The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Stepping into a debate

Okay, my friend: Pterobat, at her blog: Lair of the Pterobat; and another blogger I read, Ian over at Monsters of New York (both great blogs, may I add... read them, subscribe to them), have both been posting quite a bit about Karai in the 2003 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" series. Specifically, Pterobat discussed how she felt Karai's character arc was mishandled in the series' fifth season, and Ian posted his ow thoughts on that. To say I also believed Karai's arc was mishandled would be an understatement.

Personally, I enjoyed the 2003 "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" series quite a bit. I thought the first four seasons were pretty solid, and the director's cut of "Turtles Forever" is great. I did not like the lost season, and I didn't like "Fast Foward" and "Back to the Sewers" at all. I don't love it like I do other series, it'll never make my Top Ten list or anything, but it was good. As for Karai, I thought she was a great character, even if I don't think the voice actress fit the character... or maybe she received some bad direction.

Karai is the Utrom Shredder's adopted daughter. He took her in off the streets, raised her and brainwashed her to be his most loyal servant. Definitely one of the few who knew his true nature. She was fanatically devoted, and also had a sense of honor... when she grew to respect Leonardo and gave him her word the war between the turtles and the Foot was over, she tried hard to keep them alive when her father resumed command of the Foot. After her father was exiled, she swore vengeance on the turtles and could have become one of TV animation's great female villains alongside greats like Demona and Azula. Sadly, this was all derailed in the fifth season when she was turned into a helpless victim at the hands of the resurrected Tengu Shredder (don't ask), and then fell in love with creepy scientist stalker guy named Dr. Chaplin, who was obsessed with her since season three. Pterobat compared him to Upchuck from "Daria" and she was right to do it.

Ian theorized that this might have happened because the writers didn't know what ending to give her. I never liked this development in Karai's character either. But, after thinking about this for a bit, I think the resurrection of the Tengu Shredder should have been a part of Karai finally crossing the moral event horizon to avenge her "father." Tengu Shredder is partially resurrected by the Foot Mystics, his old host the original Oroku Saki (again, don't ask) isn't viable anymore... it needs a new host. The tengu and Karai make the same deal. History repeats itself, and in the end she is consumed and destroyed by her quest for vengeance. It would have been sad and tragic, but it would have given the character far more dignity than walking off into the sunset (sunrise) with Upchuck.

Aside from the fact that she kinda liked and respected Leonardo, what made Karai a good person? She was still a top ranking member of an international crime syndicate (she was Vicious, and the Shredder was the Van to all you "Cowboy Bebop" fans). There was still blood on her hands. Whether she thought the her "father's" Utrom enemies were monsters or not, she was still harming people who had nothing to do with that conflict. There are so few great female villains in television animation anyway, and here we had the potential for another great one. I thought it was wasted. I only bought her turn in "Turtles Forever" when the fate of all existences was at stake.

I know Karai was the character that walked the line, but when the line is walked, eventually a choice will have to be made. If there are no viable or workable paths to "the good side" and very viable and even creatively superior paths to the "dark side" then the "dark side" is what must be chosen instead of forcing in a happy ending that for various reasons that Pterobat explained well in her blog really doesn't work for both dramatic reasons and for very unfortunate implications.


  1. Thanks, Greg.

    In the rush to condemn the sexism I ignored the angle of Karai's "redemption", and you're right: it's defanging her as a villain, to no good end. We need more great female supervillains, and she could have been one of the great.

    But instead, when she takes the helm of the Shredder, we get so little of her before she is defeated so thoroughly. A waste.

  2. I always felt that Karai being with Dr. Chaplin was a wrong move, i never felt that this develpoment was fitting for Karai. Karai's character arc was about her loyalty towards her father and her relantionship with Leonardo. When she became the new Shredder I thought that her revenge against turtles and her conflict with Leonardo should have been explored more in season 5 and continued in future episodes. Instead we never saw any more episodes focused on her and she was demoted to extra. Sure she turned against her father in Turtles Forever, but we should have seen her more before the movie. Despite this, I thought that Karai was an interesting character all throughout the series, even if she suffered from some unfitting character development.

    As for the series as whole, it is one of my favorite animated shows of all time. Badass, awesome and captures the spirit of TMNT franchise perfectly. The new Nickelodeon TMNT series is great also.

  3. This makes me wonder of how she'll be handled in the 2012 TMNT series.

  4. Looking back, I don't think it was a good call to basically just flat out turn her into one of the guys. When you think about it, considering how much she was raised by Oruku Saki, she's likely to have his mindset so in a way, she'd be beyond redemption.

  5. Anonymous--She's been hinted to exist in the 2012 series, but I disagree with your assertion that the Nick series is 'great'.

    It's mediocre at BEST. They refuse to take chances with it, every episode has played it safe, and at this point, the only joy it brings me is Mae Whitman as April.

    They COULD do so much with it...But they haven't yet.

    1. The Nick series is, in a word, bland. I just don't feel much towards it, positive or negative.

      Which I really wish I didn't. I wish I could join the rest of the party on the Internet, but for some reason I'm having a hard time getting into it.

      *My* favourite thing is Phil LaMarr as Baxter Stockman, bringing some dorkitude. :P

  6. Debate? I'm in a debate now? : P In any case, thanks for the nod and the props, Greg.

    Part of my reluctance to accept the idea of Karai as a longer term antagonist is that her motivations limit the sorts of stories one can do with her. Yes, she's a killer and a crime lord, but the only thing that actually makes her an enemy of the turtles is the fact that she's trying to kill them--she doesn't have the additional motivations that gave the Shredder and Bishop legs as long term villains. And given that Karai can't accomplish her only aim, I don't see a scenario in which villain decay doesn't set in rather quickly.

    Your particular idea, would at least solve that problem, by eliminating Karai at the end. Like I said, in my original response back in my blog, it could work, if a good enough writer works out the various kinks--such as the part where making a pact with a demon to kill four non-superpowered turtles is a bit like doing surgery with a machine gun--but even so, I'm pretty darn skeptical about its prospects. What you'd get, in the end, is a story where Karai tries to kill the turtles using overwhelming force, which is pretty much exactly what the first "Karai as The Shredder" story was about, except that she dies in the end. It's not the sort of story that plays to the character's strengths or particular personality, and in the end, I don't see it allowing her to be anything more than a serviceable villain, nor do I see it being all that tragic.

    I'm generally of the opinion that the writers were right in not extending Karai's tenure as an antagonist beyond the level they did; my problem with her season 5 arc lies in execution, rather than the concept. Yes, she should have lost, badly against the Demon Shredder--everybody else had, even with the benefit of some extra-powerful ninja mojo. No, it shouldn't have had the rape and humiliation undertones it had. Similarly, I do think an ending in which she reconsiders her vendetta against the turtles would have been a good one; problem is, the ending that we got doesn't really do that, and adds the problematic Chaplin angle for good measure. I also don't feel that a story in which Karai once again crosses the line from antagonist to, say, uneasy not-enemy is as implausible as you think.

    (To Be Continued)

  7. To elaborate on my previous point: Generally, I don't think "the good side" and the "bad side" accurately reflect the moral parameters the series is operating on--I don't think "good guys" is quite an appropriate term for characters who would kill an entire race/species without batting an eye, as the turtles do in the last "Underground" story. It'd be more accurate to say that there's three sides:

    1) People the turtles care about, which includes people across the morality spectrum, from people who are more noble than the turtles are (Justice Force) to people who aren't all that nice but are still support their interests (Karai from "City at War" to "Exodus").

    2) People the turtles are ambivalent about, which includes individual civilians, people who are "good guys" but whom the turtles don't like (The Ninja Tribunal) and criminal groups who don't present an active threat. Most of the major antagonists groups waver between this group and the next one, which is...

    3) People actively working against the turtles. Almost exclusively composed of people on the "bad" side of the spectrum.

    The turtles, for example, generally don't care about The Foot being around and doing all the stuff they do unless they are specifically trying to kill them or step over the line from their default "everyday criminal activity" harm to "threatening the entire city" harm. They can be convinced to stand against them--they're more liable to fight the Purple Dragons when Casey's around--but they won't fight them unless they're given a reason to--and "they're bad" isn't a reason.

    Like I said earlier, wha makes Karai an enemy is not that she's is part of a crime group that causes harm to thousands if not millions; as established in "City at War", enough turtles consider that the price of doing business to place the Foot in the the second group. What makes her an enemy is solely the fact that she's actively trying to kill the turtles, which has nothing to do with being a good or bad person, and is a turn that, personally, I find far from implausible.