Like many other kids born in the 90s, I got to experience a myriad of amazing cartoons all the way up to my mid-teens. Samurai Jack was one of my favourite, and perhaps something that I’ll revisit along with Courage the Cowardly Dog which was a horrific but amazing kids show along with the likes of Megas XLR, Kim Possible and even Danny Phantom. All of these were forays into the usual structured, and time tested formula for conducting a kids show. A formula that I don’t hate as far as things go. The formula being a non-linear show with new adventures every episode and at most, a 5 episode linear plot that would include some interesting plot devices to keep the story going. But apart from interesting art or the occasional intriguing characters, nothing could keep fans coming back except the length of the show or how much it conformed to trends (Teen Titans Go).
Enter, Avatar: The Last Airbender. A bit of personal history to set up grounds for a potential future blog post, but I was actually banned from watching Avatar the Last Airbender growing up. Not that it stopped me, but it was an annoyance to say the least. That was probably because of the late timing of the Satanic Panic in Malawi, and while it didn’t have as much of an influence as it did in the US and other parts of the Western world. It was still annoying being told I couldn’t watch something for the simple reason that it was “satanic” but oh well. Avatar was one of those shows that made me give fuckall about my parents opinion on what I should watch or not. By the age of 8 I already had my own basic grasp of wrong or right, “good and evil”. Simple statements didn’t faze me, and even the threat of the whip did nothing to stop me. It seemed odd to me that a bald kid who could manipulate air and flew around on a giant bison gave my mum and uncle the shivers. Of course, later on, I realised it was because of the religous, cultural and spiritual connotations the show took from Asian civilisations.
But now, onto some show history and the premise of the show. Avatar the Last Airbender was an animated television show created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko which aired from 2005 to 2008 for the duration of three seasons. The show, besides being highly popular, becoming one of Nickelodeon’s most popular shows, became a cult hit garnering a large adult following despite catering for 6 to 11 year olds. The show follows Aang, the titular Last Airbender and Avatar, destined to bring balance to the world after a century of war and oppression from the imperialistic Fire Nation who also wiped out his people, the Air Nomads. Aang, who was already talented, was told he was the Avatar, the one to master all 4 elements and bring balance to the world, 4 years early, at only 12. Because of this, and other reasons, he encased himself in a sphere of ice for 100 years, and without an Avatar, the world drifted into chaos, war raged and the Air Nomads, who mind you were not necessarily the good guys, were utterly wiped out. After being found by two Southern Water tribe kids, a newly awakened Aang has to truly face his destiny and bring balance to a world teetering on the edge of all out war, and defeat a dictatorial figure who is basically cartoon Hitler.
There are many plot elements that I have gone over, but just from reading that brief summary of the show’s premise, one can tell that this is not a stereotypical kids show. it is nuanced and contains a high level of world building, history and law, taking place in a completely different world with completely new concepts that have been executed incredibly well. But before we dive in, Avatar draws in from many influences to achieve both its emotional and dramatic storyline which is simply peppered with exciting and thrilling fight scenes. The first influence I want to speak of, is the anime FLCL, a rollercoaster action sci-fi amalgamation of chaos created by the lauded studio Gainax. The director of Avatar forced the entire team to watch the full thing to prepare them for the hectic battles. The creators also took pages out of “Legend and Lore” titles like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, inspiring them to make a highly intricate world. This is very different compared to many other series airing at the time in the sense that viewers are going to be immersed in a world completely new to them. This was further reinforced from the fact that the show took many real world influences from Asian history, culture and spirituality. This achieves two distinctly, seemingly opposing effects that work incredibly well when mixed together. Because it is a new world, it is interesting and exciting enough to explore, but because of the clear real world influences spun to enhance the show, it is vaguely recognisable by the audience. Kind of like that word that’s on the tip of your tongue.
People tend to overlook that feature instead favouring characterisation, which is in no means inferior. However, it is important to see just how big of an effect the real world influences have on the show and the lore it crafts, essentially making it very relatable and mystical to kids watching it. Especially kids born in the Western World. For me, seeing the four nations represent their real world counterparts so well intrigued the hell out of me. The Air Nomads were clearly inspired by Tibetan monks, with their philosophies and stances on vegetarianism and non-violence. The Earth Kingdom was a bit more complex, being an obvious nod to ancient China, but more specifically, a pre-Mao imperialist China which still had a monarchy in place at the time. The Fire Nation is a little less obvious as a pre-World War II Japan, as imperialist and war bound as ever. Which is interesting because in the show we’ve got the Fire Nation (Japan) invading the Earth Kingdom (China) which is what happened during World War II. Finally, probably the most interesting was the Water Nation which was represented by the real world Inuit tribes. All of the nations have cultures that clearly permeate throughout the show as well as their own grievances and quirks. Not everyone loves each other, some people straight up hate each other, and some people have the saddest backstories. It’s incredibly interesting to see how the chemistry between each nation works out as the story progresses and events unfold. With all of this being pumped through your screen, you’ll think it might brainwash your kids. I mean, I’m fairly certain that’s one of the reasons my Mum was so against it, becasue she was worried that the “religous” connotations of the show might have an influence on me. But that’s the thing, Avatar: The Last Airbender can be so alien to Western audiences, but it is capable of teaching kids about multiple diverse cultures. About the fact that people can be very different, have incredibly differing views and can both live harmoniously and in conflict with one another.
All of these are points that I think are important for children to be taught, especially if their parents have skimped on those simple at home lessons. I was lucky to have been exposed to that kind of media considering that all things aside, Malawi is rather sheltered from the world, with diversity only in a few spheres. However, cultural influences aside, I think Avatar really shines on two other points, which are its action, and characterisation. For anyone who has ever watched Avatar, the action scenes can be heavy with tension, or lighthearted and playful. A good episode to analyse is episode 3 of season 1 where our protagonists traveled to the Earth Kingdom city of Omashu. The king of Omashu, despite being a slightly mad, but immensely old man is incredibly powerful, filling the stereotypical “old men are strong” trope from anime. And even though it is plain to see that he holds back, the stage is set, and the fight progresses, with Aang, our main character utilising the whole arena, and Bumi straining his muscles to put Aang to the test. Throughout the episode we get a good measure of speed, velocity and the impacts of blows from the rocks Bumi hurls around. One of my other favourite fight scenes amongst many occurs in Season 2 episode 21 when Zuko, our antagonist until this point is betrayed by his psychopathic sister, they engage in a furious battle. Zuko brandishes knifes of flames while his sister twirls around him effortlessly. It’s not that he’s bad, it’s just that she’s that much better than him and ends the duel with a frightening display of her power. A shot of lightning directed at her own brother. One that would have surely killed him. This does multiple things, including setting up a big story point, building up tension between the two characters that is played upon, developing a great story arc and finally, adding stakes to the battle. The battle itself is brief, but the impact it has is monumental. And this isn’t even a season finale.
Another characteristic the fight scenes share in common is both the scope and atmosphere, mostly due to the way that battles work in the Avatar universe. Each bending art is based on a specific martial art, and thus it actually feels like a physical fight despite few blows being thrown by actual benders. Also, each bending style is so intricately different that bending duels or battles feel varied and balanced. Earth benders usually carry heavy but powerful blows. Airbending is precise and quick while waterbending flows quickly and fire is explosive and carries the intent to harm. This means that every fight has personality, making sure that the viewer is glued to the screen watching a highly complex and well thought out battle play out.
Perhaps I’ll talk about the fight scenes more in another post, but many fans might argue that only the character development and individual story arcs overshadow the fantastic action. The character development in the show is not only superb, but moves forward at a good pace which ultimately contributes to the high quality of the plot especially for a kid’s show. There are initially three main characters, however by the final season there are 7, one of whom is a former antagonist. The show sets up things about each character from the very beginning by giving them their own quirks and personality traits, and short but personal story arcs. Just to show you how in depth they went with the character development, even the pet and steed of our group have their own story arcs. and while it would be a great disservice to briefly touch on some of the main character’s personalities and their development arcs, there is one worthwhile supporting character who has a profound impact on the show as a whole, and that is General Iroh.
Iroh, the uncle to the crown prince and former crown prince himself is a renowned general of the fire lord and an incredibly powerful firebender, holding the title ” The Dragon of the West”. Despite his weighty positions and glory however, he is a jovial character who constantly takes the piss, cracks dad jokes indulges in self-deprecating humour and serves as a moral compass to the antagonist Zuko. He is introduced in the beginning of the show, and while his character is well established, it is carried out well throughout the show while small trickles of his history are given to us. That he laid siege to Ba Sing Se for 600 days and breached the outer wall, a previously unheard of accomplishment, that he himself developed the technique to redirect lightning, a seemingly invincible ability. Moreover, he could breathe fire, which just added points to the badass meter. However, in the season 2 episode 15 episode “Tales of Iroh”, Iroh goes around Ba Sing Se spreading his usual good vibes and in a generally good mood, even offering life advice to someone who attempted to rob him with a knife. However, at the end of the episode we learn that it is his dead son’s birthday. He travels to a hilltop overlooking Ba Sing Se, the same city he besieged years before and the same city his son died in and makes a small shrine, lighting incense and lamenting the fact that he can help everyone but couldn’t help his son. He begins to cry while singing a requiem, and it is in this moment that we see the entirety of his character. That he’s not just the one dimensional “funny guy” of the show, but a wise and deeply changed person. One who is able to forgive and love even towards the people who cost him so much, including his son. This is A1 writing, especially when considering that this episode is considered “filler” as it does not majorly advance the plot.
And while this is but a small fraction of the greatness that constitutes the Avatar series, I have hopefully enlightened you on what made the series great, or at least some of the things. And while I hope I can cover more Avatar in due time, hopefully that will be when I start my own Youtube channel which will invariably make things much much easier for me. So to end this post with an infinitely wise quote from Aang, “Anyone’s capable of great good and great evil. Everyone, even the Firelord and the Fire Nation, have to be treated like they’re worth giving a chance.”