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.