Avatar the Last Airbender makes a mark on television history
One of my favorite Eastern inspired shows is Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar: the Last Airbender is a Nickelodeon show created in 2005. It was heavily inspired by East Asian culture from the setting, the world, the characters, and the animation style.
In the show, characters derive power from “bending” the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire.
However, only the Avatar can bend all four elements and was tasked with maintaining the balance. In the opening episode, this responsibility falls on a young Air Nomad named Aang. However, Aang was afraid of his new duties, so he ran away, causing himself to get trapped in an iceberg for the next 100 years.
While Aang was trapped, the Fire Nation, led by a scheming Fire Lord, killed all of Aang’s people and waged a 100-year war on the world. Later on, two siblings named Sokka and Katara from the Southern Water Tribe are out fishing, and due to Katara’s rage and Waterbending, they managed to free Aang from his icy prison. Aang now has to master all four elements in order to stop this war once and for all. And there are many who want to stop him.
Avatar might be the most direct parallel to Asian culture in media, given that the series was inspired by East Asian art and mythology, according to reporting in Magdalene, a feminist publication startup in Indonesia. The character designs are influenced by Chinese art, history, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and yoga.
The sound design is also inspired by East Asia, using a range of different instruments including the guzheng, pipa, and duduk. The locations are also modeled on places in Asia. Watching the show, it’s not hard to see the connections between the wall of Ba Sing Sei and the Great Wall.
Bending is also inspired by Chinese martial arts. Waterbending is influenced by T’ai chi, Hung Gar is what influenced Earth Bending, Northern Shaolin was used for Firebending, and Ba Gua was the foundation for Airbending. One of the main characters, Toph, even uses the Southern Praying Mantis style in order to make up for her visual limitations.
Avatar isn’t just pretty to look at, though. It covered very serious topics such as war, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, totalitarianism, gender discrimination, oppression, fate, destiny, and free will. The show doesn’t shy away from showing the darker side of war, and it doesn’t sugarcoat the truth.
Viewers see people who have been taken prisoner by the Fire Nation give up hope, and unlike in most cartoons, not even an inspirational speech can help them regain that hope. We see the effects that the war has had on so many families in the world, and we see how a victim of abuse struggles to find his path in life, making many mistakes along the way.
Prince Zuko is one of the best redemption arc characters. Katara helps us explore the ideas of trying to move on after a parent dies and the reality of revenge. Toph is one of the best representation characters for blind people, and she’s a fan favorite character by far just for her snark alone.
Not only was Sokka hilarious, but he also showed growth as well as he tried to grow his self esteem, being the only non bender in a bending team.
One of the main villains, Azula, goes on a spiral of madness after she used fear to control everyone all her life. She, too, is redeemed.
Avatar has become one of the most well known and praised cartoons of its time. Even now, the show still feels fresh because the topics they explore are timeless.
Many books have been produced around the Avatar Universe, including a comic series that explains what happened after the war and a novel that details the adventures of a previous Avatar, Avatar Kiyoshi. Avatar also has plenty of video games and the characters even make appearances in other games such as Smite, and Nickelodeon Cart Racers 2: Grand Prix.
The series also had a live action movie adaptation in 2010, though the story did not translate well. The show even got its own spin off, titled the Legend of Korra, which followed the adventures of the next Avatar.
While some people aren’t as big of fans of it, especially after book 2, it was a pretty solid successor to the show as like it’s predecessor, it wasn’t afraid to talk about dark subjects such as mental health, inequality, and restriction, and where The Last Airbender usually suggested death, in Korra, they showed people getting killed on screen. Nickelodeon has even recently announced that they are dedicating a portion of their studio for Avatar related content.
Avatar is one of the most popular and influential shows of its time, and even now it’s a shining golden standard that others have tried to reach. It wasn’t afraid to talk about more mature topics that are still relevant today with memorable and relatable characters. It’s hard to imagine what the show would have been like without the influences that made it so memorable to begin with.