With Raya and the Last Dragon premiering today on Disney+, I think it’s a good time to explore more Eastern fantasy. There’s a lot of popularity with Western fantasy, specifically the Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, and Arthurian fantasy, However, every now and then we get a good Eastern fantasy property that becomes popular, due to their new flavor. I’m going to look at some of the more popular aspects, talk a little bit about the history that got us here.
Raya and the Last Dragon
Now, I can’t talk much about this movie, as I haven’t yet seen it. It’s available on Disney+ for $30, but when you have a family of two, that seems a bit steep. However, it was simply the trailers that got me interested in writing about this, so let’s take a look at the synopsis and trailer together.
Long ago, in the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans and dragons lived together in harmony. However, when sinister monsters known as the Druun threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, those same monsters have returned, and it’s up to a lone warrior to track down the last dragon and stop the Druun for good.
Now, that trailer, which is one of many, seems like a fun action/adventure film like we’ve seen before, but with a setting that is unlike many of the carbon-copy films that we know. With swords like Mulan, and a dragon that looks like Spirited Away, this sparks some interest in previous titles that I’ve really enjoyed, but I’ve never really categorized before, because I just haven’t noticed the pattern until now. There are certain themes prevalent in Eastern Fantasy, one of the most common being “separate clans that were once united,” which is clearly a major part of the setting here. In Raya, the five clans of Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon, and Tail were once united as the world of Kumandra. There is also a common theme of “finding the long lost MacGuffin,” which in this case is a dragon, but might be a person, or a stone (the Heart of Te Fiti in Moana).
Avatar: The Last Airbender
We’ve talked about Avatar here before, and WE’LL DO IT AGAIN because it’s such a good show! Each bending style is based on a different martial art style, and the spirituality is also based on eastern teachings. So much so, that the creators put in an Easter Egg for the actual Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, by naming Aang’s mentor at the Air Temple “Monk Gyatso,” and Aang’s child in The Legend of Korra “Tenzin.” Once again, the themes of different countries actively at war with each other is the main crux of the show, with the Long Lost X being the Avatar himself. In order to save the world, he must reach a level of spiritual enlightenment, by balancing his chakras and his knowledge of bending.
Lately, Nickelodeon announced that the Avatar: The Last Airbender will be getting essentially it’s own Cinematic Universe, with a Live Action series set to release next year, a new live action film (don’t watch the one by M. Night Shyamalan), and an expansion to the many comics that have been released already.
While there are more children’s shows that are Eastern Fantasy (Kung Fu Panda, Xiaolin Showdown), let’s instead pivot to more formal Wuxia, which is where this Eastern Fantasy really comes from.
Wuxia (pronounced woo-shya) literally means “martial heroes” and is a form of Chinese fantasy literature. and generally follows heroes that do not serve someone, or carry any political/military power themselves, and instead work to right wrongs on their own. While the first formal Wuxia styled literature come about in the 1920s, the Golden Age of Wuxia tends to fall between 1960s-1980s, where stories were serialized in newspapers and magazines, much like comic books and pulp fiction stories were in the west.
Wuxia, on it’s most basic form, follows a hero who is proficient in a form of Martial Arts, and often also has many other themes:
- Ancient/Historical Asia (often specifically China)
- Supernatural beings
- Protagonist has a traumatic past (loss of a loved one)
- Training from multiple masters
- Coming of Age
Wuxia was brought to Hollywood, and the West at large, with the 2000 Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was both a box office success, and had huge critical acclaim. Lately, AMC’s show Into the Badlands also is a strong Wuxia-inspired show, which is onto it’s third season. Kung Fu Panda has even been held up as a wholesome, earnest attempt at bringing Wuxia-inspired storytelling to a widespread mainstream audience.
I believe that we are just now scratching the surface of Wuxia’s presence in Western media, and I can’t wait to see what comes out next.