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The Real Illness That Inspired Avatar Korra's Poisoning And Recovery In Legend Of Korra

A sequel to the beloved animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, which ran from 2005 to 2008, Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the events of the first series. Following a new Avatar named Korra (Janet Varney), Legend of Korra aired four seasons from 2012 to 2014, and explores rising unrest in a modernizing world, as the Avatar grows into her role and responsibilities. Korra goes through a lot during her journey, from Amon (Steve Blum) and his desire to rid the world of benders, to Kuvira (Zelda Williams) and her drive to unite all kingdoms as an empire under her rule. 

Along the way, Korra also faces other personal issues, with many deriving from her bending and connection to the Avatar State.

In season 3, episode 13, "Venom of the Red Lotus," Korra endures intense trauma, as the anarchist group the Red Lotus poisons her with a substance that is intended to induce her Avatar State. Once in that state, the group intends to kill Korra and end the Avatar cycle permanently. Thankfully, Korra gets some help, and manages to escape, but her trouble isn't done there: In the aftermath of this event, Korra deals with PTSD, exhaustion, and other physical and mental effects of the experience. Looking closely, there's one particular disease that appears to have been a clear inspiration for the show, and how Korra reacts to the poisoning by the Red Lotus.

Legend of Korra shows Avatar Korra going through mercury poisoning and Minamata disease

Though Legend of Korra is a show about elemental bending set in a fictional world, the series takes a lot of influence from reality. With the Red Lotus and their poison, the show never confirms that it's mercury, but all signs point to it. Liquid mercury is highly toxic, and would require a skilled metalbender to manipulate. The poison shares the same appearance as mercury, and causes a physical and mental reaction in Korra that includes hallucinations.

In season 4, episode 2, "Korra Alone," the show recounts the next few years, as Korra recovers. Katara (Eva Marie Saint) attempts to heal her, but she tells Korra that the poison did a lot of "internal damage." Korra's symptoms strongly match up with that of Minamata disease, as described by Boston University, a neurological illness that occurs after severe mercury poisoning. People usually experience ataxia — "a degenerative disease of the nervous system," as explained by the National Ataxia Foundation — a lack of coordination and balance, as well as muscle weakness and numbness in their limbs, all of which happens to Korra. 

Korra spends a lot of time working hard to regain control of her limbs, and move on from the wheelchair. The poison also affects her bending, and causes depression and PTSD that she must work through. All of these symptoms line up with Minamata disease. 

Altogether, the show takes the subject of mercury poisoning very seriously, and it seems safe to say that Minamata disease likely played a huge influence in the depiction of Korra's intense experience.