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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Image from Crunchyroll

Image from Crunchyroll

If you’ve been reading manga or watching anime for a period of time now, you have probably watched, read, or at least heard of some kind of reverse harem anime/manga centered on a chosen teenage girl’s journey to gather a band of handsome young men. Perhaps most famous of this fantasy/harem genre is Fushigi Yugi, infamous for its helpless (and rather unlikeable) heroine, Miaka, who is made the victim of multiple attempted rapes for the sake of drama. Whereas other heroines in this genre have ultimately been limited to playing the kind girl who touches the hearts of her warriors while relying on them to provide her with physical protection, Yona of the Dawn offers viewers a refreshing twist to this well-worn path. As if to respond to these frustratingly helpless heroines both in and out of reverse harem manga/anime, Yona of the Dawn presents viewers with a tale about a heroine who does not accept her own helplessness as inevitable.

Yona, the heroine of this story, certainly starts out as a heroine you might expect to see in a reverse harem manga-turned-anime. When we first meet her, she’s a typical pampered princess with no political knowledge nor useful skills. Her only two interests seem to be her appearance and her beloved Soo-won, the sweet cousin who she has loved since childhood and dreams of marrying. Her other handsome childhood friend, a young general with a rough demeanor named Hak, guards her from physical harm while her father, the emperor, spoils her and shields her from harsh realities. In this environment, Yona turns to worrying about her romance, such as what Soo-won thinks about her hair. Helpless girl who’s greatest aspiration is romance? Check. Handsome men who give viewers both a sweet guy and a guy with a rough exterior? Check. Throw in the fact that Hak clearly harbors feelings for the oblivious Yona and that Soo-won obviously doesn’t understand Yona’s feelings for him, and you have the cliche love triangle at the foundation of the harem that is to be built.

This highly standard set up is subverted, however, when Yona witnesses Soo-won kill her father in a coup d’etat. The superficiality of the first episode shatters along with Yona’s sheltered world, revealing a much more complex one behind it as characters emerge from behind their simplistic roles. Relationships, too, take on more depth at the same time revelations and betrayal tear apart Soo-won, Yona, and Hak. Initially, the shock of losing her father and Soo-won leaves Yona a husk, and Hak must coax along and protect her as they escape to safety. Hak gets multiple chances to act as the helpless Yona’s protector, but rather than rely on its heroine’s weakness to provide Hak permanent knight-in-shining-armor status, Soo-won’s betrayal becomes Yona’s turning point. She snaps herself out of her depression, opens her eyes to the troubled reality of her country, and begins her journey to find her purpose in life. Furthermore, while many a heroine has feared losing loved ones, Yona actually does something to combat that fear, picking up the bow and arrow in order to gain the power needed to protect them even as she steadily gains more able-bodied men capable of protecting her.

Is her change a reaction to Soo-won, suggesting Yona to be yet another female character whose development rides on her relationship with men? Clearly, Soo-won’s actions spurred Yona into territory she would never have otherwise tread, and thoughts of Soo-won creep up on occasions, revealing that his betrayal is definitely on Yona’s mind. Nevertheless, the story thus far has done a good job of depicting Yona’s transformation as one that expands beyond Soo-won. Her transformation becomes a personal journey as her loss and sense of powerlessness turns into frustration over her helplessness and ignorance, and determination to change herself.

Of course, Yona still must largely rely on the men’s strength at this point in the story, but that doesn’t mean her determination to become stronger is an empty promise never to be realized. Some viewers may be impatient to see the steely Yona previewed in the opening and in the flashforwards shown in the first few episodes, but in this case, I think a slower paced change will prove more effective. If Yona just woke up one day a strong-willed woman, the change wouldn’t be as satisfying or as believable as watching her experience situations that cause gradual change. Granted, it’s a fine line between showing a character gradually change and pushing the viewer to frustration, but when executed right, seeing Yona’s struggle to change becomes one of her character’s strengths.

Speaking of building character, I appreciate that Yona wasn’t made into some magical prodigy who’s able to master the bow and arrow on the first try. Instead, the show depicts Yona’s struggle to wield her weapon, not only physically but also mentally. She can’t hit anything at first, but practices every night while her comrades sleep in order to improve her skill and strength, and she must mentally prepare herself to kill if she wants to use her weapon to protect her friends. The emphasis on Yona’s training shows the viewers Yona’s determination, and depicts her strength in a way that expands beyond the superficial example of strength as purely physical. (I also enjoyed that one of the male characters related to Yona’s struggle to become strong in the most recent episode! This kind of character development doesn’t just apply to female characters, after all.) If Yona of the Dawn keeps up this kind of crafting of its heroine, she’ll easily be one of my favorite heroines!

Lastly, the way the show has handled its male characters has been pretty satisfying so far as well. Obviously, the show offers a smorgasbord of good-looking guys, but it develops them beyond cardboard cutouts of various types of attractive men. Two perfect examples are Hak and Soo-won. With them, the story takes the staple male love interest types and complicates them, making the caring Soo-won into an antagonist with a logical motive yet controversial methods and Hak neither a mindless bodyguard hunk nor a lovable jerk, but a colorful childhood friend who has grown to love the princess. With any luck, the good characterization and relationships won’t get bogged down as more characters are introduced. Handsome boys are nice to look at, but a lot more enjoyable and interesting when they have actual personality. Of course, it’s also pretty amusing when the series acknowledges itself as part of, and pokes fun at, the reverse harem genre, inserting humor into the plot with characters who display awareness of their bit to play in the harem.

While the characters may seem stereotypical at first, the show seems determined to overturn those expectations. Watching the group come together, and the characters flesh out and evolve–particularly its determined princess–has become my weekly treat. With any luck, this series will keep up its excellence. Anyone who likes fantasies with character-focused journeys spiced up with a blast of breathtaking action and/or a heroine who won’t take her fate lying down should check out Yona of the Dawn. Watch it on CrunchyrollFunimation, or Hulu.

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51FP8E5K98L._SL500_AA300_I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t loved stories. I don’t care what kind of story or what media it’s in, I’ll try anything that catches my imagination and as a child, I sometimes even daydreamed myself into stories. But what if the world you lived in and all the actions that took place there really were part of a story, the creation of a single person’s mind? That’s the case in the whimsical anime tale, Princess Tutu.

Ahiru is the unusual heroine of this equally unusual story, a school girl in a town truly fit for a storybook: a cat teaches ballet classes, anteaters, ostriches, and other animals are classmates, and not one of the human inhabitants of this tiny town bats an eye at this. Also in the town is a prince from a story who has lost his heart and lives an emotionless life as a student in this town. This is all the work of a mysterious storyteller believed to be long since dead. As for Ahiru, well, she may seem like a normal girl hanging out with her friends and trying to make it to school on time, but she’s anything but normal; she is actually a duck who has fallen in love with the lost prince and, by the workings of the storyteller, is turned into a girl with the use of a magic pendant (f.y.i. Ahiru means duck in Japanese). Now add the factor that Ahiru can also turn into “Princess Tutu,” a mysterious princess who can find the pieces of the prince’s lost heart, and the tale begins.princesstutu1

I’ve had this anime on my must-watch list for a while now after I heard it praised, but when I first started watching it, I have to say, I wasn’t sure exactly what to think of it. Some of it seemed typical, like a clutzy heroine in love with a popular boy, a jerky yet handsome guy, and a rival in love. It also seemed a little young to me in the first episode or so, what with the whole magical princess ballerina routine and all, yet after the first disc I was intrigued. There is a certain charm about it, like dusting off those old fairy tales that were read to you as a kid (in fact, some of the episodes are roughly based on classic fairy tales). In addition, Princess Tutu may not bend stereotypes quite like Utena, but it seems to go further than the average anime with more than one delightful twist and moments of emotional depth that will keep watchers interested.

Take Ahiru for example. Granted, her story revolves around her love for a guy and, as usual, our spunky heroine has a heart of gold, but I ended up appreciating her inner strength. Some of my favorite moments concerning Ahiru occur toward the later half of the series when she has a male ally (I’m trying to keep this spoiler free). A this point, she’s feeling rather useless in her quest to help the prince (called Mytho) and begins to rely heavily on this ally. However, instead of being reduced to a helpless damsel, Ahiru reevaluates herself and strengthens her resolve, deciding she also has a job equally important to accomplish. Thus, unlike some other magical girl stories I could mention (Tokyo Mew Mew), Ahiru’s role as the hero is not really reversed into damsel in distress. She represents the hope of a group of characters that come to fight against paths assigned to them and find their own way.

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Perhaps most interesting from a sociological point of view is the prince. In some ways, Mytho plays a role traditionally given to female characters. For a good portion of the series, he’s a pretty face with a beautiful heart yet little personality to speak of who people can’t help but gather around. Not only that, but he’s completely dependent on the help of others and can do little to nothing to help himself. Unlike female characters that have played this role, Mytho does have the background of being a brave and noble prince who fought evil and lost his heart in the process, but I still thought this was a noteworthy change of roles. He ends up playing more of a traditional role at the end, but remains an interesting character to examine nonetheless.

It may not break stereotypes like Revolutionary Girl Utena, but characters are often more complicated than they initially seem, in a truly surreal and fantastical story that fans can enjoy. Princess Tutu won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those looking for a slightly whacky plot that doesn’t go as one might have expected, it’s worth giving a try. You just might love it!

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Imagine a world where magicians aren’t just the hocus-pocus men with a cheap-looking cape who pulls colorful tissues from their pockets and coins from your ear at a 10-year-old’s birthday extravaganza. We’ve all dreamed it at some point in our lives, right? But what if a world filled with magic wasn’t as lovely as many of us like to imagine? In a bleak parallel world of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians are the elite, power-hungry, and self-serving people who run the British government, suppressing the commoners (that would be you and me) by keeping them ignorant or, if that doesn’t work, by intimidation and brute force. Surveillance spheres reminiscent of Big Brother are set up about London allow the magicians to watch the commoners going about their lives constantly. The commoners aren’t the only ones the magicians suppress. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magic isn’t some obscure skill that allows a person to make something levitate or shot sparks from her fingertips; a magician’s power comes from the demon he summons into his world, enslaves, and forces to do his bidding. You may have read fantasy novels about magic before, but this series is unlike any other.

If magicians sound like terrible, unsympathetic beings, well, the author, Jonathan Stroud, won’t let readers off so easily. The first book of the series, entitled The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to Nathaniel, a 12-year-old apprentice magician trying to work his way through the cold system. Like all magicians, at a young age, he was separated from his parents and placed under the care of a full-fledged magician to cultivate those skills. Under the strict eye of his uncaring master, young Nathaniel was raised and studied the basics of magic. At last he is going to summon his first demon. That’s when his path collides with Simon Lovelace, a charismatic and established magician who cruelly and mercilessly humiliates the boy at a social gathering. Enraged by the mistreatment Lovelace inflicted on him and betrayed by his master who did not raise a hand to stop him, all in order to preserve his own image, Nathaniel plots revenge. Summoning Bartimaeus, a witting demon of power beyond the usual capabilities of a young apprentice, his first order is for the demon to steal a powerful magical item from Lovelace. With that one order, Nathaniel finds himself wrapped up in plots of murder, espionage, and rebellion.

Some of you may have noticed that I make no mention of a female character. Indeed, there is no lead female character in the first book. This disappointed me a bit. While I was somewhat unconvinced that the story was anything amazing at the beginning, the more I read, the harder it became to put it down; I ended up reading The Amulet of Samarkand quicker than I’ve read any book in a while and loved it by the end. I thought it would be that much better if there were just a female character who played an active part. Well, Stroud didn’t disappoint and upon picking up the second entry, The Golem’s Eye, I was introduced to the strong-willed and determined Kitty.

Unlike Nathaniel, Kitty is a commoner. As a young child, Kitty and her friend experienced the inequality of their government firsthand when a magician attacked them and then easily convinced the court system that he only acted in self-defense. Many of the commoners around Kitty are too scared or ignorant to do anything about such a corrupt system, but not her. Soon after this incident, Kitty joins a small group who have chosen to resist the magicians’ rule.

While Kitty only makes one brief appearance in the first book, in the second and third she is just as important a character as Nathaniel and Bartimaeus; she isn’t just some token female character created to appease female readers. The series is set up so that each main character gets chapters from their point of view which creates a feeling that each of them is equally vital to the story. And like the rest of the colorful cast, Kitty is a complicated character who avoids stereotypical traits. For once, the female lead is not involved in a romance (nothing against romance, but it’s a nice change) and it is made clear that she is a force to be reckoned with. Kitty gets my seal of approval.

In the three books that make up this trilogy, Stroud paints an addicting tale full of complex and fleshed out characters in a dark world. Flipping between the narratives of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty, he allows readers the insight of circumstances of each major group (magicians, demons, and commoners) that gives the series a well-rounded and more complex view of events. As these characters try to maneuver in the dangerous world where one wrong step could mean disaster, collide with each other, and grow, one can’t help but get caught up in their lives.

The series is young adult fiction and suggested for kids aged 10 and up, but Stroud’s masterfully crafted story allows older readers well beyond that of the suggested age group to enjoy it, too. It is humorous, thinks to Bartimaeus’ snarky and witting commentary, and adventurous yet full of social commentary, deep characters, and darker elements of the plot that ground it in the realms of reality and add intellect not seen in all of fiction. The trilogy is an original take on magic and the plot is filled with truly unexpected twists. If you liked Harry Potter, especially the later half of the series, or are just looking for a well-crafted and intelligent fantasy that will suck you in completely, I can’t recommend The Bartimaeus Trilogy enough.

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What do you get when you mix a rebellious teenage princess, a mother/queen trying to do what’s best for her country and her daughter, talk of a political marriage, a rowdy bunch of men, and magic? Well, frankly, you get trouble, but you also get Pixar’s newest movie, Brave. After months of anticipation, hanging on the hope that this new princess tale would present audiences with a strong princess fit for modern times, does it pass the test?

Brave is set in Scotland in what appears to be the medieval ages. Merida is a headstrong princess who would like nothing better than to practice her fine archery skills and ride her horse through the forest in search of adventure. But life as a princess isn’t so free; princesses have obligations to their family and people. Her mother, Queen Elinor, knows this and has been careful in trying to teach Merida to uphold those obligations, starting by just getting her to behave like a proper princess. Though mother and daughter haven’t seen eye-to-eye on these matters, life has gone on peacefully — until it’s announced that Merida must now fulfill her duty to marry someone she’s never met for political reasons. Unable to convince her mother against the idea, she takes things into her own hands and sets out to change her fate. But will she bring ruin to her kingdom by fighting tradition?

When I first heard the plot for Brave, I was instantly hooked. With a heroine who is not only shown to be skilled in archery fighting against customs and a plot line sporting phrases about changing her fate Before this story really took off, I couldn’t help but think that this could be something similar to Disney’s Mulan. But the movie surprised me in more than one way.

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

As you may or may not have picked up on from the plot introduction, Merida and her mother are at odds. Truth be told, my heart sank a bit at the beginning of the film because of this. “Is this going to be another one of those stories where a mother and daughter butt heads?” I wondered. After all, fiction has had a habit of throwing bad mother-daughter relationships in our faces a lot. Yes, moms and daughters may not always see eye-to-eye and some–maybe many–butt heads frequently, but do all the mother-daughter relationships in fiction have to be like that? We see lots of nice father-son relationships in fiction after all. Heck, often moms aren’t even a crucial part of fictional stories. So, when a mom character is actually present, does she always have to be shown as some annoying nag?

That’s why I was extremely happy when it became clear that the minds behind Brave had different ideas for this mother-daughter pair. In fact, although Brave sounds like an epic fantasy from a brief overview, at its heart, this movie is actually about the relationship between Merida and her mother. The dynamic between the two starts off looking stereotypical, but, unlike other stories with this set up, explores the relationship further. While I think we can all understand Merida’s wish to be free, she goes a little too far and forgets her responsibilities to others and how her actions affect them. Queen Elinor, on the other hand, is so focused on the customs and the responsibilities to be flexible and see freer alternatives. Thus bring me to my first surprise; there’s magic and a little action, but Brave is more a journey of Merida and Elinor coming to understand each other rather than a journey filled with fights and mortal danger.

Elinor and Merida are great female characters outside of this mother-daughter relationship story as well. As is evident from the basic storyline, Merida is a whole different kind of princess than the classics. She’s bursting with energy and independence, making her Disney princess predecessors pale in comparison. Queen Elinor is a levelheaded, well-spoken ruler who commands just as much (or more) respect from her subjects as her husband the king. Together the two make a powerful duo of independent women. And isn’t it nice to see a romance-free Disney princess movie for once?

Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

So what’s the other surprise of Brave? While the basic story sounds epic, it’s actually on the lighter side as plots go. Pixar lightens the mood with a witch who runs a woodcarving business, magic that turns people into bears, and clansmen–er, actually the men in general–who largely act as comic relief. To some older fans who are familiar with Pixar’s work, this may be a bit disappointing. Some reviewers are saying this lighthearted feel is not up to the deeper stories of past Pixar films. I don’t follow Pixar’s work so I can’t compare that too much, but I will admit that the movie felt lighter than Pixar’s Up and Disney’s Mulan and The Lion King for some examples. Despite expecting something more epic myself, this didn’t keep me from enjoying Brave.

In the end, like its heroine, Brave breaks the traditions. Everything that defines classic princess movies like Cinderella and Snow White are thrown out the door to give way to a fun fantasy with female characters, relationships, and messages that get both thumbs up. Regardless of whether you’re six or sixty, if you’re interested in any of that, go see Brave.

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After waiting in a line that made it look like an opening night premiere, I have finally made it to see Snow White & the Huntsman at my local dollar theater. I think it’s safe to assume we all know at least one telling of the classic, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Perhaps the most well-known take on this fairy tale is the one done by Disney, full of cute animals, singing dwarfs, and pathetic women. If you’re expecting Snow White and the Huntsman to be anywhere close to that, abandon all hope now for this retelling is a dark tale brimming with action and the women at the front of it all.

Our story begins with Snow White as a child. The kingdom is at war and her mother dies, breaking her father’s heart. But soon enough, the king does find another love, on the battlefield no less. After a battle, the king and his men stumble upon Ravenna, a beautiful woman who had been held captive by the enemy. The very next day the king marries Ravenna. As the audience can guess, this isn’t going to be a very happy marriage and in fact, that night the new queen kills Snow White’s father, takes over the kingdom, and imprisons our heroine in the dungeons.

Skip forward into the future and Snow White has come of age in her grubby cell. Now she’s a threat to the queen, but before Ravenna can kill her, Snow White manages to outsmart her captors and makes a daring escape. She’s got to make it to the rebel army before the queen’s men find her. With that, a Huntsman is hired and this fairy tale really begins.

I’ll be honest; in general, the movie was just okay. It wasn’t bad. It was entertaining enough to pass the time, but not mind-blowing. After one viewing, I can’t quite pinpoint what all was lacking, although my initial instinct is that it’s the characters. Yes, the main cast was fairly interesting and likable enough, but there was no great connection to them that the best of stories create nor much great character development. It felt shallow at times. (On that note, for those of you looking for a prince more developed than that of the original, the “prince” of this film is only slightly better.) Therefore, while it was a fun movie to see, it made no great impact on me character-wise — expect one. The queen.

Rankin/Universal Studios

What do you do when you want to make a one-dimensional character who is defined by her obsession with beauty and her heartlessness interesting? You develop her character by exploring the why’s. Why is the queen in Snow White so bent on beauty to the point that she’s willing to kill for it? Well, in Snow White and the Huntsman it’s because she’s learned that beauty is power and has used it to survive in a harsh world controlled by men. As she reveals near the beginning of the movie, she’s seen men choose women, use them until they age or become boring, and then throw them away. She’s not about to be used like that. Thus, Ravenna learned to betray the men who were charmed by her before they betrayed her. It is through this method that she becomes queen.

But it’s not just beauty that the queen has. She also has magic which has sustained not only her most treasured beauty but makes her immortal, although not invincible. When Snow White comes of age and becomes “the fairest of them all,” her very existence threatens the queen’s magic. The blood of someone who was pure and fair gave the queen her magic and it can also take it away. For this reason the queen wants Snow White dead — she’ll have the princess’ heart so that she can gain more magic and at the same time she is eliminating a serious threat to her power and to her throne.

Rankin/Universal Studios

Insights such as these add tremendously to an annoying tale of women pitted against each other over nothing more than youth and beauty. Suddenly, the witch/queen who was jealous of an 8-year-old’s youth and beauty is turned into someone much more interesting and even sympathetic. Yes, sympathetic. The queen is cold and unable to trust others; she believes men will betray her and girls like Snow White are threats. She’s obsessed with keeping her beauty and youth because without it, she’s lost something she’s relied upon as her greatest influence and her magic with it. It was a brilliant move to make Snow White feel some sympathy and sadness for the queen.

As for Snow White, she is a much more interesting Snow White than the classic. She’s resourceful and a survivor, something that is best shown at the beginning when she makes her grand escape. Unfortunately, like most of the characters, there was something missing; after one viewing, I felt like her character lacked depth. Despite this, I still like what the movie was trying to do.

Snow White and the Huntsman is not perfect and in general doesn’t show much riveting storytelling or characters, but provides an intriguing and refreshing take on an old classic that adds interest to an entertaining movie. If you’re lucky enough to have a dollar theater showing it, check it out. If not, it’s certainly worth renting.

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When Nickelodeon aired Avatar: The Last Airbender back in 2005, it quickly became a favorite and has remained so for the past several years since. Now it’s 2012 and the creators of Avatar are back again with a sequel called The Legend of Korra. Having just finished Season 1, Book 1, I thought I’d ramble a bit about it.

First of all, I have to say that the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, did something so many people who work on action/adventure stories seem afraid of doing; presenting audiences with female characters who are obviously just as important and dynamic as their male characters. The original tale did have a male protagonist, but absent were those flimsy token female characters who sit on the sidelines. In The Legend of Korra, they didn’t let fans down. Not only did they keep the same level of quality in their characters but DiMartino and Konietzko  decided to make the protagonist of their new action show a girl.

Apparently, they had to do some convincing with some of the executives at Nickelodeon who were doubtful about how successful a female protagonist would be in an action show. Why? Because boys wouldn’t be happy with a show starring a female lead, they thought. Hearing this annoys me on so many levels. Girls watch and read fiction and play video games with male protagonists all the time yet boys supposedly can’t accept a female protagonist? Thank all that’s sane in this world, the creators stuck by their female lead, Korra, and a test screening of the show proved those executives completely wrong. (I myself have seen young boys crowded around a computer at a library, eagerly watching episodes of Korra.) It seems that the fact that The Legend of Korra has raked in an average audience of 3.8 million has slapped some more sense into Nickelodeon as they recently officially requested 26 more episodes, bringing the series total number of episodes up to 52.

As for Korra, I like what DiMartino and Konietzko have come up with. Certainly, she breaks the stereotypical mold. She’s headstrong, bold, and independent; Korra is a force to be reckoned with and isn’t about to be someone’s punching bag. In a smart move, the creators decided to make Korra the opposite of their previous protagonist, Aang. While Aang was gentle and more spiritual than action-oriented, Korra is aggressive and has much more trouble connecting with her spirituality than her martial art-inspired “bending” skills. Not only does this create protagonists one won’t have trouble seeing as distinctly different but it also avoids stereotypes for both genders.

The other thing I really like about Korra is her character design. She’s muscular and not afraid to show it. I have to say that in all my time of watching animated TV shows, I hardly ever come across female characters who are realistically muscular like Korra. When I have, the characters were muscular as a joke or to make them unattractive. Seeing a muscular female character who isn’t a joke is a nice change from all the wispy or unrealistically big-breasted designs and promotes the idea that muscle on a girl isn’t a bad thing. As one of the creators of the show said in an interview with NPR, “She’s muscular, and we like that. It’s definitely better than being a waif about to pass out. I know, I look like a waif — who am I to judge?”

Finally, I want to point out how the show has made adult characters a big part of the show. Often in shows with teenage protagonists, it seems the focus is on young people in their twenties and younger. The Legend of Korra took a different road, incorporating characters who are clearly established adults with family and/or a career. I think having older characters play a crucial role in the show gives The Legend of Korra yet another distinctive feature. Isn’t nice to see there’s life beyond your twenties for once?

That’s it for now. I’m sure I’ll be rewatching the first season again so, don’t be surprised if I talk more in-depth about it at some point. What else am I going to do while I wait for the next installment Korra?

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