Welcome, weebs, to Animated Observations
The world of Anime is a vast and interesting one, filled with many unique genres and stories to tell, but anime isn’t the only place where animation is excelling. Taking a look across the ocean, many of America’s modern animation has similarly took a turn for the better. While the many of the cartoons of the past have opted to stay sporadic and more episodically focused, The cartoons of now have decided to take a more narrative approach. Here are some of the most interesting modern cartoons.
Avatar: The Legend of Korra
Following in the footsteps of its universally loved predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra is informed by many of the same things, with a much different setting.
The story follows Korra, who is the next avatar after Aang, and who lives 100 years in the future. After it is discovered that Korra is the next avatar, she begins her training and eventually moves to Republic City, the world’s bastion of advancement and technology. At first, she struggles adjusting to city life, but after meeting Mako and Bolin, she manages to find her way around.
A lot of what Korra deals with, at least in the first season, is the idea that the world has advanced, and the need for the avatar is waning. This, along with the struggle between her freedom and her responsibility, leads to a bit of an identity crisis. The second season, meanwhile, deals more with the struggle between technology and nature, and the two contrasting lifestyles those things entail. Its a bit harder to describe the last two seasons in any detail without going into spoilers, but suffice it to say that both of the last two seasons of Korra are also incredible.
What Makes Legend of Korra such an amazing predecessor to the original avatar is the way it adapts to its new characters and environment to tell a unique and original story. Korra is a noticeably different character than Aang. Much like Toph, Korra isn’t afraid of conflict, and starts out aggressive to the point of being detrimental. In a world where technology is quickly outpacing the feats of benders, her role as a peacemaker, not just between nations, but between benders and non-benders, and between spirits and humans, becomes even more important.
There is also the struggle of relationships. Between Mako and Bolin, and later Asami, her relationships often change dramatically, with friendships becoming romances, romances becoming friendships, and friendships becoming strained. All of this happens while she is trying to perform her duties as avatar.
Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, while not always as narratively focused as a show like The Legend of Korra, still brings a lot to the table in terms of the story it does tell.
Steven Universe is about, well, Steven Universe, a boy who is half gem and half human, and who is often raised by Pearl, Garnet, and Amethyst, creatures known as gems who original came from Gem Home-world, but ended up living on earth after defending it from invasion. Together, Steven and the gems go on adventures.
While the first half of the season one of Steven Universe is marred with filler, the show quickly picks up after the show’s mid-season finale, in which the gems fight off Jasper and Peridot, who attempt to take the crystal gems back to home-world. After that, the show largely becomes about Steven’s identity, both as person and as a crystal gem. Steven also wants to know more about his mother Rose Quartz, but is continually brushed off by the other gems for large portions of the show, and is forced to look for answers on his own.
In connection with Steven’s questions about his identity, the show also explores a lot of elements of Sex and Gender. While the gems, except for Steven, are implied to be female, because they are gems, their exact gender is left ambiguous in the show.
Another example of this is a concept in the show known as fusion. If two gems with a strong emotional connection come together, the two can form a new gem out of their component parts. In addition, if the two gems somehow become disconnected while fuse, they will break apart into their original parts. As a metaphor for something more intimate, the show establishes through fusion that the only healthy relationship is one in which their are two willing participants who care about one another and want to be together. Later on in the show, Steven and his best friend Connie fuse together into a person they call Stevonnie after the two dance together.
The show also explores the idea of bigotry on a systemic level. In gem society, gems are divided into castes based on their identity. Pearls are a servant class, and Amethysts are a worker class, and any departure from this caste is shamed. The main reason for the war for earth, in fact, was Rose Quartz’s resentment of gem society.
However, the show becomes even more than that. Towards the beginning of the latest season, the show again transforms into a show not just about Steven’s identity, but rather about the expectations that precipitated the questions about his identity in the first place, and about the structure of gem society and what it would mean for that to change.
Star vs The Forces of Evil
Well, there is already one show on this list about friends from space, so why not two? Much like Steven Universe, while it may take a bit for its plot to get going, Star vs The Forces of Evil is a show with another great story.
The show follows Marco Diaz and Princess Star Butterfly after the two are united on earth. Star is sent away from her home planet Mewni in order to learn more about the world. Meanwhile, Marco is looking to just get through high school, but when Star comes into his life, things get a lot more exciting.
Star vs The Forces of Evil, now on its forth season, has been extremely story focused since the end of its first season, and despite some minor side plots that have thus far gone nowhere, the story’s cohesiveness has remained strong. What started as a comedy with magical elements thrown in has grown and matured significantly.
Staring with season two, the show has explored a lot of the history of the Butterfly family, including how Star’s signature magical powers work and where they originate from.
Along with a lot of world building and history of Mewni and the magic associated with it, the show also dives headlong into themes about racism and bigotry by telling the story of the monsters that live on Mewni. The Mewmans that live there are, at least at the beginning, extremely hostile to monsters, not allowing them to live in Mewman cities. But, after Star comes to know some of the monsters that Mewmans have demonized, she comes to the realization that things need to change. From about the middle of season two onward, this tension between Mewmans and Monsters becomes a central thread throughout the story.
This tension comes to a head in season four, where Star and Marco must deal with the fallout of Eclipsa, one of Star’s relatives who was frozen in ice after she ran away with a monster that spread destruction across Mewni, escapes and becomes queen after Star find out what really happened in her family’s past.
Why These Shows Matter
Aside from the aforementioned Avatar: The Last Airbender, there are not many western shows that get brought up when it comes to the conversation of good animated storytelling. However, I would argue that all three of these shows should be put up for discussion, for their brilliant stories.
However, what matters about these shows is not just how good they are. Arguably the most important element of these shows is the messages they send, specifically towards a younger audience. All of these shows, in one way or another, send the message that we should love and respect one another regardless of our differences, whether its Star through its message against racism, Steven Universe’s message of gender acceptance, and Korra’s more general message of peace and love.
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