Raya and The Last Dragon (2021)

Disney's 'Raya and The Last Dragon': Southeast Asian Flair, Weapons & Mythology

By: Domonique Salberg

Set to hit theater’s March 12, 2021, ‘Raya and The Last Dragon’ will follow a young warrior from the realm Lumandra, a re-imagined Earth, determined to guard the dragon gem and embark on a journey to find the last dragon. All to bring peace to her divided people. Promised to be different than what Disney fans are used to, Raya descends from diverse Southeast Asia in story, look, and feel. Therefore, from what we know so far, and in doing some research, Raya has some pretty neat nods to multiple Southeast Asian countries, which will be discussed below.

Quick jump to the following sections:

Imperial Name

Firstly, Raya’s name is believed to have multiple imperial and unique meanings within Asian culture. In Thai, some say ‘ruler of the land’ or King/Queen, while others have said the more ambiguous ‘Frill or Swag.’ Then, Indonesia and Malaysia it refers to “Great” and like Indonesia’s national anthem is “Indonesia Raya,” meaning “Great Indonesia.” In Sanskrit (the ancient Indo-European language of India), it also means “Great” and King/Prince. As for her armadillo friend, Tuk Tuk, he is most likely named after the taxi-motorcycle hybrid in Thailand since he functions as Raya’s vehicle—which is pretty genius.

Raya’s Ancestral Weapons: Keris & Arnis

Raya’s weapon of choice is a keris, a distinctive asymmetrical dagger from the island Java in Indonesia; its blade-patterning is achieved through alternating laminations of iron and nickelous iron. The keris was particularly useful for fighting in confined spaces, think inside a building or in the jungle, where longer weapons would be most cumbersome. Over time, the keris has evolved into an object of respect and believed to be endowed with mystical powers. In another shot from the trailer, Raya uses the double sticks martial arts weapon called the Arnis, Kali, or Eskrima—derived from traditional martial arts of the Philippines. 

Raya seen using the Arnis weapon.

Southeast Asian Attire

Moreover, dressed in traditional warrior attire, many quickly compared Raya’s outfit to the deservedly acclaimed Avatar: The Last Airbender/Korra characters. Specifically, the water tribe’s sleeveless designs and Korra’s hairstyle. Both Asian-inspired fantasy lands where dragons and other mythical creatures were commonplace before going extinct; nevertheless, some of her attire does stand-out among the animation we have seen in mainstream entertainment.

Specifically, her scene-stealing conical hat, commonly known as an Asian rice hat, originating in East, South, and Southeast Asia. Now universally worn in most Asian countries, it goes by a variety of names depending on the region. Wonderfully fitting to Raya’s world, we are graced with Asian folklore and the perfectly rendered unique spectrum of Asian descendants present in the four tribes. Each with their own colors and outfits. These divisions are reminiscent of the Four Nations of Avatar. Raya is also seen fighting a masked swordsman, whose face-covering looks eerily similar to The Blue Spirit and is believed to be a known Thai warrior mask.

Possibly inspired by the Thai Warrior Mask.

Tribes, Stone People & Dragon Mythology

Also visible are the conflicting affairs between the tribes. It may reflect Southeast Asia’s history of tribal war with each other before the colonizers invaded and how they each divided, considering some share the same ancestral origin. As for folklore present so far, the stone people in the desert indicate Asian mythos involving people turning into stone. Most evidently, in Malaysia, they have a creature called Sang Kelembai, a giant that curses animals and humans to stone. The stone people are also making the Wai gesture (Thai greeting/expressing gratitude), which also exists in Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. They may indeed be humans that turned into stone with a mystery behind it, or merely statues from a torn down place.

Lastly: dragons. In Filipino mythology, a water dragon called Bakunawa—a serpent-like dragon, is believed to cause eclipses, earthquakes, rains, and wind. It was generally believed to inhabit the water, but some understand it to live and fly in the sky or the underworld. Some refer to it as the Moon Eating Dragon as well. People believe this dragon tries to swallow the moon and has evolved as both a god and a demon throughout the archipelago. However, in Malaysia and Indonesia, it is known as Naga or Phaya Naga in Mahabharata. 

Bakunawa/Naga dragon; Southeast Asian folklore.

Altogether, this dragon’s importance is found in countries with a Hinduism and Buddhism background, as the ancient Majapahit, Srivijaya, Ayutthaya, and Khmer empires were strongly influenced first. And since the myth is that Naga is living in the country that has the Mekong river in it, it is found in large parts of the temples in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos.   

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