Recently, Netflix added Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, which we’ve previously written is one of the greatest kid’s cartoons of all time. We thought that for those of you who haven’t given the show a chance, perhaps because you feel you’ve aged out of it, or you’re just not into anime, I thought I’d take some time to sway your opinion.
First, let me say that the entire show is only three seasons, 20-21 episodes each, which are about 22 minutes long. That means the whole show is about 22 hours long, which is easily bingeable in just a few days.
Second, a little background. In this show, there are people in the world who can manipulate, or “bend,” one of the four elements: air, water, earth, and fire. It is not something that anyone can do, and if you can, what you are able to bend is genetic. Therefore all waterbenders are related to each other, and so on. The only exception is the Avatar, a reincarnated hero who can bend all four elements.
Note: Mild Spoilers Ahead
Martial Arts + Design
One of the most notable things in Avatar, is the inspiration that the creators took from Chinese martial arts and design elements. Primarily, the four different bending styles all range from different martial arts that spiritually reflect the elements that they represent.
- Waterbending – Tai Chi, which is gentle and flowing, and focuses on the control of energy.
- Earthbending – Hung Gar, which uses firm, solid stances.
- Firebending – Northern Shaolin, which uses long, aggressive techniques that “explode” through your opponent.
- Airbending – Ba Gua Zhang, which focuses on changing direction without losing momentum, and outmaneuvering.
As you can see, all of these “feel” like the elements they represent. It’s really interesting when you watch different benders fight each other, as none have an advantage over another purely due to their element, but only in their ability and practice. If you enjoy watching different fighting styles go head-to-head, then you’ll love the combat in the show.
Not only the martial arts, but much of the design of the show is also representative of East Asia. The more spiritual sides of the show reflect Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Yoga. Even the test to find if a child is the Avatar, is the same test given to children to see if they are the Tulku Lama (Dalai Lama).
If you look at a world where bending of the elements is common practice, then you wouldn’t imagine the world to be the same as ours, would you? Many stories that create magic systems, or somehow change a basic piece of the world, fail to follow through on how much would change as a result. Avatar takes worldbuilding farther than most stories do, to the point you can see it in their political and cultural systems.
For each nation, how they live represents their elements as well. When you think of earth, it stays still, and can be difficult, if not impossible to move, which is why cities like the earth captial Ba Sing Se (which means “Impenetrable City”), is the largest city in the world, and a wartime stronghold. Air is constantly in motion, and lives high above the world, is why the Air Nomads don’t live in one single place, but when they do stay somewhere, it is in temples and towers that rise high above the clouds. The Water Tribes live on the polar caps of the planet, as the ground beneath your feet become nothing but solid water. And lastly the Fire Nation, who during the course of the show, attempt to spread to all corners of the map, not unlike the spread of fire itself.
One piece of worldbuilding that always stood out to me was the jails that are created for different benders. How does one jail someone who has a magical control over the elements themselves? You must remove the possibility of that element from being present. For Firebenders, this means an ice box where it is too cold for fire to be present, and the opposite for waterbenders, who are somewhere so hot that the very water in the air evaporates.
Zuko’s Arc – !Spoilers!
In the show, there are two antagonists, a macro and a micro. In much the same way of Star Wars with the Darth Vader and the Emperor, there is the immediate threat, and the ultimate obstacle that must be defeated, respectively. In the show, the Fire Lord Ozai is the ultimate obstacle that Aang cannot defeat until he has completed his training and mastered all four elements. However, obstructing his path is the immediate threat Prince Zuko, Ozai’s son. Zuko has been banished from his father’s home for his failure to capture the Avatar, and so his goal is to capture Aang, and bring him to his father to regain his honor. However, as the show continues, Zuko learns the error of his father’s, and even nation’s, ways. The show continues with Zuko trying to not only move past his mistakes, but also deal with the consequences of them. It’s not enough just to change, but you have to also clean up the mess you made.
It is impossible to talk about Zuko’s redemption without also mentioning his mentor and uncle, Iroh. Iroh is very interesting for a number of reasons. First, he is the older brother of Fire Lord Ozai, meaning he was initially supposed to become the Fire Lord, and only failed due to his failure in taking Ba Sing Se (and maybe some shadier Ozai-antics). More so, however, is that it’s clear the Iroh doesn’t agree with Ozai’s (and their father’s) views on the Fire Nation, and their need to rule the world. Iroh is patient, reassuring, and forgiving. The greatest example of Iroh is in his tea preparation.
This show isn’t just about kids with magic powers fighting each other, the show also takes it’s position as a “kids” show to educate children as well. However, instead of teaching kids all the letters, or the colors in Spanish, instead the show decides to teach kids about life itself. The biggest lesson, I believe, from this show is that all people are powerful and deserving of respect, no matter what they look like. There are two main characters that stand out as far as disability awarness, that are both very important to the story, and the fight for good.
The first is Toph. Toph is a blind earthbender in the show. So on top of the difficulty of living without sight, she must also have a magical control of earth, and use it in combat situations. However, it is not in spite of, but because she is blind, that she becomes the most powerful earthbender alive. She focuses on her other senses, specifically she feels the earth through her feet, and is able to have a much clearer understanding of her surroundings. The show is also not afraid to give Toph a sense of humor, and never makes fun of her for her lack of vision, but sees the inherent humor that arises when you don’t treat her any differently, but she is blind nonetheless.
Another amazing character is Teo, who has paraplegia, but becomes an amazing addition, and becomes so good at air-gliding, it is thought he is an airbender himself. Never in the show is Teo treated with pity for his condition, nor is it assumed he can’t be helpful to others. Teo is treated with respect regarding his disability, and is even praised for his skills regardless of the fact he’s in a wheelchair.
While disability acceptance is the most obvious “adult-topic” in the show, Avatar does much more than that. As the show takes place in wartime, it doesn’t shy away from a slew of related topics, such as sexism, propaganda, genocide, corporal punishment, and authoritarian rule. Suddenly, this doesn’t sound like a kids show anymore.
The show starts easy, with lessons in sexism and the inherent patriarchy of the Water Tribe, when Katara isn’t allowed to fight for her nation, and Sakka insults a group of female warriors, and must learn humility as he asks them to teach him how to be a better combatant as a
The Fire Nation is shown to be a very aggressive militaristic-state, who uses propaganda to convince their people that they are on the “right” side of the war. However, along with that propaganda, we see the children of the Fire Nation, and how they love their people just as the “peaceful” Water Tribe do. We also see adults of the Fire Nation see the wrong of their government, and balance having pride in their country, with disappointment in the actions they take.
The show takes time to show what happens to refugees running from war, the difficulty of running from your home from fear of death. Once they arrive in Ba Sing Se of the Earth Kingdom, they live in the Lower Ring of the city, which has terrible conditions and a severe income inequality that doesn’t lead to a prosperous life. Not only that, but it seems that the Earth Kingdom refuses anyone to even speak of the war, and employs a secret police to ensure it.
This show is purely amazing, and will hopefully go down in history as one of the most important family-friendly shows ever created. Now that it’s back on Netflix, I can’t wait to restart this show and watch it with a new understanding of what the show is truly about, more than just a “chosen one defeats the big villain” show, but a true coming of age story in a time of fear and doubt.