The Karai Essay, Part 1: A bit (okay, a lot) of history (spoilers)

I’ve been working on this for several months, but never had the will to take it to the end. However, I don’t want to have two consecutive posts about the Nick cartoon, so here’s the first part, basically a recap of who Karai is and what she does throughout the series.

The original incarnation of Karai was introduced during the Mirage comic’s  “City at War” arc, at the tail end of the first ongoing book. A ninja whose only relation to the Shredder was their membership in The Foot Clan (where she actually outranked him) she recruited the turtles in order to complete  her plan to consolidate the warring elements of the Clan under her leadership. In exchange for their help, she would formally end the Foot’s vendetta against the turtles…which, in the end, is what happens. While they would occasionally tussle when their agendas were at cross-purposes, the turtles and the Foot became uneasy allies, and Karai became their friendly face  inside the ninja force.

Unfortunately for me, I always found that incarnation of the character somewhat bare, from a characterization standpoint. She’s Foot Ninja Leader Lady…and? Is this a role she relishes? Is it something she does because nobody else can? I don’t know–we’ve never been told, I believe. How is she different from anyone occupying that same role? I don’t know–we know she’s not like the Shredder, but even that doesn’t tell us as much as it could, since the Shredder felt like such an outlier in the first place. The one distinctive thing about her–the fact that she had a teenage or adult daughter in the Foot Clan—has lots of story potential, but nobody’s really did anything with that since that detail was first revealed, just after said daughter was found dead. She is, in short, a character without a driving motivation.

Karai’s introduction in the 4Kids cartoon generally mirrors her comic book’s–she arrives in New York to restore order to the Foot Clan and end the gang wars currently laying off-screen waste to the city in the wake of the Shredder’s demise, and in the process she strikes an alliance with the turtles and a kinship of sorts with Leonardo in particular. However, there are two notable changes to her character: not only is she no longer a mom, she instead the Shredder’s adopted daughter. While the first one doesn’t really have much of an effect except to make her substantially younger—she comes across as somebody in her early- to mid-twenties here, while her original version had to have been somewhere around thirty five–the second shifts her role immensely, turning her into a foil for the turtles by allowing the series to explore the question of what would have happened to them had they been raised differently, by a person whose teachings did not align with hir actions.  Would they remain loyal to their parent?  Would they turn away from him and follow their conscience?

In Karai’s case, she attempts to do both. After it is revealed that her actions in “City at War” were all on behalf of the very not-dead Shredder, and that her agreement with the turtles was not meant to be made in good faith, the ninja princess nevertheless attempts to personally adhere to it, while making it clear that she will otherwise not turn against her father. And that works, for a while, thanks to some subterfuge on her part. But it’s not a permanent solution, and a end game only presents itself when the Shredder hatches a plan to salvage technology from a recent alien invasion to build a spaceship with which to resume his campaign of intergalactic conquest. Once daddy dearest leaves, she’ll be in charge of the Foot Clan on Earth, meaning she can truly put an end to the vendetta, or at least put it on hold until the Shredder’s return, which, given Utrom lifespans, could conceivably not take place until centuries in the future.

However, things don’t quite work out that way, and in the end, thanks in large part to the turtles’ involvement, the Shredder is imprisoned, tried, and exiled offworld in a manner that suggested that the sentence was actually meant to be a really slow execution.

Up to this point, a good segment of the fandom expected Karai to betray the Shredder, which given the genre and the role characters like Karai tend to occupy, was not an unreasonable assumption.  This does not happen.  Instead, her father’s imprisonment drives Karai in the opposite direction, as she then takes the mantle of the Shredder and turns against the turtles.

From them, things get weird, since we don’t see a whole lot of the character.  In season 5, Karai ends up allying herself with the turtles in order to stop the resurrected Demon Shredder, but it’s left unclear whether this signifies a turning point in their relationship, or if their alliance is merely one of convenience.  Later, in season 7, Karai makes a cameo appearance as one of the invitees to Casey and April’s wedding, with no context given: while she’s clearly on friendly terms with someone, we have no idea whom and under what context. We have no idea what she’s been doing in the time between seasons, and what her relationship with The Foot clan is.  Making things more confusing still, she then shows up in Turtles Forever, where she saves her returned-from-exile father and assists him as he gains the power to destroy the entirety of existence.  However, her loyalty turns out not to be absolute, as she later saves the turtles in secret and sets the stage to allow her father’s enemies to stand against him.  While it’s clear she’d like her father to live, she stands against him in the final moments of his life, as she fights to help save the universe.

So Yeah…

With all her shifts and turns, Karai is the source of a lot of spirited debate and speculation in the fandom, a lot of it relating to her true loyalties, what her decisions say about her, and what her relationship with Leonardo.  And thanks to the genuine ambiguity surrounding the character–some intentional, some not–a determined fan can make an argument for almost anything.  Speaking personally, these ambiguities help make her what is to me the most interesting character in western animation and in part two, I’ll be using a variety of means to outline my thoughts on the character, and how those affect my approach when writing both her and about her.

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5 Responses to The Karai Essay, Part 1: A bit (okay, a lot) of history (spoilers)

  1. Yarp says:

    Do you prefer Karai’s seasons 1-5 look or her BttS design. Also, I’m looking forward to part 2 of your essay.

  2. Ian says:

    Hello, Yarp. I favor the BttS / Turtles Forever look, I think. I like that it doesn’t have the Foot Clan logo–it’s always annoyed me to see it in every Foot Ninja when it’s also the logo of the legal corporate entity. My very favorite look, though, is the design for her wedding outfit–by far the best she’s looked in either series.

  3. Pingback: The Void at The Center of One’s Being: The Karai Essay, Part 2 « Monsters of New York

  4. Loudo says:

    There is one question about Karai that’s never been answered and I’m really curious about. Who taught her the concepts of honor and bushido?
    The Shredder makes it clear during the show that for him “honor” is a synonym of “loyalty”. His ninja are honor-bound to serve him. He doesn’t care about anything else. When Splinter says the Shredder fights dishonorably, he doesn’t even try to deny it: “I fight to win”.

    So, who taught to Karai that keeping one’s word is so important?
    Sometimes, when she discusses on screen about honor with her father, it feels like they’ve just met.

    I’m especially curious, because the 2k3 version of the Foot is very… inhuman, unlike the Mirage version. Karai is pretty much the only Foot Ninja we see the human side of. Everyone else either is a silent fighting machine (the goons, the Elite) or doesn’t show much personality (Khan).

  5. Ian says:

    Hello again, Loudo!

    The impression I’ve always gotten is that The Shredder taught him, intending for her to get some particular things from it–such as the whole “loyalty” thing, which as I’ve mentioned before is a super-important part of the popular conception of Bushido;Karai, as people sometimes do, had her own ideas of what was important.

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