There are a lot of reasons to really love Legend of Korra. Compared to the anime it takes so much of its inspiration from, its fight sequences are really nicely handled, with a balletic wuxia film style that few Japanese anime have ever even attempted to match. Its avoidance of moé character tropes in favour of a female lead who is strong, muscular, independent and beautiful, with a female supporting cast who are all treated as human beings rather than doll-like objects of male fantasy, is also a refreshing change after a lot of time spent in the otaku hell of most anime of the past 10-15 (20?) years. Legend of Korra, like Avatar: The Last Airbender before it, is also refreshing compared to a lot of American TV for its basis in non-European culture and ethnicity.
And yet is it really?
There are a lot of visual signifiers of Asian culture, and the show obviously has a lot of fun with them in its pagoda skyscrapers and junk battleships, but in those things what we're really seeing is the familiar trappings of Western (in this case American) civilisation done up in the exotic embroidery of the Orient. Where it comes across most strikingly, however, is in the characters themselves. Yes, Korra, Mako, Bolin etc. appear Asian, but they speak and behave just like contemporary American teenagers.
The world of Legend of Korra also adheres to a very American sense of history's march. There are monarchies and empires, but the show expects us to understand that a presidential republican democracy in the American model is the only natural and just progression. Other models of governance exist to be taught that they are wrong.
Even the problems with democracy reflect the common straw-man complaints Americans have of the system in that it is sometimes subject to the capricious whims of the crowd – in essence that democracy is too responsive to the wishes of its people, a bit like going into a job interview and saying, “My main fault is that I sometimes work too hard.”
Now I'm being a bit unfair here, I know. That the show even deals with the issues of governance and flaws in democracy at all is a sign of its thoughtfulness, and it's ridiculous to expect a kids' show to suddenly turn into The Thick of It or Veep, but it's worth recognising just how limited a range of views it expects from its viewers. At heart, Legend of Korra isn't really doing much more than reflecting back at its audience the core values their own society professes.
Of course given my earlier comments on Legend of Korra's representation of women, in a way I'm praising it out of one corner of my mouth and criticising its broadly American political ideology out of the other, despite both being reflections of the same thing: the show's adherence to Western, broadly liberal values. Look at international gender equality rankings and China's lingering ideological remnants of Communist equality mean that it tends to do OK (but not brilliantly), while patriarchal capitalist oligarchies like Korea and Japan prop up the bottom of the table alongside places like Qatar and Kuwait. Would we really want a kids' show that accurately reflected the gender inequality that's rife in so much of Asia?
I think there are two points here. Firstly, that such social constructs needn't be a barrier to creating strong, believable characters. Characters can live in a very conservative society and by good writing that shows them as rounded human beings in their interactions with those rules, we can still sympathise with them and root for them. The problem is when we simply assume a set of values in our viewers and lazily broadcast those values back at them.
Inherent in this is the misconceived idea that in making narrative art, it should always be “relatable”. Why should we as the audience expect to be able to relate everything back to our own lives? The human capacity for empathy and imagination is an incredibly powerful tool that allows us to step into the shoes of people with quite different lives to us and understand them and their struggles. This is also an idea at the core of the fantasy genre, which exists to do precisely that. Legend of Korra is a fantasy drama and by cleaving so closely to behaviour, language and values familiar to American teens, it fails to credit its audience with the imagination to empathise with anything more than an Orientalised version of themselves.
Once again, Legend of Korra is in the fantasy genre. It doesn't need to painstakingly recreate the Asian cultures that it draws its aesthetic influence from any more than it should be simply recycling contemporary American culture. It has a free rein to pick and mix from all over the place or just simply invent stuff of its own out of the ether. Fantasy can employ satire to reflect back elements of its reader's own culture, but it is never a straight reflection: rather it is a funfair hall-of-mirrors distortion that in its very absurdity shows up the foibles and pretensions of its target.
Yeah, I get it, there are commercial reasons why anything more complex than what it already is would have difficulty getting made, and audiences are trained these days to expect their TV sets to behave like little more than a mirror. Sure. You're right. But on a literary level, what Legend of Korra does is still limited and fails to fulfil the fantasy genre's remit of taking its audience to a truly different place, denying us the joy of exploring a new world with its own rules by simply transplanting our own.
It's still an enjoyable show, and well worth watching. Similarly, Japanese anime is often every bit as ideological in its own, often rather more unpleasant and disturbing way. Just read this as a plaintive, selfish cry from a fan and an admirer for a greater degree of anthropological rigour in my animated TV fantasy drama.