When it was first announced that a bit of Book 2 would focus on the first Avatar, I was a little wary. I questioned the necessity of such a narrative, and wondered how it might detract from or enhance the more serialized story that the rest of the season would be telling. I worried that it would feel shoehorned in, that it would be a story that the writers and producers very much wanted to tell, and that they'd simply contort the show whatever position was necessary in order to tell it.
As Book 2 progressed, however, I came to look forward to it, and not just because I knew that Studio Mir had returned to animate it. If you've been reading along, I've become steadily frustrated with the show this season. Based on comments here, and discussions I've had with a few people offline who also watch Korra, I'm not alone. I began to see "Beginnings" as the opportunity for the show to take a break and to provide, well, if not a course correction, then at least a clearer sense of Book 2's intentions.
"Beginnings" accomplished that. The two-parter was enjoyable and gorgeous; it not only told a compelling story but likely provided us with an inkling of what Unalaq potentially has planned, and why he waited as long as he did to invade the Southern Water Tribe.
From an aesthetics point of view alone, the episode was a complete success. I was thrilled with the decision to base the look of the memories in the style of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. It's a genre of Japanese art originating from the Edo period, and the name translates as "pictures of the floating world" to emphasize—and I quote from a book here—"the ephemeral beauty and fame of Edo's courtesans and actors as well as the seasonal attractions of the city's scenic spots." The genre extends beyond those subjects, of course, with Hokusai's Great Wave Off Kanagawa (Wan's waterbending in his fight with Vaatu recalls Hokusai's waves, in places) perhaps being the most recognizable example.
What was so wonderful about this was Korra's decision to maintain the sense of flatness from the ukiyo-e, so, yes, things were supposed to look just a tad off as the characters, obviously not done in the same style as the backgrounds, moved about flattened spaces. Beyond that, the coloring, including the use of gradients and watercolor-esque splotching, gave "Beginnings" a distinct vibe, separate from both Studio Pierrot's work up to this point and Studio Mir's work in Book 1. Two examples:
Notice how the wall and the tree on the left don't have a clearly defined line between them, and how they bleed into each other? Or how bits of the building are lighter than others, even the tower with the stairs in the upper left? It's significantly more interesting than if it were a uniform slate gray, isn't it?
And here, so much lovely fading and color shifting, between the sky going from a dark blue to a pinkish sunrise hue that then spreads into the surrounding mountains at the horizon point (such as it is); the steady white that invokes foam, spray, and mist at the waterfall's end; and the calm blue water around the bridge.
I could go on, but suffice it to say, I was very happy with the degree of detail and care that went into the look of these episodes. It's something that Studio Pierrot likely just wouldn't and couldn't have done, and if Studio Mir needed the time off to regroup and re-energize in order to pull off a very different style of art, then it may've just been worth all the really ugly off-model installments we received before this.
Wan's story was decidedly old-fashioned, too, a sped-up and slightly scrambled version of Joseph's Campbell's "The Hero's Journey." There's nothing wrong with this, though. It fit with the far-flung aesthetics that the flashbacks utilized, and as an origin story for the Avatar, it made complete sense to structure the story in that way. While I wish it hadn't unspooled quite as quickly—I would've liked to have seen more training and more interactions between Wan and Raava, as well as more Vaatu ("Enjoy your final days! See you at the end of the world!")—it would've required at least another episode to satisfy that particular itch, and that wouldn't have been necessary in the long run.
Of course, I also would've liked the final battle between Vaatu, Wan, and Raave to have gone on longer, too. Gorgeously animated, to be sure, but it was also the sort of stellar action sequence that had simply been lacking throughout Book 2. This isn't just an issue of animation, but of planning and storyboarding (and budgeting) fights in a way that hints at an epic scope. Admittedly, you don't get more epic than the birth of the Avatar and sealing chaos away in a tree, but Book 1 managed to achieve intensely powerful action sequences fairly consistently. The duel in "Beginnings" Part 2 will hold me over for a little while, but I wouldn't refuse some more greatness.
Most importantly for this episode, though, was that I liked Wan. He was an amalgamation of both Korra and Aang's personalities, between his aggressive tactics with the Chous that screamed Korra and then the more restrained, diplomatic approaches he used as he attempted to broker a compromise between Jaya and the forest spirits. Indeed, the first Avatar was our bridge between the two most recent Avatars, a way of showcasing who Korra could become.
Which leaves us with Korra and the present day. I'm glad the amnesia aspect was downplayed in favor of a very long flashback/past life regression, instead of the Fire Nation priestess knocking Korra on the head with a staff until she remembered everything. The amnesia was an excuse to tell this story, going back to the very start of this article and the show contorting itself to tell Wan's tale, but at least there was a narrative purpose behind it, ham-fisted though it may have been.
In many ways, this flashback severed the same purpose as the flashbacks from Book 1: They filled in narrative gaps for the audience—as flashbacks often do—but also for Korra. She learned about Yakone and Amon through memories, both her own from past lives and from Tarrlok. Here, both Korra and we as viewers learned about the harmonic convergence that connects Raava and Vaatu, and from that we can take a guess as to what what Unalaq has planned.
The most obvious option, and probably a likely one, is that he intends to release Vaatu from his tree prison, and drop the barriers between the physical and spirit worlds. Given Unalaq's speech from way back in Episode 1, and all the talk of annihilation that Raava did in this one, I imagine that Unalaq is motivated by a "destroying the world in order to save it" mentality. Or at least to save it for the next 10,000 years.
I do balk at this development, given that so little time has been spent with Unalaq since leaving the South Pole, meaning that we really did likely spend a few episodes spinning the wheels with Varrick and the inertia of the Republic City government just so Korra could come to this realization. We could make the argument that much of the narrative leading up to this episode was supposed to serve as a parallel to the problems that Wan experienced in his time, but none of it was as explicit, or even implicit, as it likely could have been.
As I discussed when Book 2 first started, there were hints at exploring the tension between a more secular world and a more spiritual world, and how the Avatar, and those in this world, needed to balanced those impulses. With Unalaq and the spirits receding into the background, we drifted away from that tension, even if Varrick, in a not-very-nuanced way, provided an example of the secular dangers Unalaq warned against so early on in the season. Without the juxtaposition of Unalaq's perspective on these events, it all became scattered, losing much of its thematic heft.
Hopefully, now that Korra's in on the scheme, we can start getting spiritual again.
– "I think it's on the other side of None-Of-Your-Business Valley."
– "I've never had a human as a pet before."
– At least we now know where the sky bisons have been coming from.
– I do recommend the book I quoted above, Christine Guth's Art of Edo Japan. It has plenty of pictures to illustrate the text, and Guth's writing is very accessible, so don't let the fact that it's printed by a university press deter you from reading it.
– A quick scheduling note: There won't be a new episode next week, so we'll meet back here to discuss Episode 9—"The Guide"—on November 1. "The Guide" also marks the final episode animated by Studio Pierrot, with Studio Mir taking over for the remaining episodes. And there was much rejoicing.
What'd you think of "Beginnings"?