies I’ve seen. None moreso than another fun adventure, Porco Rosso!

Porco Rosso, the Crimson Pig, was a man turned pig-man and the fiercest bounty hunter in the Adriatic. When a group of his foes, a collective of seaplane pirates, hire an American hotshot named Donald Curtis to hunt Porco down, Porco must come to terms with getting help from unlikely places and deal with his past as an Italian fighter pilot in the Great War.

The film is a freaking blast of a good time. It really leverages and builds on the adventure feel of Castle in the Sky. Building on some of the tropes in that film, the gang of misfit criminals, much more cartoony aesthetic contrasted with well lived in world, and message. From frame one it is just so clear how much fun and energy was put into every frame of animation. The dogfights, in particular, are real standouts. With complicated and overlapping animation along with a strong sense of weight and dimension. It’s clear so much time went into that one aspect while not leaving even the smallest detail outside that to go unnoticed. It’s just a party on display the whole time and that is deeply appreciated.

Of course what makes it special is how it seems like just a fun adventure flick on the surface, but does have a message underneath. This message being unique to Ghibli films, a look at what it means to be a pig. Neither choice, making the main character a pig-man, or the fact it is set between World War I and World War II, was purely for aesthetics. Though let it not go unsaid that the team certainly takes advantage of both. Instead both are used as an examination on what it means to be piggish, boarish, and selfish. Porco, real name Marco, often lifts his nose to the rest of society. He sees so little of it to be of any importance and looks out for himself. This puts him in opposition to the pirates, a group of individuals looking out for themselves, and Curtis, a man obsessed with his own status and building up fame. They’re all taken to task in some regard but does come back to Porco as he grows to care about people, or care about them again if he lost that part of himself. It is why the owner of the Not-Casablanca hotel cares so much for him. Porco can be a good guy, and ends up being one once he sees past the front he puts up. He just has to realize he doesn’t have to be as much of a pig. Which, it’s also fun that he says he’s a pig and not a fascist. A line that strikes just as hard as Nausicaa’s “If I take my mask off for five minutes I would die.”

The American dub for this film is more hit or miss, but overall great. The biggest weakens is Michael Keaton. He is by no means bad. He gives Porco a lot of weight and regret behind his words, but doesn’t get the fun most everyone else does. Cary Elwes in particular gets to have a great time as Curtis, and Susan Egan is able to thread that needle of being weighty while also giving the character a sense of having a good time.

Porco Rosso feels like an easy film to overlook. Because, again, on the surface it seems like just a good time with some mild misogyny and focusing too much on how attractive this 17 year old girl is (which Castle in the Sky kind of did too know that I think back on it), but it’s more than that. Even the weird stuff it does with said 17 year old mechanic builds on Porco and his fight to remain a pig inside or not. The film is almost ahead of its time in the way it seeks to criticize middle-aged men like that. But even as it does that it is still a gorgeous film that is just an amazing time to watch. Also Porco shoots at actual fascists and we need more of that.

Film Ranking:

Porco Rosso 

Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind 

Castle in the Sky 

Kiki’s Delivery Service 

Only Yesterday 

My Neighbor Totoro

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Ghiblisgiving: Only Yesterday

It’s hard to remind ones self, but Stuido Ghibli is more than just Hayao Miyazaki and his fantastical stories. There is a whole studio full of talented directors, writers, and animators. Famous of all is Isao Takahata. We should have covered his downer Grave of the Fireflies had it been available for streaming, but his next film, a grounded drama based on a novel, is available for streaming and is unlike any of the other movies thus far.

Only Yesterday follows Taeko, a businesswoman in the city as she take a summer vacation trip out to the countryside and work the fields. Only she isn’t going alone as memories of her fifth grade life flood back into her and color her week long trip living with the farmers and their son, another former businessman turned farmer.

The film feels incredibly ahead of its time. The mid-life crisis film is an incredibly common genre of fictional film, but the quarter-life crisis less so. Those films, ones like this one, featuring people who are just starting careers and yet already feel unsatisfied and wanting more from life have been gaining in popularity more recently. That makes this one about a girl being restricted as a child due to how she was brought up and following that path into adulthood feeling unsatisfied in what that life brings at such a young age so refreshing. Even the fixation on decades old foibles and flops feels like something a more modern film would focus on as a thing millennials talk about now, but making a film in the 90s about it is so shocking.

It is unfortunate then that the film isn’t more watchable. That’s in no way saying it is a bad film. Ill-paced for sure. Some of the flashback to childhood segments go on too long or don’t feel connected enough with the springboard. Similary, continuing to introduce new elements of her past even near the end feels off when a setup earlier wouldn’t have made it feel so forced. Also the constant hyping up of farm life does get tedious from time to time. Regardless, it’s a contemplative movie. Fun only in the academic sense, but oddly enough the best written movie yet. Written meaning the dialogue and exchanges. The previous films were all mostly transactional. They were used to get across a direct point without any flowery language or doublespeak. Only Yesterday goes the extra mile of having words say less or more than they imply. The use of silence is also awe inspiring.

Similarly awe inspiring is the use of animation in a film that could easily have been live action. Most of the Ghbili movies could have been, but used the fantastical as the excuse. This film, instead, uses changes in art style to get the changing emotions across. The use of a more cartoony art style that grows from sparse watercolors to more solid backgrounds as the memories get more concrete in the flashback segments is great and contrasts with the realistic present scenes so much more. The scenes in the present have their own grounded feel that’s carried more by the soundscape and ambiance than flashy cuts. That’s to say the animation is consistently smooth without going that cartoonish extra mile the previous films did.

This is also one of the more recent dubbing attempts. It makes sense to an extent. Ghbili was under Disney and this is a hard film to market to that demographic, so waiting till now makes sense. Getting talent like Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel to give really weighty and serious performances while also fighting their English accents back at every corner is great. They also contrast well with the more seasoned voice actors in the cast to feel distinct but not bad.

See what I mean. All of this is good stuff. Fun to talk about and analyze in this hypothetical space. Looking at how the last scene on the train plays with everything that came before is neat, but that doesn’t make this a joyful experience to watch. That makes it doubly hard to judge because it wasn’t fun. Kiki, for all its poorly mixed flaws and odd pacing, was still fun. This has a place and a strong message to send but isn’t a constantly rewatchable film. It’s a quintessential Oscar drama. A film to watch once and get its meaning (maybe twice or three times to really absorb it), but not to put on when you’re having a bad day or just need something on in the background. It’s a great film. The one I was most looking forward to in fact because of its more mature nature, and I guess I got what I wanted out of it. Heck, even this malaise feels almost intentional, but it doesn’t make it more fun or one I would rewatch.

Film Ranking:

1. Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind

2. Castle in the Sky

3. Kiki’s Delivery Service

4. Only Yesterday

5. My Neighbor Totoro

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Ghiblisgiving: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Despite the classical nature of Ghibli and Miyazaki’s films it is odd how the only adaptation up to this point was of Miyazaki’s own work. However that changes after this point and lends more credence to the Ghibli as Disney comparison (I bet they feel bad letting that license slip now that Disney+ is around. That would have been a killing for them). Disney usually stays to well worn fairy tales while Ghibli likes to branch out into newer tales.

Kiki’s Delivery Service, based on the novel of the same name by Eiko Kadono, follows burgeoning witch Kiki as she goes out on the rite of passage for every witch at her age. She must leave home and make a place for herself among a new town and find out who she is. Kiki finds herself in a port city where she uses her singular talent of flying to make a name for herself as a delivery girl. She is a teenager, so of course the winds of passion can change and she must find a way to make those passions her own with her powers and friends she makes along the way.

The movie has a problem. Not the base film but movie posted to HBO Max. I am unsure of this problem persisted in the original 90s Disney release or there was a change made in the transition to streaming, but the vocal mixing on Kiki in particular, but everyone at certain points, is terrible. Her voice is often incredibly tinny or like her voice is coming from a blown out speaker (having since watched the next set of movies on the same system with the same settings and this problem never repeating it is definitely something wrong with this movie). What’s worse is how it happens to everyone at certain moments, and it only seems to affect the voices and no other sound effects. This made it a harder film to watch than intended because literally hearing the characters speak was testing. It’s an unfair thing to criticize a movie on, but it was still part of the experience and must be taken into consideration.

Outside of that (far, far outside) the film is incredibly cozy. Watching Kiki make her deliveries and deal with the residents of the town is just nice. It has the feel of a kids TV show that could go on forever. It means the pacing on the whole is not as good. It takes too long for Kiki to really make her way and for the movie to really show what it is about. However just seeing Kiki being nice to people as she works and watching that kindness come back to her (hypothetically. Her voice is grating to listen to because of the aforementioned mixing problems, but I get the intent)

The animation even reflects that TV feel. It feels even more restrained this time around with more focus spent on the mechanics of her flying and what that would realistically look like. That’s not to say there aren’t little touches thrown in. It’s a Miyazaki movie so of course there are. But on the whole it feels more like it wants to be a long running series over a splashy movie.

The advantage to it being a movie is it’s more individual focus on the idea of growing up. This is a consummate coming of age story, but what sets it apart is what it’s all about. At first glance it seems to be about trying to maintain old traditions in an evolving world. It is about that to a certain extent. The struggle Kiki finds when she first arrives seems to be in contrast to what her mom went through. Meanwhile scenes like using the old school oven in place of an electric one to bake a pie shows how not all old things need to be discarded. However it comes into focus that it’s about Kiki finding her passion and what she wants to do in life, and be accepted for it. Having to deal with burnout as well is an interesting choice, and provides a neat way to rethink it. But I don’t think it’s handled nearly as well as it thinks it is. That comes mostly from the lack of conveying why she doesn’t feel accepted. I mean I understand it being a completely internal struggle for her, but that struggle is not given an external example (some would argue her losing her powers is that example, but that’s the consequence not the inciting reason). Everyone she meets likes her and thanks her and even still she feels exiled from everyone. That’s a fine feeling but never shown in a way to understand it from her perspective. But her inherent drive to help and friendly nature does come through in why she is accepted and finds her place. It just could be conveyed better.

This is a film I want to watch again. Not just so I can see if that vocal issue persists in other copies of the movie but because it’s just kind of a nice world to live in. If it were a series I could see it still going to this day, and totally see why it was one of the highest grossing movies in Japan. It’s charming, cozy, sweet, and has a good character guiding us along the way. Her arc could have just been conveyed better.

Movie Rank:

1. Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind

2. Castle in the Sky

3. Kiki’s Delivery Serivce

4. My Neighbor Totoro

I’m cleaning house and selling some media. If you would like to buy comics, manga, or cards I owned and used follow this link: say you’re a reader and I’ll be happy to discount any item for you!

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Ghiblisgiving: My Neighbor Totoro

I am aware there is a moving missing. Grave of the Fireflies by Isao Takahata came out before this film. But, due to what I must assume are licensing and rights issues it’s not streaming anywhere (thanks why I use Surfshark… no NordVPN… no, I’m not cool enough to get sponsored). Doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to watch it, but for now I’ll power through and circle back if I find the time.

In the meanwhile I always wondered what the Studio Ghibli logo looked like before Totoro came out. I mean they needed to have something, but it seems odd that I can’t imagine the study without it. Odder still that I never saw the film.

The film, by the way, follows sisters Satsuki and Mei as they move to the countryside with their father. While moving in and exploring their new home the girls find that they have some unexpected but not unwanted spirits in the troll (interesting translation) Totoro and his mythical friends. Of course their life is not perfect. With a sick mother in the hospital, and a busy father they must find ways to live and fill their days with life, and their neighbor can help.

Ghibli and Miyazaki are often compared to Disney and their stable of animated films. Interestingly the previous films don’t really feel like Disney films. Totoro on the other hand totally feels like one.

Totoro feels like a storybook. It’s mundane world made fun by a trickster character and his minions and friends are the plot to many an actual children’s book. Classics like Cat in the Hat and Puff the Magic Dragon and the like all come to mind and all feel true to the spirit of this film.

A film, by the way, which should be incredibly boring yet is not. Most of the film is just hanging out with Satsuki and Mei. Watching them go on adventures or spend time with their dad or Totoro and his forest spirits. Not much honestly happens but the characters are honestly so fun loving and hyper-energetic that you fall into their rhythm. Seeing the world both normal and magical from the perspective of the little girls makes even the boring act of laundry or growing seeds into something fun.

It’s helped immensely that the sisters, played by real life sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning, having an amazing chemistry (for obvious reasons) and totally fit the roles of the girls. Satsuki has to act more mature than she lets on while Mei is far more emotional but open to new things. Their interplay, especially early on, sells the film the most. Well that and the father.

It would be easy to overlook their father played by Tim Daly (the voice of the best Superman). He’s kind of nothing. Just a generally nice guy who works hard and cares for his family. Of course it’s in the details that he shines. His ability to turn any event into a supernatural game or fun adventure builds the themes of the movie without even thinking of it. He just so easily and naturally turns the mundane into the games the girls play with simple framing. He is the backbone of the story more than a giant cat guy.

Not to say the giant cat guy isn’t important. But Totoro, the movie, is about facing life with the imagination and heart of a child. When seeing the world through their inventive eyes everything becomes fun. It’s not just dust but soot spirits. Acorns don’t grow because of rain and sun but from a cats magic. The wind blows because it’s a cat bus carrying its passengers across the fields. These are great visuals that help both us and the sisters keep their mind off the hardship in their life. Only the secret is that anyone can do this. They face hardships in the film, but they are often worse because they don’t try and find whimsy in it. Not to say you always need to. It’s okay to be sad, but being only sad doesn’t help you grow.

The animation this rime around is still smooth but far subtler than Castle in the Sky. That movie focused more on the grand adventure. This decides to keep it tight like the story. The character movement is far more detailed. The scene of the girls running around the house is great for all the little touches. Same can go for even simple interactions or Totoro moving. A lumbering furball like that needs to really feel furry and he does. Of course the standout is interior of the cat bus and how it moves and breathes with the ease of a real cat. It’s not as visually stunning as a train chase, but just as impressive.

It’s hard to place this film. On one hand this type of slice of life family film is not my thing. It’s valid and a really good story, but not for me. On the other it is just so incredibly charming that having to rank it as 3rd only because it’s not nearly as fun as Castle in the Sky is sad. It’s a movie that kind of deserves its spot. It’s simple, but so is the life and eyes of a child, and that’s okay sometimes.

Movie Rankings

1. Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind

2. Castle in the Sky

3. My Neighbor Totoro

I’m cleaning house and selling some media. If you would like to buy comics, manga, or cards I owned and used follow this link: say you’re a reader and I’ll be happy to discount any item for you!

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Ghiblisgiving: Laputa – Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa was a major passion project for Miyazaki and his team. It was also based on his own manga series of the same name so of course he would want to do it justice. Of course he can’t rest on his laurels forever and had to come back with a new hit, Castle in the Sky.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is far more of a classic family adventure film than Nauscaa was. In that this film follows Pazu, an assistant to the coal miners in a small town. His life changes when Sheeta, a mysterious girl floats down from the sky with a Crystal both pirates and the military are after. The two then must band together in order to find the secret behind the crystal and how it connects to the floating city of Laputa all while dodging the military colonel Muska and female pirate Dola and her family of misfits.

The film is less story or idea driven than Nauscaa was, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less energetic or has worse pacing. It’s even arguable that the pacing in this film is better. There is far more connective tissue between scenes and events. The structure is tighter, and there is more setup and pay off. The fact that we are given time to sit in Laputa before the plot shows up gets us more invested in the location and it’s meaning than the quick bursts of location in Nauscaa.

Even with the better pacing the characters are weaker than in Nauscaa. Well, the main duo of Pazu and Sheeta do not hold a candle individually to Nauscaa. They are much younger and more generic. Both hardworking, adventurous, and forced to grow up early, they work great as a pair and seeing their bond grow is legitimately sweet. It is kind of easy that Pazu just so happens to want to find Laputa just as the person to help him shows up, but the initial jumpstarts for these far more family affairs are like that. Once it gets going it works. Mostly. Their voice actors, James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, do their best to match the characters but just don’t fit the more throwback look of the character designs.

This vocal problems seems to only affect them as they try to give much more grounded performances. The rest of the cast seems to get it let loose like the film wants. The standouts in that regard is the pirate captain Dola played by Cloris Leachman, and her family. They get to be totally wacky but earnest. They fit perfect in a far more cartoonishly evil world. Same can be said for Mark Hamill’s Muska. Muska, the secret king of Laputa, gets to go all out and hit every vocal range he can. From the more subdued Skips like performance to the menacing Ozai, and off the wall anger of the Joker. He gets to have a ball and it shows in his voice.

It also shows in the movies animation, which was clearly where most of the focus went. That is not a bad thing. A simple story told well, but with some of the most expressive, colorful, heightened-realistic animation you can see it is worth it. So much thought and time clearly went into how everything would move. From the fantastical airships, to the machinery, to the people who live in the world. The little touches Nauscaa had are taken to the next level. The characters scramble, I mean like a dog on hardwood, scramble. It’s more impressive, though with the crowd shots of individual people moving and doing their own thing, and the drifting of the giant planes. It was all taken to the next level and just looks amazing.

That doesn’t mean there is no story. It’s just a lite version of Nauscaa’s appeal and purpose of nature along with how humans need to act in order to get along with it. Muska’s hatred and annoyance at Laputa getting overrun with nature contrasted to Sheeta’s awe being the best example. That’s as far as it goes though. It is not nearly as deep as Nauscaa but is a better time.

Both this and Nauscaa felt like passion projects to an extent. This just felt like more of an animation showcase than a serious story. It is far more commercial and has kid appeal. That’s not a problem. It is one of the better child focused adventure films. It is incredibly inventive and thrilling but doesn’t feel nearly as personal. Not every movie has to be. Sometimes it’s okay for a movie to just be fun and show really cool imagery and it succeeds at that.

Film Rankings:

1. Nauscaa

2. Castle in the Sky

I’m cleaning house and selling some media. If you would like to buy comics, manga, or cards I owned and used follow this link: say you’re a reader and I’ll be happy to discount any item for you!

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Ghiblisgiving: Nausicaa Valley of the Wind

This might come as a surprise to hear, but writing and maintaining a blog (functionally solo – no shade. We’re all busy people) by writing for five days a week is tiring. It makes the process of enjoyment a task and I needed a break but instead crafted a months long project, Ghiblisgiving: a look at all the Stuido Ghibli movies since they’re available to stream on HBO Max. So it’s best to start at the beginning!

Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind is an incredible first showing for a new studio. It certainly helps that Miyazaki was a veteran director before this point, but even with that experience it is impressive what he and his team could accomplish in one film.

Set 1000 years after the end of modern society the film finds the world plagued by toxic jungles filled with unnatural and mysterious insects while humans have been cordoned off into seperate kingdoms. The film follows Nausicaa, the princess of the Valley of the Wind. When a bug and spore infested airship from a neighboring kingdom crashes into their village, followed quickly by that kingdom invading and killer her father, Nausicaa must set out and explore more of the world to find the truth behind the spores and forest while the other kingdoms seek to use old world technology to burn it all and reclaim their place in the world.

Despite being incredibly dense the film has great pacing. It does throw a few too many concepts and has a couple pieces of throwaway dialogue explanations for some events, but outside of that it manages to pack tons into its two hour run time without it feeling too rushed. The balance of exhilarating action paired with incredibly calm and quite moments, and daring adventure all make it feel totally complete.

It helps that most of the film is from Nausicaa’s perceptive because she is an absolute joy of a main character. She is incredibly reminiscent of what JJ Abrams and the team would do with Rey decades later. A high spirted, resourceful teen with incredible compassion and intuition. She brims with personality from the first scene and just keeps building. It’s even more impressive that her arc is kind of completed in the first act so she spends the rest of the film trying to convince others of her new mindset. Of course it helps that her actress, Alison Lohman, gives her such a range of emotions.

The whole American voice cast is strong. Patrick Stewart makes an appearance as Lord Yupa, a world traveler and skilled fighter with a strong edge, and Uma Thurman gives a good snark to the invading ruler, Kushana. They help bring what could be and kind of are unmemorable characters to life. The biggest surprises are a young Shia LeBeouf and Mark Hamill making an appearance as citizens of another land. They don’t get enough screen time to really shine, but their presence gives them a weight unknown actors couldn’t give.

This is a Ghibli movie so it of course looks amazing. The art direction is incredibly solid, and the small details are nice to see. It is, however, primative compared to what they will be able to do in later films. This can be seen most of all in how simple some of the bigger elements like the airships and giant bugs move. What would be done with more detail later now moves in bigger chunks. It makes them see slower, but doesn’t take away from the heft and feel. This is not to say it’s bad. It’s not at all. But they are shooting to do a lot and have to make some compromises.

A Ghibli film is also not without its messaging, and from the plot description it seems pretty obvious what that message is. Humans need to live in harmony not just with the world around us but with each other. It is more complicated than that and for what American animated features were doing at the time. The idea that there could be multiple factions that are wrong, and that nature reacts to humans and looks out for us more than we think is novel and true without being nearly as heavy handed as things like Ferngully.

This film was clearly a passion project and a jumping off point for many peoples careers. It is a film brimming with life, personality, and a unique visual style. Hard to believe that it can get both up and down from here.

Film Rankings:

1. Nausicaa: The Valley of the Wind

I’m cleaning house and selling some media. If you would like to buy comics, manga, or cards I owned and used follow this link: say you’re a reader and I’ll be happy to discount any item for you!

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Digging into Maddness (or I finally finished the Soul Eater Manga): my White Whale

Soul Eater, the anime series about scythe miester Maka and her scythe-human hybrid partner Soul and her band of monster hunting friends, was one of my most influential anime series. It’s haunted aesthetic, great fights, animation, and fun characters made a giant impact on my teenage years. It was a series I watched three times in a row back on YouTube when companies would post whole episodes for free in an early streaming attempt. It was a series I loved but learned later was lacking due to wrapping up with an anime-original conclusion. That made me seek out the manga to find the truth only to be confronted with an insanely accurate adaption. This shocked stall made me sit on the manga, stuck at vol 9, always wondering what the future was like. What was different? How did it change what I thought was a pretty solid ending. After more than a decade of wondering I finally found out… and it’s amazing.

It feels important to say that I never felt unsatisfied watching Soul Eater. Despite, now clearly, only hinting at much more interesting ideas and story concepts, they all felt beyond the bounds of our characters. Kind of what Hunter x Hunter does, but unintentionally. Sure, Maka and the rest grow and change. Maka, the daughter of a human and a weapon, awakening both sides of her parentage to help win the day, is crucial to the series. But so is Black Star and Kid’s arc, though they are basically deeply compressed versions of what the manga does. My point is that the anime was so set and focused around the core team and their missions that all the expanded lore felt like just that. Lore. Not important or necessary, just flavor text. Unfortunately it will be hard to go back to the series knowing so much of what I know.

The odd thing is that even with this expanded information the broad strokes of what the anime covers and what the manga explores feels relatively small on the larger plot. Both series are consistent until Crona, non-binary (I assume. They call them a he, but has always clearly been non-binary. Though that does lead to… you know what, they’ll get their own section) child to the witch Medusa, turns on the DWMA and corrupts Stein further before leaving. In the anime they turn themselves in near immediately while in the manga they split and then a DWMA investigator, JB, is killed when he gets too close to the truth. In that divergent point it feels like more should happen, and it does in the details but not the broad strokes.

In the broad strokes, the DWMA take on Arachnophobe by attacking their castle, then end up having a final battle with the Kishin, master of Madness. In that fight Death the Kid unlocks his full potential, along with Black Star getting to go all out. Finally, Maka has a realization and beats the Kishin. That describes both series pretty well. It seems like Ohkuba gave his rough sketch for the rest of the series and Bones did what they could. Except for all the specifics (so that’s what the book of Eibon is, and I finally get to see Kilik do stuff!) and important character beats that surround the series main idea: order vs madness.

Every character arc revolves around the idea of order: the modern systems, perfection, symmetry, and balance; versus the discordant, erratic, and isolating nature of madness (and paranoia). If this were a longer form piece (like a whole book on this series) I would dig into every character, but even just a cursory look at our lead Maka and Soul prove the point. Maka, the bookish and strong willed meister has deepseated issues when it comes to her father cheating and mother getting a divorce (the fact we don’t see the mother at all feels like a mistake in both). She is compassionate, but scared of being weak. She is physically the weakest of the group and through her struggles must realize that it’s okay not be strong because you have others around. In her worst moments she feels useless and has nothing to contribute but when paired with Soul she has power. Meanwhile Soul, the too cool for school musician, has his own fears and madness about not being good enough. He comes from a line of musicians and chose to run away instead of face that linage. To prove his path a different way. But with Maka he learns his music doesn’t have to measure up as long as it reaches people.

This same examination can be done for Kid and Black Star. Kid, a symmetry obsessed grim reaper jr, must learn how to find balance in the imbalance. He is interesting to compare to Black Star because of how similar their arcs are. Black Star, often disparagingly called a Naruto Clone (which he is not. Naruto is brash and loud in hopes he gets himself to believe it. Black Star does believe it and wants the world to see) wants to be the strongest person around and will go to every length in order to achieve that goal. In both cases they give into madness and must be snapped back into seeing rationally. They both have more supportive and stable weapons. Kid using twin guns Liz and Patty, while Black has the multi-tool Tsubaki.

I might be more of a story guy, but even outside of that, if you come purely for the action, the series has that too. Though not as intricate as the anime, the manga is incredibly dynamic and readable (like the action is not the story). The choreography is stellar. Every fight feels fair and well planned out. The multiple page fight scenes flow so well. With panel work that gives enough detail to give a picture in your mind while also having enough connecting tissue to form a bigger fight. The moments of more classic “anime” style fights with overblown powers that come out of nowhere never impact the current battle to feel cheap. They often come out of character revelations and declarations. The big power surges also aren’t how they win. Instead they often give the edge enough to either talk down the foe to an extent, or use another method of magic in order to win. It never relies on pure power to win but soul (pun kind of intended). This doesn’t mean there aren’t epic as hell moments that makes me sad the anime never got to adapt.

It is hard to deny that the manga isn’t a better story. It’s themes and characters are even more fleshed out, along with an even more intriquet world and setting. But if I were to say there is one character failed by the series it is Crona.

Crona, description given above, was the character I never liked the most but did feel the most attachment too. They were always nervous, unsure what to do in most situations, and was terribly awkward. This came from their incredibly abusive upbringing under Medusa. They literally could not understand others but where able to when Maka finally resonated with their soul. From there the arc is the same, but Crona is made much more redemptive and immediately in the show than manga. In the show they realize how dumb it was to listen to Medusa and go over to the DWMA side and help take down their mother. It might be read as too easy, but you also shouldn’t assume the arc was done. They’re still a teenager with room to grow. Crona in the manga is the long game. Finding Crona and bringing them back is Maka’s main goal for the rest of the series. Unfortunately Crona is not treated nearly as well.

For much of the book they are just absent. Never checked back in with, only mentioned. When they are finally seen they have been so wholly corrupted by Medsua that they’ve become a single minded monster with incredible power and broken psyche. A psyche that gets worse when he ends up killing his mother in the best single chapter or a manga, probably ever. A kid so starved for affection that when they are given some by the person who believed in them only to constantly abuse them that they kill her and decide to try and absorb everything. It makes the possible reading of non-binary problematic by saying they’re monsters. Of course they do come around eventually and act as sort of the soul of humanity realizing what they must do in order to purge madness. That is a unique idea that would have worked better if they were more prominent in the middle chunk of the book.

Though what I often used that time they were absent focusing on was Ohkuba’s growth and maturity as an author. The early parts of the book were incredibly crass. Nudity and sexual innuendo abound. It’s not bad, but felt juvenile. So it was neat to see himself push that from the book or reincorporate those ideas in fresh ways that, by the end, when the old sex-comedy bits return they feel fresh and more mature in a way. The joke was not just about seeing girls naked or touching boobs, but how the characters relationship change to those events. It’s subtle but almost secretly genius.

It is also hard not to want Bones to do a FMA Brotherhood and come back to remake the whole series or adapt the bits they missed. Not just for the fights they could do justice too with even better animation skills, but because music becomes such an integral part of the story that getting to hear what the composer would do with the musical ideas would be a joy to hear and see. It’s a great series that I am glad I finally got to read to completion. But the lingering thought I have is not just how good the book is, but how artistic and bold it feels in comparison to Fire Force. I like what I have read and seen of Fire Force (vol 13 or 14 and the first season), the Fire-demon fighting manga, but it also feels less styalized and bold. Kind of just standard. That could change. He could keep evolving as an artist, but even if it is good it won’t carry the weight this massive series has in my soul.

I’m cleaning house and selling some media. If you would like to buy comics, manga, or cards I owned and used follow this link: say you’re a reader and I’ll be happy to discount any item for you!

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The Idhun Chronicles: The Most Anime of Anime that Ever Animed (a Review)

Netflix has had an incredibly diverse track record when it comes to the anime they either distributed and/or produced. They have really ranged the gamut. From incredible shows like Beastars and Devilman Cry Baby to the uneven B the Beginning, to the congealed mess of traits that made up the energetic Cannonbuster and parody Neo Yokio. However, none seem to compare to the barest or bare bones, the recently released Idhun Chronicles.

The series, a Spanish production based on a trilogy of Spanish novels called The Idhún’s Memories, follows Jack. When he comes home one night to find his parents dead and himself about to be killed by the intruders he’s saved by a seperate factions of magic users and taken to a space between worlds. There, Jack finds out about a world of magic called Idhun, and a group of assassins sent from that world to earth in order to kill all magical refugees. Jack takes up arms to protect himself and avenge his parents.

The series is rough, clearly done on a tight budget, and poorly written. If I was someone who cared more about concise speaking than anything I could end it there. No additional words could describe the mind numbing process of watching the poorly animated and stiff looking production. The art direction and characters design for the whole series is barebones at best, and inconsistent at worst. For example, when one shot will have a piece of jewelry in one location but cut and it’ll be in a different location on the person and it does that constantly, that’s a minor problem when compared to what the show does.

All storytelling regardless of story, medium, and theme is all about a give and take. Anime, and anime inspired series like this one, are a prime example. They leverage consistent art and often limited animation for bigger payoffs in more key scenes. This series seems to have all the limitations with none of the payoffs or rewards. The animation and art doesn’t suck in some scenes but get good during fights. It is just always of low quality. Same with the dreary and lifeless voice casting.

I always watch in English if I have the option. Similar to the animation trade offs, in aware that I am getting the convenience of understanding at the cost of the translation not being accurate and the acting being lesser from time to time. However, based on posts by the author of the original book series and one of the head writers, the voice acting was a problem in the original cast as well. The only good proof is that the series has Johnny Young Bosch and Erika Halacher in key roles and they both are muted, boring, and stiff. Which seems impossible when they, JYB specifically, have more expressive lines and deliveries with less dialogue in Persona 5 than this series. It’s almost impressive they could tune them down to nothing.

It should be impressive, but they also don’t have anything to work with in terms of characters. Jack is the only character with a personality. Saying that being impulsive is a personality is woefully overstating him as a character. He wants revenge and to generically help, but that is it. Everyone is more flat than that 2D world they live in. This goes for the villains as well. The team might think that they are just posturing and menacing. Villains of few words and mostly actions. Instead they have no personality. They just appear, kill whoever and then disappear with I’ll defined magic.

Shocking, I know, the magic system and mythical world is at once over explained and needlessly complicated while also not being explained well enough, coming off as vague instead of anything concrete. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the incredibly fairy tale world the characters come from, but other than a bad case of the Dark Lords and magical oppression there isn’t anything unique. Something, after doing base reading on Wikipedia shows it’s an adaptational issue over a source material one. The world of Idhun seems kind of neat and has interesting lore that is dropped on us instead of being the story we are watching (a problem lots of fantasy stories have).

This is to say nothing of the story we are watching. It is bargain basement portal fantasy. That’s not bad alone, but it’s executed with all the skills of person finding out about portal fantasy for the first time. Every episode is a slog. The show has no energy, and the dialogue boarders on being a parody. Two characters jump from a high wall and one says that it felt like they are flying… I mean, have they never been on a trampoline before? So awkward, and not even purposefully so. Completely by accident. That makes it almost endearing if that wasn’t the high point of that episode. Because, overall, it’s a lifeless story.

To give one positive, I enjoy that this ostensible kids show does have a lot of blood and death used incredibly casually. Cuts and stabs produce blood and that was surprisingly mature.

This is a series who I don’t know the audience for it that couldn’t watch a better version of this story on the same platform. Its not told well enough to be a good starting point, not creative enough to be for veterans, not epic enough for those wanting a big fantasy story, and not well drawn and animated well enough for starving anime fan in need of new content. It’s cheap, not well told, and dull. All the worst things a show can be.

I’m cleaning house and selling some media. If you would like to buy comics, manga, or cards I owned and used follow this link: say you’re a reader and I’ll be happy to discount any item for you!

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Yeah, but is The Legend of Korra good, Though?

I just finished my season-by-seaon look at The Legend of Korra, and overall I find it a facinating series (6,000 words of fascination later).

The most fascinating, and my favorite thing about this series is the complicated and diverse discourse the show has. This might be because I relish argument as pure sport (read my piece on Smash Bros for further understanding— it’s good). You might believe what you say, but it’s just a debate. It doesn’t matter (can you tell I spend no time on message boards— Discord Servers, God I’m old). That makes how this show can have articles and videos decrying it as a failure while other praise it as sophisticated story telling. It’s why, as much as I hated early DCEU (and really all dc movies after Dark Knight), I find the debate around them to be so interesting because it’s the same kind of thing. To that end I watched so many analysis and editorials on Korra, as well as read articles to really gauge all the talking points people have, and to help measure where I fall.

One phrase I kept coming back to in my head was, “I hate to criticize this show because I love looking at it,” and that sentiment holds true no matter how many editorials or video essays I watched. I think it stands as one of the best looking animated series even after the animation slump between season one and two when the switches from Studio Mir to Pierrot and then in season four. This does sound back handed, but it goes deeper. The visuals are only a part of it. I think the character designs are striking. Each one oozes with personality some of the people embodying them don’t have. Korra in particular is one of my favorite characters for the look alone. Some of the complaints that her design is busy feels mixed. I like her season four outfit a lot, but it also feels like an evolution of the brash nature she once had (also I’m shocked she’s not more of a female icon. Not because she is swoll as Hell but because she gets away with wearing sweats for the whole show, and of the little I know about women, comfort is key).

But even designs as simple as Kuvira and Zaheer all give them some concrete personality. There is also no accounting for how much I care for the world of Avatar that just spending more time in it feels good, and giving it a full HD upgrade helps it come live. Though I also love the tone and atmosphere of the series. It balances the line of being mature and goofy better than Avatar did even as the writing is lesser. This made the multiple times I watched through footage during the video essays that much more enjoyable.

Even as a shallow compliment, me liking visuals, that should tell you enough of my opinion, but I have more thoughts. Some of them are not so subtle responses and expansions of points I heard and read during my deep dive. All of them center around the changes, not necessarily evolutions but some times evolutions, made from one series to another.

Not all changes are bad, and neither are all differences. Two objects are able to exist as opposites without one being better (why do you think Mean Girls is my favorite movie while Avengers Age of Ultron is my favorite superhero film). I might like one more than another but I wouldn’t quantify them the same. Many elements between Avatar and Korra are felt in that way. The biggest being a comparison between Appa and Naga.

Appa was an essential part of Avatar. Not just because he was Team Avatar’s transportation, but because he was one of the last remnants of the Air Nomand civilization, and crucial comic relief and empathy. There is a reason it is a big deal he is stolen and forced to flee his numerou captures all to get kidnapped by the Di Lei and eventually freed. It made us care for this big loveable creature. He clearly had emotions and obviously meant a lot to Aang and the rest of the team. Naga, Korra’s spiritual animal, less so. Naga plays a role only in season one as Korra’s city transport before they get a satomobile. After that she is abandoned to being background dressing and occasional cute animal comic relief with Pabu. That means Naga holds far less emotional weight to the series. If she got kidnapped I would fear the situation but would not be nearly as affected. This might sound like a negative, but it’s just a difference.

Naga and animal side kicks are not as important to Korra the series, and the characters that have them are used to show they are immature in some way (similar to say Kristoff and Sven in Frozen). Heck, they are used as a parody of animal side kicks in the movers Bolin films in season two with Verick. Basically, there is a reason Bolin becomes more himself in season four when he reunites with Pabu after fleeing Kuvira’s army.

The other example of problems that aren’t problems are harder to quantify because though they are not problems conceptually, they are never handled great in the series to hold them up. The first of these is Korra being so sheltered growing up and training. As pointed out in Avatar, the reason an Avatar must go on a journey is to learn the world and find masters who will help them understand themselves and the world they must protect. Korra, for plot reasons, did not have this. In universe that makes sense. By the time Korra is born the Avatar is a key positon right for exploitation like kidnapping. Of course this lack of seeing the world has unforseen consequences on Korra. Without having seen the world her brash attitude causes her to make situations worse. A key character flaw like that is perfect for great writing, unfortunately it seems like the team doesn’t realize that’s a problem, or figured it out too late and tried to adjust course by humbling her. They just never stuck to it.

I hate to rewrite stories. It’s my least favorite form of critique (also why I dispise theory talk or speculationcasts. Wait for the thing to come out and then discuss what it does. Don’t try to predict and get your hopes up when it doesn’t reach that goal). But the team had many good points in the story to do this and never did. When Korra loses her bending against Amon they could have done a season on her regaining them. When Korra loses Raava they could have done something with her gaining that back, and when she is crippled by Zaheer they do something with her then, but by then it’s the end of the series and feels like they’re finally getting around to telling the story they were trying to tell. Unfortunately by that time the series is over and any future is only possible in comics, not in the animated series proper.

Another one that isn’t bad is one the show deals with quickly but feels ever present even as the team moves past it. That being the stationary nature of the series. Instead of a world spanning trip across mystical lands, constantly searching and being hunted like in Avatar, Korra seeks for a more stationary cast and setting. This is most true in season one as New Team Avatar tries to deal with the unrest in Republic City, but even afterwards, in the later seasons, the locations they go to are all reused and feel more like limited TV sets than a full on world.

Now saying you should discount a show because it reuses sets would seek to discount most all television, good and bad. Instead I mean that Korra seeks to be more focused on having a consistent setting. This works for the most part. Despite decrying the Americanization (which I would push back against some as, seeing pictures of streets in Hong Kong and Beijing they look similar to that as well) and steam punkery of Republic City, it is a place brimming with life. Same with the Southern Water Tribe, Zaofou, and the Spirit World, they are all places interesting enough in design, tone, or culture to make spending time there enjoyable. It also gives more time to get to know the groups and people living there. In theory at least, it doesn’t always execute on that.

A great example is Zaofou. We spend a good chunk of season three and four in the city, but it feels unclear how it operates, how it was founded, and its function in the larger society. Instead time is focused just on Su and Lin. This is good in theory, but when we have to care about it later it’s hard because we know so little about it or what it stands for. This also means sometimes time is spent too long in one location to be enjoyable and feels like a slog. Hence the lack of energy in places like the Bending Arena, police stations, air temples, and Kuvira’s camps. It might also be why the final fight feels so lackluster. Though it is in Republic City, the city is never displayed or conveyed well, making the fight seem smaller and less substantial than it should.

One issue this focus on staying in the same places leads to a lack of world building outside the set locations. Normally this wouldn’t bug me except for one little nibble… we don’t know what’s going on with the Fire Nation.

This seems like a strange oversight borne from a good place. The last series spent a lot of time with the Fire Nation, so gooing back to it would be odd and might feel like a rehash of what’s come before. Unfortunately not touching it at all leads to questions I have about it (in the same way I question what the rest of the world is like in stories like The Hunger Games or Divergent). The most we are given is that Zuko was leader until his daughter took over. They are also in some way connected to the World Army that General Iroh is connected to, but other than that it’s a giant mystery, and it shouldn’t be. The Fire Nation should be a hotbed (no pun intended) of possible stories. It’s now a nation having to recover its image after going full totalitarian. It must be ripe with debate, intrigue, and drama over how to recover their tarnished image. Instead we get a couple scenes with Zuko and one scene with his daughter and after that it is abandoned.

Yet, that might not be as true as I once thought (to bury the lead a little, it is true what I said before, I’m just focusing on something else). An idea that is often overlooked in the first half of the show but made a strong focus in the latter seasons is Republic City as a part of the Earth Kingdom. Land stolen by Avatar Aang, Zuko, and the Earth King. Some call this colonization and feel like the show doesn’t address that enough or paints it as a good thing that the Earth Kingdom was taken over by an invading or previously invaded power. That is a compelling thought. There is some logic in it, but feels like an argument the show would make about a political ideology. It wants to be an allusion or allegory for a real life problem but has too many in-universe issues getting in the way.

Just like how Amon says that non-benders are oppressed but chooses to use only a sport to illustrate that, Republic City was not something taken by Fire Lord Zuko and Avatar Aang. Granted we don’t see how it transpired, just given an explanation, but the explanation seems to be one of unity and experience. To create a place not tied to any of the nations. It also doesn’t seem to have been taken by force, but instead compromise. Whether that’s true or not is hard to say, but the fact both the Earth Queen and Kuvira want to take it back by force are ways to illustrate that they’re villainous in some way. They want to take a place of independence and force it back under the rule of one nation. That doesn’t mean there is no discussion to be had. The decision of the Earth King from 60 years ago shouldn’t take precedent over future goals, but there is no discussion had in the show or reasons to think its meant to be villainous in their own right other than what they represent.

The final change between the shows is its use of multiple villains on the same level instead of a consistent overarching antagonist with minor minions as the day-to-day foes.

This change is nothing new for semi-serialized and fully serialized TV shows. Clearly an influence on the team was Buffy, which did that consistently (kind of) for seven seasons, along with most superhero and crime shows. They give fresh threats for the characters to face instead of just one insurmountable threat they’re training for. It’s a tried and true method that flexes writing and planning skills, especially when you try to make them more relatable and sympathetic.

In my 5 Things I Would Change with Avatar (It’s good, you should read it), one of them was to give Lord Ozai more refined goals and motivation. Not necessarily make him sympathetic, but at least have definition other than being a crazy fire monster voiced by Mark Hamill. Korra attempts to do that for multiple villains to mixed results. Both Amon and Unalaq were the roughest of them and share the most in common. Both are villains that are supposed to be foils for Korra, a person who has mastered a skill she has not and thinks that they are the better for it. Of course where they break down is in their motivations. They are both far more self serving than once thought, and devolve into villains as cliché as Ozai, but with rhetoric to make them sound smart.

Zaheer and Kuvira fare far better then Amon and Unalaq, but suffer from different problems. Zaheer’s ultimate freedom, anarchy-chaos as natural order shtick works better than I think people give it credit for. The idea air bending is total freedom and he gets that through a major change as if I’m he was chosen to enact that freedom onto the world would be great if it was explored more. Yet. much is put on him for being idiotic, unthoughtful, and more selfish than he thinks. Criticism of him killing the Earth Queen and hoping for the Earth Kingdom to sort itself out only to lead Kuvira into power is seen as a negative trait, but could also have been done on purpose. That’s one of this outcomes where it’s hard to tell if it’s a happy accident or planned. Either way, the fact he is a villain should automatically rule out anything he says… except for the fact the team tried and failed to make their past villains have a point and support that with how society changed to better address their grievances. Meaning it’s hard to tell if Zaheer’s ideals are supposed to be taken seriously or just his actions.

Kuvira on the other hand is supposed to be taken utterly seriously. She left to mend the broken Earth Kingdom and instead instituted a fascist government. The problem with her is that so little is really shown of a normal life under her. I’m not sure what she’s really protecting them against. There are bandits and raiders shown in the first episode, but they seem more displaced and turning to crime by her intervention than helped. Interestingly though, being she is the closest one to Ozai’s ideals, she’s given some backstory. Unfortunately that doesn’t make everything she do make sense. Most of it feels constructed to make her Nazi-lite (all the totalitarianism, none of the death camps), and also want to her to be sympathetic but not go into detail why she makes some of the choices. One of the biggest examples is throwing other element benders into prison camps. In fact, much of what Kuvira does feels like all posturing and threats (which she’s good at. Now I know what Baatar was into cause I’d want her to step on me too), but doesn’t go far enough. Even if they wanted her sympathetic they could make it feel more out of anger than an actual, honest threat. I think she needs just one line about not wanting to lose power to someone who could replace her, or threaten the other nations if they interfere with her land reclamation. But even as I want her to be more in-depth she serves her narrative purpose well enough.

Even as the villains make no political sense, as much as they want them to, that’s not their main role. With each villain they were foes to help Korra grow, but also to learn from. Now despite the fact Toph just explains what the viewers and Korra were supposed to take from the past villains, Korra does learn. The believablity, understanding, and “too easiness,” aside, of course, she grows even if she doesn’t realize it. Amon, by taking her bending, forced her to believe in the forces inside her, thus helping her throw her first air-punch. Though Amon lied about his origins he still taught Korra the importance of belief even if that wasn’t his goal. Unalaq built on that further by forcing her to come face-to-face with the spirit world and how the Avatar neglected them. Zaheer forced Korra to her lowest point in order to help her build up, and Kuvira is the culmination of everything she learned rolled into one final conversation at the end of the series. It’s far more reminiscent of classic TV writing. She needed one lesson to deal with the other. Execution of these ideas might be wanting but they drove their point home.

Every change above is a lateral move. In concept none are better or worse, just different. Of course, not all differences are positive. Some of the changes in course were not for the worse. Most talked about and agreed upon is the change in bending.

Bending was both a martial art and an artform. There is not end to the amount of times I watched the behind the scenes on Avatsr just to see where they got the inspiration for each style of bending, and what that bending said about the person using it. That last point was so crucial there was a whole episode with Zuko trying to get his bending back. All to say that style was important. Korra the Series change to make it all generic MMA combat (granted I’ve watched enough Joe “Welcome to the Show… Friend of the Show… Hey good buddy… probably true” Rogan to know MMA isn’t generic). Even if it isn’t, they have simplified it all down to a base set of moves and styles every character used.

There are a number of reasons this happened or could have happened even if they didn’t mean for it to. Some of it comes from an honest and impossible place to advance the world. The most obvious examples being electricity and metal bending. Those two styles and moves of bending were big hits and important parts of the worldbuilding. If they didn’t advance those styles of bending people would have called foul on more people not learning, but since they did advance it the world feels less deep. People have to work at metal bending, and some can’t do it at all, but they make electric bending just a normal skill fire benders can do (though to compare it back to the lack of exploration with the Fire Nation, maybe they do have to learn but it isn’t explained at all). The second, less obvious, is how benders are no longer suppressed like they were under the Fire Nation, meaning more benders are around. This would logically mean not all of them would be properly trained to bend elements, hence getting the street fighting/boxing styles of combat most benders use. That makes sense why the Equalists could take them. They actually had to train to fight them on an equal level.

Of course that isn’t the whole change because the biggest culprit/chicken and the egg scenario is pro bending. Pro bending did not have to exist. That was one element of the show no one wanted or clamored for. However, once you hear those words in your head it does get possible ideas spinning. The direction, a three v three boxing-alike, makes sense if you think of it as a 20s era sport. Boxing is huge and very American, which this series is pushing. That decision is also where the change in bending is shown. All bending can no longer be this whole art form because now it needs to be quick, high impact moves. Basic jabs, kicks, etc. what makes it kind of worse is how there is seemingly no strategy to the sport. Just hit hard and fast. The only time it feels classic or like it’s a new spin is when Korra uses that to figure out air bending stuff with the dodging, and the one on one fights. That brings me to the discussion of why it had to be that way in the first place. There are plenty of other sports to copy. An automatically better and more interesting idea is a ball control game where you scores points by throwing a ball into a goal with only bending. Have two field players and a goalie. That would expand bending by seeing how each element uses its power in new ways, and get Korra on a team so she has instant access to bending friends. And if it has to be fighting, make it a team of one on one fights and add other game elements to it. This too would expand bending by maybe having a water bender who can cut rocks, or a fire bender who is good at fighting water. Just so many options, none of which would have caused the portrayal of bending in the series to change.

None of this is to say that pro bending on its face is bad, just could be better. The show kind of agrees with me and realized it was a good world building idea at best by sidelining it in season two, and then having Su’s sons in Zhaoufu make a way better bending sport with a metal disk that can bounce around. Basically, pro bending isn’t the problem, it’s the symptom.

The most aggravating thing about the series can be seen in microcosm with bending. Bending changes and there is some talk about it, but other than that it is left as it is with no sense of how others really feel about it. Something like that should play as a big question to the audience who came in right after the past series, but it’s not. It would be like if they changed The Force in Star Wars (people argue the sequels did). But not just giving everyone the ability to force push or force kick or whatever, but said you could fly and throw rocks like an earth bender. Stuff people would question why it changed and if it’s supposed to mean something. But, it is only slightly addressed, maybe up to be a problem that isn’t. Problem, then forgotten about in the way lots of things are where I don’t know if they forgot about it or I was just supposed to stop caring, or if they wanted to go in another direction and didn’t mind just dropping it.

Of course this is compounded by how pretty the show is and how fluid the fights are. I just love watching them so much that it almost gets me and makes me not care so much… until I see some of the most basic Aang/Zuko fights of season one and see far more strategy and care going into every movement. Zuko and Aang trying to strike each other, or avoid hitting, on top of the well in front of the scent shop has far more going on than just cool punches and kicks.

Though what makes many of those even smaller, less important, fights work is all of strong ground work laid by the story in Avatar. No matter how seemingly pointless an episode is, or divergent from the path, they do work in one way. They fill in the space between big moments. They might not progress larger narrative, but they move the story forward. Something Korra the Series, doesn’t have or get.

Filler gets a less than stellar rep in story telling. Horrid memories of Naruto and DBZ stories that just seem to waste the viewers time are all associated with that word. Some of that is valid. More of it is not. The defining difference is how that time and those episodes are used. An example outside of this franchise would be Gravity Falls. Gravity Falls is a great series that has a first season which consists of mostly stand alone stories and a second season with a mix of stand alone and plot-building. However, instead of relegating the stand alone episodes to a seperate world that doesn’t affect anything, they are used to setup the characters and build on them while also being reincorporated back into the main plot. Turns out none of that was filler, it was doing work the whole time.

Avatar had this similar structure. Each episode, whether big or small, helped build on some aspect of the world, characters, or story. Every episode, even in book one, is meaningful. The one exception is The Great Divide (even the show makes a joke of it), but that makes up for it by being the most intellectually interesting episode of the whole show (I have a whole other editorial on that, but don’t want to bog people down in constant Avatar content). Though, the fact The Great Divide was reused in some way proves it wasn’t filler. It still added something to the series. Korra the show, contrastly, doesn’t seem to see its story in that way.

Some of the problems with the show is production kerfuffles we’ll get into later, but the show misinterprets filler and is the worse for it. Every episode, aside from the clip show (which was budgetary) has to contribute directly to the main story and progress the plot in a single direction. They find ways for some b-plot digressions, but that single drive and limited episode count per season leaves little room of characters to just hang out. Sure, that happens in the show, but instead of talking about character stuff it is instead just about the plot. Any time New Team Avatar is together it has to connect back in someway to the villain plot (or love triangle). There is no space for an Ember Island— Breakfast Club style hangout movie or a revenge story, or just a goofy episode where Aang can’t sleep and the gang has to help him find some peace while also highlighting the seriousnesss of the possible encounters ahead.

Korra the Series, does give some of these introspective moments to its characters. The episode of Tenzin learning to train the air benders, Korra Alone, or Korra dealing that trauma of Amon, and the digression with Tenzin and company in Civil War two-parter. But it’s never spread evenly. It’s lathered to only a couple character. Hence why a solid B-Rank side-character like Kya is granted more depth… heck, even Meelo gets more character than essential New Team Avatar members like Asami and Mako. When they’re together they can only talk about the plot or their generic romance banter, not anything about who they are beyond their character bio (woman in STEM and angsty Batman-alike).

Laid out like that, it feels like everything that characterizes The Legend of Korra is the drive not to be Avatar the Last Airbender. That, again, is a tough spot to be in. It makes a sort of sense to try and go in a totally different direction with the same franchise. Try to break any possible comparisons you can. Unfortunately, kind of like the series, they don’t go far enough one way or the other leaving them in this strange middle ground. It tries to take the series in many different directions but doesn’t or can’t commit to most of them. It tries to be more serious but has characters who use the exact same comedic sense as the past series. That similar sense of humor paints them as lite versions of past characters, and someone to write off. The villains want to have more depth and interest in ideals but aren’t given the time and space to flesh those ideas out, or just lie about the ideals making them no better than the main antagonist of the first series. The action is changed, but isn’t substantial different enough. It’s the same as before but watered down.

It is a noble thing to try and go in a new direction. Just look at how Himoru Arakawa went from the neigh-perfect epic of FMA to the slice of life drama, Silver Spoon. Not saying the team should have done a completely different kind of story and genre all together, but structural shifts and looking at this world in new ways makes sense (though maybe a totally different show all together would be better liked, ultimately, no one will know until if/when that happens). It is, in fact,the only solution the team really had, they just are also following up a classic series, beloved by millions, and iconic to boot. It’s an unenviable position that is made worse by the tumultuous production.

When looking into the show for any amount of time though, it’s clear the path the series took to being completed was less straightforward than its predecessor. From near the very beginning the show was myriad in production woes and would be for the rest of the series run. Starting with Nickelodeon’s trepidation at having a female lead in a show aimed at an older demographic, to constant changes in how many seasons they go, budgetary changes, and an unstable release location and schedule. It must not have been an easy show. The fact the team was working on, at one point, 30 episodes at once; with each being in a different stage of development. Post-production on one, production on a second, and pre-production on a third set of episodes. It’s no wonder so much of the show feels off, there seemed to be no time to collect your thoughts and plan. It had to be a full steam ahead type of adventure. With that being so common knowledge, it feels almost impossible to try and review the series without stating how much of their vision was compromised not by studio meddling, but by time constraints. There is no way this series was this team’s full vision when pressed like that. All questions of if the team thought through this story or plot point goes right out the window when you realize they were put into such an unsure place that it would be impossible to know what to plan out fully and what just need to be worked out in the edit.

That is not to say the series is blameless. This is the story Michael DiMartino and Brian Konietzko along with the rest of the team made. All productions have their issues. This one may have had far more or not, but in the end this is the story they chose to tell and how they chose to tell it. It is not fair to the act of criticism to just write all art off as not being given enough time. Time doesn’t fix a story that is misguided or mishandled in the first place.

This part is something I wasn’t able to put anywhere is just how good the casting is. I said in the very beginning how the cast isn’t as great as Avatar. While some of the actors in Avatar are transcended and star making, they are using two different styles of acting. Avatar, to be more on brand as a cartoon, kept more cartoonish voice acting. They used that to subvert expectations in places for serious moments, but on the whole was exaggerated. Korra the Series, is far more understated when it comes to voice acting. That sounds like this should go up with the lateral changes, but the difference is in the quality of the actors they got.

Neither of these show strike me as having a star studded cast, but when you look over the cast list, it is clearly star studded. Steve Blum as Amon isn’t star studded other than he’s a popular actor, but getting Lance Henriksen as his partner with the goggles is baffling. Adding to that is season two’s additions. I already mentioned Aubrey Plaza, but you get James Remar (last seen as Dexter’s dad Harry) as Unalaq in a completely inspired performance. Knowing who that is now makes me like him a whole lot more. But you also get Cutty from House as Kya. But it keeps coming, Bruce Davidson is the voice of Zuko and was Senator Kelly in the X-Men movies. Grey DeLisle returns as one of the members of the Red Lotus. People who know who Henry Rollins is, does Zaheer, and finally you get Zelda Williams – daughter of Robin Williams- is Kuvira. It’s almost no wonder why every character is given both so much and so little with a cast that strong. Everyone has to have lines to say and stuff to do because you have some major people in the booth. It’s another one of those impossible situations the team was placed in.

Yeah, all of this is interesting, but it doesn’t lay out if the show is good or not. The answer is that it’s not that simple. People come to different shows for different reasons. Whether they care about story, animation, meme moments, to cringe, or genuine enjoyment, it’s all valid reasons to watch something. In my research of the discourse I have found people who love the show but see it’s flaws, think it’s a flawed show with good qualities, those that think it’s a problematic show that can help other grow from its mistakes, and those who find it utterly insufferable, irritating, and just straight garbage. I fall in a strange place on that list.

A part of my enjoyment of things I like are also the things that make me hate it. I love shows and movies that are terrible or have bad things in them because they are just so bad. Nothing comes to mind immediately, but often when people say something about a show or movie I like is bad I will agree and say it’s great. I think maybe Rise of Skywalker is the best, most well known, current example. That’s an insane movie that makes no sense and totally contradicts or changes stuff in the previous movies and I love every second of the ride. Korra is like that for me. I would say it’s, on balance, better than Rise of Skywalker, but has those same kind a of moments. The whole (rightfully molined) kaiju battle between Ultra-Korra (who could also step on me) and Unavaatu is utterly dumb and only makes sense as a move for spectacle, but is also so enjoyable to watch. Same with most of the pointless pro bending matches, whatever nonsense Bolin is up to, and the times characters actually take any of the villains politics seriously (yes take the man who forces bending away seriously in any government). It makes minimal sense but has such an energy that I can’t stop watching.

It almost doesn’t matter if the series is good or not. The mere fact there is this much to say about just one TV show is admirable in its own right. It may not live on in my brain as a series that made storytelling feel effortless like it’s predecessor, but it’s many manhandled political ideas, characters, stories, and themes will live on forever in this virtual space and in my brain as something I couldn’t stop thinking about… and that is good.

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Avatar: the Impossible Followup – A look at The Legend of Korra Seaon 4

We have come to the end of this journey. A look at a series that I have more to say on an upcoming editorial, but seasonally has reached its end. I don’t have a whole lot of preamble. After season three ended I didn’t keep track of season four cause I wanted to wait and watch it when it was over, and I heard no one talk about it except for one specific element I’ll get to (it’s Korrasami, duh), but other than that it seemed to have been forgotten.

Forgotten just like the shows pacing. Instead of only a few months or weeks, the series jumps three years – about the length of the shows run – into the future to see how the world changed since Zaheer’s attack on the Earth Kingdom, and crippling of Korra. In that time the Earth Kingdom has been brought back together under Kuvira, a minor character we only caught a glimpse of near the end of season three helping care for the wounded men after their failed attempt to stop Zaheer’s Red Lotus and save the airbenders. In the meantime she worked to restore order with the help of Varrick, one of Su’s kids we did not see last season, and Bolin. Meanwhile the Air Nation is doing their best to keep the peace with their limited numbers, a new Earth King is about to be crowned, and Korra has gone missing. Everything goes wrong when Kuvira takes total control and Korra is shown to be majorly off her game. She must work to restore balance to herself before Kuvira can force balance onto the Earth Kingdom.

This is a strange season. Not strictly in terms of content, but there is some of that we’ll get to, but instead in terms of energy and passion. Last season felt like the series they always wanted to make. This season feels like they have to deal with consequences, but don’t have the passion to do that. Like the team got all their ideas out and now have to follow through, stuck in the rut they made.

This might stem from their idea for a villain this season. In order to make sure they get all the elements down they made the final villain an earth bender who seeks to unite the Earth Kingdom under her rule in a not to subtle nod to classic fascist and totalitarian imagery. Unfortunately for the team it is going backward and copying some of what the Fire Nation was in the previous series, a bland evil-faceless empire and its not as good because it is not nearly as developed. It starts in a strong place. When a state is overrun by bandits and Kuvira shows up offering help in exchange for control of the town that all works. It shows why people might flock to her, but doesn’t show the aftermath of that choice. They talk of re-education camps and forced labor but only the remnants of that are shown.

The real problem might be Kuvira herself. She is plenty terrifying as a villain. Menacing and clearly capable, even if they have to weaken Korra for most of the season to make this plot work, she is definitely a force to be reckoned with. But the failure is in showing how she grew so powerful or what led to being a full dictator. The finale tries to give her some sympathy of being scared and pushing a nationalistic idealology to feel safe. As true as that may be not enough of it is in the show. It doesn’t tap into how clearly ruthless she is either. She nearly annihilated her fiancée in order to keep her power. I’m shocked there was never a point she said she would kill Korra and scour the Earth Empire in search of the next Avatar in order to control them. But that might have been to far, and they wanted her sympathetic.

If Kuvira was all control then Prince Wu, rightful Earth Kingdom heir, is her opposite the season is paralleling. To be totally contrary, Wu is a cowardly wimp who would rather have fun than rule. Focused fully on womanizing and partying over the crown, or rather only wants the crown for that. However it is seen over the season that he clearly does have a way with the public. He can make people follow him through sheer charism and exuberant energy. He also would never give up his people just for a chance at freedom. That makes it all the stranger when he steps down to allow a democracy to come in. Which, despite how poorly monarchies were used in the history of the show, could clearly not be an issue if the right leader is in charge. The best example being the Fire Lord, Zuko’s daughter whose name we get but I forgot. She is still in charge and they don’t seem to have any issues (actually it’s odd how the series was so focused on every place but the Fire Nation. I’m aware they did a whole show about it, but it would be interesting to see how life has changed since the Hundred Year War-and I’m saving that for the editorial).

For returning characters, Toph finally makes her appearance and she is about as perfect a return as you can get. She is wise and helpful without being around purely for fan service or exposition. She plays well with the theme of unity and forgiveness, and still sounds like herself in the writing even if no one else has been. Also it is fun to watch her call out people who would think Katara should have joined and helped in the Civil War… as a fighter. She defiantly should have been someone advisor at least but that’s not here or there.

When it comes to the main cast it is a mixed bag. Mako, poor Mako, gets nothing to do this season. He’s bodyguard to Prince Wu, and just sort of around. In fact, I bet if he was cut from the season it would have made no difference. Except for how he plays into the relationship with Asami and Bolin. Asami, similarly doesn’t get a lot to do, but is more important overall than Mako in terms of plot and theme. When it comes to plot she is around to make amends with her father, who has been in prison since his working with Amon, and working with Verick to help build defenses for Republic City when Kuvira plans to invade. In both instances she must work with men who have betrayed her in order to prove her strength of will. For Verick it makes sense. He’s always been a complete cheeseball looking for a thrill, but her father. While I see the logic in giving him a chance to prove he is better than the revenge that overtook him, it being introduced so late into the series and season feels off. A build where he learns to respect benders like Korra and why his daughter turned to them over him would help build his case. He does get to die a noble enough death whether he deserved it or not. Asami, sweet Asami, is also part of a romance I will get to later.

Following her is Bolin, my hunky marshmallow. After his journey last season he started working with Kuvira to bring peace and help people. All of that is in character for him. He’s a stand up guy who wants a nice life and do the right thing, while being dim enough not to ask follow up questions. This changes when he finds out the truth of what she is doing, and how crazy she can get and teams up with Verick to escape and help save Republic City. He too is shown to be a very empathetic leader, and is an interesting parallel to Prince Wu in those terms. Well meaning, but not that bright people who honestly want to help are shown to be the best leaders. Well them and the Avatar.

Korra’s arc feels like the only one truly thought out, and gave the writers an out by making her underpowered for most of the fights she gets into. Following last season, Korra was physically crippled by the mercury-like poison coursing through her body. Turns out it was more than just physical. She was haunted by the events that led her to that moment, and the trauma of near death. On top of that her friends of New Team Avatar all were able to move up and do great things in their life. They saw it as just keeping her informed, but to her it made her feel like she was just standing still as everyone passed her by, making her feel useless and unnecessary. That is strong groundwork laid in one of this series better episodes, Korra Alone. It is also handled well after that. She trains with Toph who gets her to help see she needs help and was literally holding onto the past by still holding pieces of the metal in her body. Then, forcing Korra to remove it on her own and teach her how to see using sprite vines is all wonderful growth that tracks. Where it fails in her needing to see Zaheer, the person who traumatized her and almost killed her. Though I have never been nearly killed by someone, I can imagine forcing to confront them is a painful experience, let alone going to them for help. I do not follow message boards (God I’m old… Discord Servers or Subredits), but I gather there was some backlash to that decision. The team played it well by not redeeming him but rather had it be a tenuous alliance at best, but it still felt rather tone deaf to force Korra to go to her abuser, make her relive the moment the abuser tried to kill her, and give that same person the speech that she had to go through that. And for what?

One of Korra’s best moments is near the end of the season when she is able to reason with Kuvira after her plan goes breast-plate up. She realizes that Kuvira was just a scared girl using her power, just like Korra was. Only she grew from that. She then relays that to Tenzin near the finale when she says that nearly dying and going through that trauma made her more compassionate to even the most haneous of people. That all works in the abstracts. However I would posit it was not, in fact, the poison, and crippling trauma that drove this. It was her finally going out, seeing the world, and working to become her own woman with no baggage. This came with consequences she had to deal with. That would make her using those skills to finally talk Kuvira down all more impactful. Unfortunately the team did not see it that way… or the character but with it being one of the final exchanges it’s impossible to know and doesn’t matter. But her saying she had to go through that that trauma in order to be as compassionate doesn’t track anyway. It was shown last season that she was able to empathize with the new airbenders, except the basement dweller (so maybe they had a point), so it doesn’t seem like she needed that lesson.

Maybe part of the reason it feels off is how they use the time to advance her and Asami’s relationship, which again, is coming.

Another piece that feels off and contributes to this whole wonky tone is the lack of action this season. Sure there are fights and chases and a city siege, but it feels all so tame. This has always been, or wanted to be, a more talkie show. It wants to have big ideas, themes, and characters. It has a less then stellar track record at achieving that, but that was always its goal. The previous seasons had this too, but when it was action time it was always strong, dynamic, and punchy. This season it feels all so drab. The best example is the final fight with Kuvira. In theory it should be great. A giant mech attacks the city and they must stop it as a group. It builds the theme of teamwork to stop a common goal, and is totally original. The issue is that the mech is a lunky CG, and the plans they come up with don’t match the epic scale. It all feels too easy, even if having one direct force works better than branching ones like Avatar’s finale had. It just all feels so subdued, which is fine. Trying to constantly top yourself each season can lead to problems. But the ending doesn’t feel as satisfying because of it.

To really throw a curve ball, this season has a clip show, something the rest of the show could avoid. It could be argued Avatar had a clip show episode in the Fire Island play, but that was a creative retelling of the series. This is a bland recap with additional banter thrown on top for comedic effect. It slows the seasons overall good pacing to a screeching halt to not advance much story other than small character moments. These moments don’t feel important enough to be substantial or important enough to build an episode around and filled in with show clips.

All of this has really been staving off the inevitable conversation about Korrasami. Korrasami, the romantic pairing of Korra and Asami the show leaves us with, is underwhelming. I fully support them as a couple, and actually want to read the comics about them to see if they get development because, as it stands now, it doesn’t work. It’s arguable how much the team tried to get them together or were allowed with getting away with by Nickelodeon, but the source goes deeper than that. Korra and Asami have no chemistry. I don’t want to blame anyone, but it feels like it’s Asami’s problem because she is such a nothing character. She is in the first season to be a strict romantic rival and provide support for New Team Avatar, but once that concludes she seems to just be around with no point. The show failed her. She’s a women in STE(A)M after all. She should be the one coming up with plans and strategy. She’s both a nerd and an empath. There is just so much potential never touched by the writers. I don’t know how much was planned based from the start of the season to the final scene, but if they wanted her and Korra to get together then more of the arc should have been around that instead of… or maybe both, around her rekindling some feelings for her father and caring for Korra in a new light.

There are some subtle attempts to pair them in our mind. The fact Korra can really only write to Asami after her crippling. The use unreasonable arguments to help build that Korra and Asami act as couple similar Korra and Mako, and the fact, and this is from the creators, they mirrored the shots of the wedding scene with them to show a romantic interest. Also this:

As frustrating as it is that they got such little growth as a couple it bothers me more that Nickelodeon tries to push Korra as LGBT (and all the wonderful letters after) representation even as they did not let them go into a full relationship, and removed Korra from their channel, but then want to act like they had representations all along. That truly maddens me. It would be like saying Spongebob is asexual… oh wait no!

As the series draws to a close Korra and Tenzin remark on how much Korra changed the world. It should feel epic. Governments are changing, the spirits and humans are flowing, there is no evil spirits. All massive stuff, yet, it feels so small. It doesn’t feel like anything changes from the first episode despite so much happening. Compared to Avatar, which felt suitably epic all the way to the end. It’s the same feeling some people get after watch The Last Jedi. So much happened yet it feels like filler. I think the reason is because as much as stuff happened there was no journey. There was never a clear endpoint. I don’t get why Korra ended with season four and not with whatever is going on in the comics. It reached and end, but hardly a conclusion.

Though this is the end of The Legend of Korra but that’s not the end of Avatar: The Impossible Followup (but this is defiantly a break from it. I need to watch some other stuff). If you study the credits as I do, then eagle-eyes viewers know many members: Lauren Montgomery, Joaquim Dos Santos, Joshua Hamilton, Tim Hedrick and more go on to create Voltron: The Legendary Defender. Meanwhile Aaron Ehaz, the story editor and lead writer for Avatar along with other co-writers have gone on to make Dragon Prince. Both series try and fail to live up to the path Avatar made, because, truly, it is impossible to follow up.

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