The Historical Context and Cultural Shifts seen between The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

I consider myself an avid fan of the popularised children’s’/teen television show Avatar: The Last Airbender and, more predominantly, the far more mature Legend of Korra. My keener interest in the latter (LoK) is the vast conceptual, narrative and design-based development taken by creators and producers, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. What fascinates me in Legend of Korra is how these factors are inspired by real-world historical and societal contexts, and I sought in this essay to work out why I love it so damn much.

To begin with, let’s look at what divides the two series in Avatar: their settings and societal contexts. The Last Airbender is set in an ancient, barely pre-industrial world, taking a lot of its visual, historical and conceptual inspiration from ancient Chinese history. Legend of Korra retains these historical and social inspirations, however they are recontextualised into a world based on the 1920s-30s in the West. Many fans are critical of the seemingly drastic change of the show’s style as they consider the shift from a near-medieval context to a 20th century setting to be unrealistically fast.

However if we take a closer look at the chronology of the show, the time period between Avatar Aang’s defeat of Fire Lord Ozai in The Last Airbender, and the birth of Avatar Korra in Legend of Korra, spans 53 years. Many consider this to be too short an amount of time for the world to see such immense cultural and technological changes as are seen onscreen. Some may argue that the rate of technological advancement in the Avatar universe far surpasses realistic expectations.  But if we observe history from the late 1800s to the present, we can see that the real world went through a massive amount of change similar to that seen in Legend of Korra.

Industrialisation on a massive scale began as early as the 19th century in Europe. This is referenced in The Last Airbender wherein the Fire Nation is already in a period of industrialisation; yet, the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes still retain almost medieval social values, let alone the capacity for mass industrialisation. This can be seen in The Last Airbender, Book 1, when Katara is initially forbidden from learning to waterbend in combat by the Northern Water Tribe’s strict patriarchal social values.

Adding on to this notion of social values, the end of the First World War gave way to a massive cultural and social shift, the Roaring Twenties, which is reflected in Legend of Korra. An example of a cultural shift across the series is the evident changes in styles of bending, with various techniques blending across elements. This can be seen in the differing earth and metalbending fighting techniques of Toph in TLA and Kuvira in LoK. Toph uses a traditional earthbending style with deep rooted stances and a very clear distinction between when she is being defensive versus offensive. Kuvira, however, earthbends with traditional waterbending techniques, turning an opponent’s attack back onto them in an adaptive and fluid style. This idea that the Great War in the Avatar universe influenced cultural changes down to the way that the elements are bended reflect the cultural changes that occurred in the West following the First World War.

Furthermore, the historical context of the hundred year long war holds similar relevance in how the real world encounter rapid modernization. Tensions within Europe leading up to what became the Great War contributed to massive industrialisation and development of technology such as warships, tanks, automatic guns and artillery. Similarly, as seen in The Last Airbender, the Fire Nation holds a dominant position over the other nations as it has far superior tanks, airships and technology that allow them to hold an upper hand against the less technologically advanced Water Tribes and Earth Kingdom.

But I believe that the ability to bend the elements in the Avatar universe would not only assist in development of technology, but would accelerate its development far beyond what we could ever achieve in the real world. For example, in Legend of Korra Book 1, Chapter 4, it is shown that the firebender Mako uses lightning bending in an industrial job to provide electricity to Republic City. This indicates that in the Avatar universe, not only is the rate of technological and socio-economic advancement realistic, it could easily surpass that of the real world.

Avatar: the Legend of Korra is, from a subjective point of view, is brilliant. It is a brilliantly developed series that has grown from a ‘kids’ cartoon’ to a mature and often challenging show. The narrative itself, in taking cues from historical contexts, provides a clear insight onto history for younger generations, and can also be readily consumed by older audiences as it is visually stunning and elegant.

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