Because fans should be critical, too

Chapter Forty-Two: “The Coronation”

Forgive my shallowness, dear readers, but for the duration of “The Coronation,” I simply could not get over Toph Bei Fong’s current voice. It was strange enough that Toph was still around*, and wearing clothes that looked suspiciously similar to her trademark outfit from her youth in Avatar: the Last Airbender over seventy years ago. Perhaps the producers were afraid that even faithful viewers wouldn’t know this was really Toph Bei Fong unless she was dressed the same as she was in that previous show?

Anyway, back to that voice. There was something peculiarly irksome about it that I couldn’t pinpoint in the first viewing. I could have sworn that either: 1) they’d cast a little boy to play the part of an old lady; or worse: 2) they went back and hired Jessie Flower, the original voice actor of Toph in Avatar, so she could reprise her role! It’s a horrifying prospect that I honestly would not put past creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to fulfill: it wouldn’t be the first time their fanservice tendencies overrode the needs of their story.

Thank the unseen makers of the universe that the former speculation was closer to the truth. This new Toph is played by Philece Sampler, a voice actor whose credits include dub work for many, many anime series, including Love Hina, Bleach, and every single incarnation of Digimon. With this knowledge in hand, I now know why I don’t like Sampler’s performance.

Anyone who’s watched one or two English-dubbed anime will immediately observe that the performances are often over-the-top and theatrical. This is definitely a by-product of many anime’s adherence to Japanese acting tradition (i.e. Kabuki theater), which the English dub attempts to honor by matching the emotional intensity of the original Japanese voice performance. On one hand, this can result in hilarious failure, but on the other hand, it can work out rather well (FLCL is a great success in this regard). Not all anime are so intense (see any Hayao Mizayaki film; even Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is relatively low-key), but a vast majority of them are, which inevitably lead to the stereotyping of anime as cartoons of elaborate design in which nothing happens and then there’s yelling (Dragonball Z probably remains the most infamous example).

There’s a lot of anime out there, which means there’s a lot of anime to dub. Anime still isn’t that popular in the United States (don’t let Disney’s Big Hero 6 fool you into thinking otherwise), but the community that cherishes it has always been strong and passionate. It’s only natural that that passion and dedication would extend to those responsible for making anime more accessible to an English-speaking audience, especially the voice actors. By the late 80s and early 90s—when anime really started to take off in the United States—overdubbing anime was more than just reading the translated script and syncing it with the action on screen (an insanely exhaustive task in itself): the best voice actors worked hard to capture as much of the original spirit as possible. By the start of the new millenium, the art form had been honed to perfection. Within the confines of their cult audience, anime dub artists were essentially celebrities, pioneers who helped enlighten us formally closed-off wanderers with the majesty and uniqueness of anime!

But pioneers can’t be celebrated forever. Their innovations will be built upon and further refined by the very artists they inspired. That process always involves abandoning certain techniques and mindsets so that something new and hopefully better can take shape and reach even more people.

For a perfect example of that, look no further than Avatar: the Last Airbender. There have been many anime-influenced American animated programs before Avatar—the last notable one was probably Teen Titans—but none captured the imagination quite as powerfully. DiMartino and Konietzko have always been outspoken about their love for anime, and it shows in two very different, but crucial ways. First, the basic visual style of anime clearly inspired the look of Avatar (especially the characters’ eyes), to the point where the average American viewer thought it was anime and wanted nothing to do with it, or the average anime fan thought it was “fake” anime and wanted nothing to do with it. Anyone who was willing to give the show a chance soon realized that, whether it was actually anime or not, it retained some of the essential appeal of anime: comparably more serious, more mature and more cerebral thematic elements than your average American cartoon**.

And yet, Avatar broke from certain anime traditions. Some breaks had to have been conscious. For example, compared to the average anime, the world and characters of Avatar are very subdued. There are no crazy hairstyles, no predominantly psychedelic color palette, not too much over-exaggerated animation acting, etc. Other breaks had to have come about simply because Avatar was, first and foremost, an American show written by and for Americans, including the most of the voice actors who would have to give life to the characters.

Thus, one of the smartest decisions that DiMartino and Konietzko ever made during the productions of Avatar and Korra was to abandon the anime tradition of Kabuki-flavored voice acting in favor of a relatively naturalistic approach better suited to their and their cast members’ own American sensibilities. They were still promoting ideas and philosophies native to anime and more broadly Eastern thought (and God bless them for it), but it’s all been filtered through a distinctly American and distinctly modern style.

In that regard, hiring Sampler to voice Toph feels like a step backwards. Listening to her conversations with Janet Varney (the voice of Korra) is to hear two radically different styles of voice acting. Compared to Varney’s more natural performance, Sampler sounds downright anachronistic, like a player from a bygone era that hasn’t adapted to the demands of the modern age.

And for all I know, that was probably the point. Toph herself is a player from a bygone era who has isolated herself from the rest of the world. Katara and Zuko, on the other hand, are still very much contributors to society, and the respective performances of Eva Marie Saint and Bruce Davison match the show’s overall sensibility quite nicely. Sampler, on the other hand, feels forced and obvious in a way that probably wouldn’t have been a problem ten years ago. But things have changed. Sampler doesn’t seem to have realized that. Maybe Toph doesn’t either. It’s hard to tell.

But enough ranting about one production detail that I found troublesome. What about the episode itself?

It’s fine. Unfortunately, as JMR points out, there is an almost complete lack of tension that makes the unfolding of the plot very dull to witness at times. During the conversation between President Raiko and Tenzin, the moment that the President said that Kuvira gave him her word that she’d step down from her position of power upon Prince Wu’s coronation, you knew she wasn’t going to. And a good thing, too: Kuvira’s methods may be fascist, but at least they’re effective; who the Hell wants to trade her track record for a young, arrogant prince more obsessed with royal customs than with the needs of the people?

But the obviousness does take its toll. There’s a scene where Suyin Bei Fong reunites with her son, Bataar Jr. Apparently, Bataar betrayed his mother years ago and the two understandably , and it doesn’t help had a falling out. It doesn’t help that not only is he working for Kuvira, but he’s also engaged to her (I’d love to have seen that marriage proposal: something tells me Kuvira was the one making all the moves). The drama between the mother and the son would be more intriguing if the producers hadn’t shaped our opinion of Bataar Jr. from the start. Every time he speaks, he arches his eyebrows and smirks like villains often do to show how evil they are***. Let’s call it the Jack Nicholson grin. It’s a cheap and easy facial expression to slap onto a character as a default so the audience can see they are up to no good. This kind of strategy immediately alleviates any effort on the audience’s part to understand where each character is coming from, emotionally and intellectually. We just see that facial expression enough times on a character—and Kuvira does it a bit herself—and we just know they’re the bad guys with no possibility of redemption. Again, no tension.

Speaking of redemption, Prince Wu gets some character development in this episode that, frankly, I don’t buy. He behaves like a child after Kuvira usurps his coronation, which leads Mako to finally let him know that he’d make a terrible leader. Prince Wu seems to understand immediately, and probably vows to change his ways.

Here’s why I don’t buy it. The writers and the voice actor, Sunil Mahultra, continue to make Prince Wu this impossibly arrogant and childish fool who can’t function well in normal society (let along run a kingdom). And that character description can be—and has been (see Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down)—the basis for a very funny character. But Prince Wu is not funny. His character lacks an emotional foundation from which we can empathize. If what a character says and does doesn’t appear to be coming from a genuine place on their part, it’s all but impossible to be entertained by them. Ultimately, it’s the actor’s job to find that emotional center from which to push even the most ridiculous of lines and actions (for a master class in credible absurdity, see George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, or, for a recent example, watch The LEGO Movie). Mahultra never finds that center, and more to the point, he clearly never sought to. His performance is all caricature and no humanity. Not that the writing helps: no one on the writing staff seems to realize that part of the appeal of a foolish character is that they don’t know just how foolish they are.

The rest of the episode is fine, though. Mako and Bolin seem to butt heads over how well their new positions in life actually benefit the world, with Mako working for Prince Wu, and Bolin working for Kuvira. It’s a nice little moment between brothers that feels real; there’s actual drama here because we know where each character is coming from.

Meanwhile, out in the swamp, Korra’s training with Toph doesn’t go so well, and it’s eventually revealed that Korra still has traces of mercury still in her body from her final showdown with Zaheer. So Toph can just get it out and that’s the end of that, right? No, the writers actually use this as an opportunity to challenge and examine her character!

It turns out, the poison won’t come out because Korra subconsciously doesn’t want to face her responsibilities as Avatar anymore. Zaheer was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and unless Korra gets over this fear, she’ll never reach her full potential as Avatar again. Now here’s some actual tension!

Will Korra get over herself by the end of the series? Yes. Do we know how? No. And that’s what excites me. After three seasons of almost nothing, I’m finally starting to see Korra grow up before my eyes. And nothing makes me happier.

*Strange, but not unreasonable. After all, Toph is only a few years younger than either Katara or Zuko, and those two have shown up throughout The Legend of Korra. The strange part is the circumstances of Toph’s self-isolation, which I hope gets addressed in a later episode.

**This is made all the more apparent by the fact that Avatar was a Nickelodeon show, sharing airtime with Spongebob Squarepants and Fairly Odd Parents. Unlike Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon has never had anything comparable to Toonami or Adult Swim, two special programs which featured a bit of anime. For Nick loyalists, Avatar must have been quite jarring at first.

***To be fair, even the good guys can have this expression in moments of extreme arrogance. Korra did a quite a bit back in Book One.

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7 responses

  1. When I found out that Korra had extra metal in her body, my eyes couldn’t roll any further into my head unless I was dead. Can you imagine just how UNSATISFYING a catharsis that would be, after the buildup with the “shadow-self” Korra in Episode 2 and the PTSD-esque symptoms she had? It clearly showed that the wounds were internalized in the conscious, not physical self; a purely physical solution would have been perpendicular to the events of Episode 2 and assuredly led to a much more unsatisfying conclusion. It would’ve been like the end of Book 1 where she got her bending back- no personal journey, no self-realizations, no discovery, nothing but “SHE’S BACK!” and nothing changed.

    Then you can imagine my surprise and delight that it turned out it wasn’t the case.

    Maybe Toph not being able to do anything to help Korra is a metaphor for the writers of the series admitting that callbacks to The Last Airbender and fanservice aren’t going to address and solve the fundamental problems of the show; in this case, Korra’s lack of development, and the general problem of the show’s writing (though Book 3 was most definitely the turning point of the series for the better to this respect). If that’s the case, then serious props to the writers.

    October 20, 2014 at 1:23 pm

    • Maybe Toph not being able to do anything to help Korra is a metaphor for the writers of the series admitting that callbacks to The Last Airbender and fanservice aren’t going to address and solve the fundamental problems of the show; in this case, Korra’s lack of development, and the general problem of the show’s writing (though Book 3 was most definitely the turning point of the series for the better to this respect). If that’s the case, then serious props to the writers.

      Wow. That is the best interpretation of that scene that anyone could hope for. You’ve single-handedly made me that much more excited to see how the rest of Book Four turns out!

      October 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm

  2. Clander

    I also somewhat dislike Korra still having mercury in her body but at least it’s being used for character development. In the end that’s all I’m really asking for. Though I do think it’s odd that Toph would say her daughters were never really that great at metal bending. Huh? From what I can tell they are amazing at metal bending. It feels like the writers just shoehorned that in for the sake of plot. Didn’t make much sense to me.

    I also notice how most of the writer’s attempts at comedy or comedic characters are painfully unfunny. Bolin may as well be prostate cancer, and Wu was doomed to be horrible from the start. I remember back in book 1 there being quite a few funny moments mostly having to do with visual comedy. Facial expressions, certain angles, etc etc. Those moments actually worked quite well. But now they have substituted that for lame jokes. No one does anything funny anymore they just say an atrocious line that we are supposed to laugh at. “oh look haha Wu thinks that cherry pie is blood haha”

    Anyway fantastic analysis. As always

    October 20, 2014 at 5:09 pm

    • You’ve hit on one of the reasons the animation in Book One has never been topped. Between co-director Joaquim Dos Santos’ facility for animated physicality and co-director Ki-Hyun Ryu’s facility for the absurd, there were many times when their sensibilities matched perfectly to generate some wonderful character animation, including intense action and physical comedy. Most of the facial expressions in Book One who drawn by or derived from Ryu.

      I guess after Book One, they didn’t have time to go through their scripts and pick out certain lines of dialogue that could be better expressed and compressed with a single facial expression or gesture. It’s just talk, talk, talk, with the occasional, yet limited use of body language and facial expressions (a favorite moment of mine from Book Three has Asami and Korra, after seeing Bolin and Mako’s “disguises,” exchanging a glance that hilariously voices how little they think of both the boys’ plan and their general intelligence).

      I’ll have to elaborate on this in the post regarding Book One’s animation.

      October 21, 2014 at 1:16 pm

      • Grindal

        Interesting to hear more about what you mean with the animation. It seems you’re talking much more about individual character animation rather than execution of technical aspects such as aesthetics, smoothness and multi-dimensional backgrounds among other things. If this is the case then I can definitely see where you’re coming from Marshall.

        October 22, 2014 at 3:53 am

      • I take all of the more technical aspects into account as well, usually with “effects animation” on one hand, and “performance animation” on the other hand. Book One most definitely has the best “performance animation” in the series. All will be elaborated in the eventual post, which is still in development.

        October 22, 2014 at 12:03 pm

  3. Ian

    I think whats irking me about this season is that its not really taking risks yet (which it may in time). Book 3 forcefully dragged me into its world with intriguing plot lines and an instant time limit for our heroes (even if they don’t know it themselves). Airbenders are back? Instant intrigue and it gives Korra goal and a purpose. New Villain who’s an airbender? instant intrigue, and his statement of “ending the avatar” gives our hero an unknown time limit (when will he get to Korra and whats his plan?) which is what every story needs for there to be legitimate tension (most of the time).

    Whats the intrigue this season? There’s Korra’s mental health (which I love) but when episodes don’t address it much, or at all (see ep 1 and 3) then the other plots need to hold my interest, and that’s not happening with this season. Kuvira is obviously evil, but other than being a sexy fighter dictator, what else is there for her character when shes not fighting? There’s no mystery, and the political movement plot is every season of Korra ever, so whats different with this one?

    This is all just from only having seen 3 episodes of the season obviously, so it could get very epic very fast, (Varrick’s vine machine was the most interesting mechanic this episode)

    Thoughts?

    October 20, 2014 at 8:02 pm

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