“The bells toll at Gion Temple, echoing with the impermanence of all things. The blossoms on the Sala trees teach us through their hues that what flourishes must fade. He who is proud is not so for long, like a passing dream on a night in spring. He who is brave is finally destroyed, becoming no more than dust before the wind.”
Thus read the opening lines of The Tales of the Heike, a collection of stories set during a civil war in feudal Japan. Just as the blossoms on the Gion temple’s trees come into blossom and then fade away in a cycle of life, death and impermanence, so too did Japan’s once-mighty Taira clan wax, wane and ultimately crumble in the face of the Genji army. Regardless of the victor in a war that ultimately faded from relevance, the bells at Gion continued to toll, their vast ring reverberating across the mountains as the last fading blossoms fell from the trees and scattered in the evening breeze.
After the events of the last season, the world of The Legend of Korra has been swept up by great changes, and the tales’ theme of impermanence is easy to see in the show’s new season as old institutions and attitudes die and new ways of life emerge. In the show’s world, four nations dominate events, each based on one of the four elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Some of the inhabitants of these nations, known as “benders,” have the ability to control a single element, and one continuously reincarnated figure known as the Avatar has the power to bend all four elements and preserves balance between the four nations. The human world in the show also coexists with a spirit world, and though the two worlds are normally dichotomous, certain spirits choose to manipulate events in the human world.
At the end of the previous season, current Avatar Korra, an accomplished teenage girl who combines the arrogance of youth with wisdom beyond her years, created a bridge between the human and spirit words. As a result, humans now must face significant changes to their world due to the spirits’ arrival. The most evident is the transformation of Republic City, the teeming metropolis at the heart of the four nations, into a verdant jungle, as the newly entered spirits establish their enchanted homes right in the middle of highways and city blocks. These momentous changes are sweeping the Republic and the rest of the world off its feet, and as Korra’s mentor Tenzin notes to her, “You did what you thought was best for the world, and now things have changed. Change can be good or bad, depending on your point of view.”
The entire United Republic’s point of view is to be furious with Korra for choosing to bridge the two worlds and for failing to keep the spirits under control. To complicate matters for Korra, seemingly random people across the world develop the ability to bend air overnight. The race of airbenders was almost completely eradicated in a mass genocide at the hands of the Fire nation hundreds of years ago, and Korra and her mentor Tenzin seize the opportunity to try to revive Air Nomadic culture by recruiting the new Airbenders for schooling in the old ways.
From the series’ very beginning, it is evident that a return to any former state is no longer possible. Korra’s spiritual link to all of the past incarnations has been shattered, leaving her to solve all of these new challenges all on her own. Even once Korra and Tenzin start looking for the new airbenders in an effort to rebuild the lost race of air nomads, it is immediately apparent that just because these people have developed airbending does not mean they are willing to drop everything and take up the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the old Airbenders. The first Airbender outside the United Republic that Korra’s team finds is an aged farmer whose duties are foremost to his family, and when Tenzin demands that the farmer renounce his material ties to the world to join the air nomads, he is thrown out of the farmer’s house for disgracing the farmer by asking him to leave his wife and children to starve. The new Airbenders’ unwillingness to join the old is yet another way that the world is being altered, in ways that will only become clearer with time.
While the world of the show has changed profoundly in ways both welcome and foreboding, the pace of the show has only increased, with ramped-up stakes and more amazingly intricate action sequences. The show’s animation style, heavily influenced by Japanese anime, is utterly gorgeous, and there exists a life and vibrancy to the color palette that makes the series’ landscapes: the verdant greens of the newly forested Republic City, the immense scale of the familiar three-ringed Earth Kingdom capital of Baa Sing Se and the fantastical architecture in an entirely novel metal-built city simply breathtaking. Deserving another special mention are the action sequences: glowing crimson flames clash wondrously with torrents of icy blues and blasts of air swirl against gigantic, spontaneously raised pillars of rock and stone. The fact that the show’s bending arts were actually inspired by real martial arts styles, such as how Firebenders use the same movements to conjure flames as practitioners of Northern Shaolin style use to fight, and how airbending movements were modeled on another martial art, Baguazhang, only adds to the grace and elegance with which the benders execute their techniques.
Well fleshed-out characters, especially strong, independent female leads, are commonplace on the show, from the headstrong Korra to the gruff, no-nonsense Lin Beifong. Unlike the female characters in many supposedly socially forward shows that freely exercise violence but are ultimately dependent on male characters, such as River Song in the Doctor Who series who could handle a gun well but whose entire life revolved around following the Doctor, the females of The Legend of Korra have their own agency and goals, and are just as competent and independent (if not more so) than the males on the show’s character roster. The new season adds further dimensions to the solid characters that fans have been introduced to in the past, exploring sides of their personalities and facets of their pasts that shed new light on why they act the way they do in the present timeline. Many familiar faces from the previous series, The Last Airbender, are also brought back in intriguing ways, though to say much more on the subject would spoil some truly outstanding surprises.
Though much in the show and in the world will never be the way it was, in accordance with a Universe that is ever-changing and impermanent, what is easily apparent at The Legend of Korra’s midseason juncture is that it remains a top-notch show. The series’ solid characters and storytelling, stunning animation, graceful action scenes and amazingly crafted setting make the decision to return to its world a done deal. The wisdom of the airbenders as dictated by Tenzin is to “be like the leaf…when you encounter resistance, you must be able to switch directions at a moment’s notice.” As wise as that philosophy may be, no amount of resistance will hold me from a long dive back into The Legend of Korra.