Book Two: Spirits

Back in May I wrote Nickelodeon’s Experiment where I talked about the network’s hit animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Last week the latter’s show finished its second season with the final episode of “Book Two: Spirits”. In preparation for the third, I thought I would post a mid-series update. As with my last article on this topic, spoiler alert, I will give away big parts of the story in this piece; if you haven’t seen the excellence that is Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise, read the next two paragraphs and then go watch it before continuing on.

Obviously I recommend starting with Avatar: The Last Airbender and watching from episode one. After that, however, the most advantageous path becomes much less clear: convention would suggest immediately moving to The Legend of Korra, but I have an alternate route to put forth: after Avatar: The Last Airbender — which I will henceforth refer to as “The Last Airbender” for both your sake and mine, although I must caution you not to confuse Nickelodeon’s animated series with the live action abomination that is Paramount Pictures and Nickelodeon Studios’ joint venture The Last Airbender released in July of 2010 — read Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise, followed by The Search. Although not yet released as of this writing, their three-part sequel The Rift is slated for March fifth of 2013.

Despite seeming trivial when compared to the potential for far reaching global effects certain events in The Last Airbender have, you would be remiss to gloss over these graphic novels as fillers or merely as of negligible import. Historically indifferent to the comic book format myself I did not particularly look forward to reading them, but after spending an afternoon with both The Promise and The Search I now know a great deal more about the seventy year stretch between The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. Moreover, I greatly enjoyed both. After watching The Last Airbender, reading The Promise and The Search, and going through both Book One: Air and Book Two: Spirits, only then will you be ready to proceed.

Book Two: Spirits solidified my belief that The Legend of Korra in particular — and The Last Airbender as well although to a slightly lesser degree — merely appear geared towards children while in actuality would be much more appropriate for an older audience able to grasp the significant undertones present throughout the series. As I explained in Nickelodeon’s Experiment, these underlying threads include nationalism, government bureaucracy, war, terrorism, industrial expansion, inequality, and civil unrest, along with more germane issues like broken families, depression, and love. Like Adventure Time, Avatar’s creators nevertheless refused to beat their viewers over the head with each issue and instead left their discovery to some thought and imagination; an admirable strategy for sure. Take in tandem with unrivaled quality in America’s animation industry today, these aspects have lent themselves to The Legend of Korra’s perception as an anime. Interestingly, one could reasonably make that very case.

Studio Mir, a small animation house from Korea of which I could find precious little information on and whose only major project looks to be The Legend of Korra, animated the entirety of Book One: Air and half of Book Two: Spirits; the other seven episodes, however, fell to the much larger Studio Perrot known in America for its work on shows such as the Naruto and Bleach franchises, and infamously amongst animation enthusiasts for its dubious quality.1

Giving Nickelodeon the benefit of the doubt and assuming their primary goal in choosing a production house for The Legend of Korra was to end up with a beautifully animated miniseries, they likely chose the small animation studio based on the promise of fulfilling that modest order. When the show’s popularity skyrocketed, however, and Nickelodeon queued an additional forty episodes, Studio Mir’s inability or unwillingness to fill this much larger request gave the Japanese animation house Studio Perrot the opening it needed to promise animation of equal quality — or at least the perception of such given the target audience — at a similar or decreased rate, thereby allowing them to step in on a trial basis for The Legend of Korra’s second season. However, I have my doubts: given Nickelodeon’s animated atrocities I find this course of events altogether unlikely. Instead, I assume exceptional quality came as a happy accident to the main reason Nickelodeon chose Studio Mir — price, which as a small production house they could compete fiercely on — or as a tertiary consideration at best. With a forty episode extension imminent, Nickelodeon needed more bodies to throw at the problem and so they chose Studio Perrot, eager to attach themselves to such a successful project and likely willing to do so for less than Studio Mir while promising similar production values. Unfortunately, Studio Perrot could not hold up their end of the deal and so for The Legend of Korra’s third season Nickelodeon went back to Studio Mir.

Keep in mind, though, that this is mere speculation, and the reasons behind this juggling of production studios could be much more germane: it could have come about simply as a result of the show going from a miniseries of just twelve episodes appropriate for a small outfit such as Studio Mir to a fifty-two episode monolith which Studio Perrot could handle with fewer complications. Alternately, budgetary restrictions before the show became wildly popular may have also played a role in these transitions. Based on my own observations and given that I could tell no difference between episodes Studio Mir produced and those from Studio Perrot, I suspect nothing more exciting than behind the scenes economics and politics. Most importantly though, regardless of the motivations the result remained constant throughout: The Legend of Korra continues to outdo every animated production on television today.

Although I suspect I am romanticizing The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra’s Book One: Air, Book Two: Spirits appears to err much farther towards the extremes of childish humor and great intensity. Throughout The Last Airbender the undertones I mentioned earlier remained just that: undertones rather than significant aspects of the story; with The Legend of Korra’s first season, however, those undertones became key plot elements and the Avatar franchise began to realize its subconscious growth from a children’s show to one geared towards older audiences. Rather than continuing that trend or performing an about-face, Book Two: Spirits spread out to either side of that third rail of easy fun and bouts of seriousness, osculating back and forth between each extremes often enough to make my head spin. Perhaps this explains the mediocre ending to this second season, whereas instead of an exploding speed boat we saw a hopeful resolution reminiscent of Avatar Aang’s time. I now realize the impracticality of expecting each run to end in such a wonderfully spectacular, emotionally conflicted way — because seriously, how could you hope to top that ending? — but leading up to Unalaq’s defeat I nevertheless hoped for a similarly satisfying culmination. I would be wrong to fault its absence though, for whereas Tarlock’s stunning murder-suicide made for an amazing ending, it also made for a rough transition between seasons; the ending of Book Two: Spirits lends itself to a much smoother transition, which will hopefully pay off sometime in the future.

While the creator apparently does not grasp even the simplest of mechanics driving the English language, his comments — if you can get past the terrible grammar and godawful punctuation — are quite funny and he does manage to make a number of good points. That said, in the last minutes of his video he posits that the upcoming Lilly the Witch children’s cartoon has better animation than Naruto Shippuden, and I have to strongly disagree: Lilly the Witch appears to be some strange amalgamation of cel animation, faux 3D characters, and 2D drawings mashed together at an incredibly low budget because kids don’t know any better.