First up: Avatar: The Last Airbender
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. But I believe Aang can save the world.
I’ll specify, the Nick cartoon, not the movie (I was severely disappointed in the movie). This is first essentially because it is what I was interested in watching at the time and I couldn’t decide on another path (so many categories!)
The show ran from 2005 to 2008; I was in high school and I managed to stumble onto it midway through season one flipping through channels. The story was what got me hooked, and the animation was good.
I reiterate the Standard Disclaimer: Here, there be spoilers!
Book One: Water
For me, as someone who did not watch anime, it was intriguing to watch a show not based in America or Europe. My background being in British mythology, I am not as familiar with the Eastern spirits, but what I can grab a hold of is the rest of the fantasy setting. Avatar inhabits its own world with a major factor being the bending of elements. Sokka grouses about his getting soaked whenever Katara plays with “magic water.” It’s a whole cast of believable, human characters. Pre-teens and teens for the most part. And it’s written as an ensemble; while the show is titled Avatar and is sometimes referred to as the Legend of Aang, the others are not merely supporting characters. The main antagonist, Zuko has a complicated and developed backstory.
The plotline, in a sentence, is Aang, the Avatar, must master the other three elements in order to stop the Fire Nation by the end of the following summer. He’s accidentally discovered by two Southern Water Tribe teenagers, brother and sister, Sokka and Katara. “Accidentally” in that, he was frozen in an iceberg for a hundred years (after he ran away from the early pressures of becoming the Avatar, at twelve). Aang forms an early bond with Katara and since she is the last waterbender of the South Pole and has had no official training, the trio must venture to the North Pole. Giving chase to them is Zuko, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, who was banished by his father and given the seemingly impossible task of finding the Avatar and “reclaiming his honor.”
The deadline is due to a powerful comet reappearing at the end of the following summer; given the chance, the Fire Nation will use the comet to bring a devastating end to the war. The overall arc of the story has this one goal, but breaks it up with episodic adventures (sort of like Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the movie moreso than the book. Lord of the Rings does this a little as well; “here’s what happened on the way to Mordor, or the North Pole, or the Fire Nation”). And the show is an excellent mix of humor and drama and does not simplify topics for kids. Kids, teenagers, and adults can all relate to the show.
Sokka, while hilarious a good portion of the time, is also a young man who has had the fate of his village put on his shoulders at a young age; his father and the rest of the men of the tribe had left two years prior to aid the Earth Kingdom. When we see the South Pole, it is one tiny village comprised of a few huts and igloos and a lonely watchtower, inhabited by a few women and a gaggle of small children. Sokka and his sister Katara are the eldest.
Looking back, after watching the rest of the series, I wonder at the intelligence of that decision. Why would you leave two teens in charge? What would happen if they got attacked? There were decades of raids prior to Hakoda’s (Katara and Sokka’s father and chief of the Tribe) departure; did he think the last one which killed his wife had ended the Fire Nation’s interest? Were they hoping that the South Pole was remote enough and unimportant? Or did they have a plan to stop anything from going too South? I would not say that this is a deterrent from the show, just a question my mind came up with after several viewings.
Sokka can also be a typical guy. He believes, until Suki of the Kyoshi Warriors teaches him differently, that men are superior warriors. Really, the whole show does a great job of showcasing strong female warriors alongside men. But periodically he gets to showcase his training. He was right to not trust Jet and it was his kindness to the old man that evacuated the village in time. In Bato of the Water Tribe, he can read a battlefield. His off-kilter ingenuity is sparked in The Northern Air Temple. In Siege of the North, he has the most current information about the Fire Nation. The chief chooses Sokka to protect his daughter.
I have mixed feelings about Aang. Whenever I get frustrated with him, I have to remind myself that he’s twelve. Twelve-year-olds are more concerned with having fun, something Gyatso championed. And as the Avatar, the fate of the world rests on him, overwhelming for anyone. It was cruel of the other Airbending children to shun him from playing (it’s like Rudolph). And he tried to protect his friends; in Winter Solstice Part Two: Avatar Roku, he tried to leave them behind so he can’t get hurt. And he feels guilty for leaving the world to war for a hundred years. He even shows mercy and kindness to known enemies. Twice, he won’t leave Zuko behind when he’s injured (Blue Spirit and Siege of the North Part Two). Overall, a fun character and he certainly develops as the show progresses, but I can sympathize with adults when they roll their eyes at his antics.
The show does a good job of showing multiple sides of Katara. Yes, she can be girly; obsessed over finding out who is her true love, crushing on Jet (typical bad boy who’s cool cause he lives on his own). Yes, she can be petty, stealing the waterbending scroll (again, she’s fourteen; this all made more sense when I was closer to their age): “What did you learn?” “Stealing is wrong; unless it’s from pirates”. But she’s also the one to keep the group in line. It’s awesome to watch her take on Master Pakku at the end of Book One; she holds out well against an experienced Master, and in the next episode, she’s shown to have quickly become his best pupil. She essentially learned waterbending on her own, through trial and error.
Zuko is my favorite character, though during the first viewing, the fondness didn’t show up until season three. Re-watching the series has pointed out several early sympathetic moments: during The Southern Air Temple, we are introduced to Zhao (an excellent villain because I hate him, he’s a bully), a commander in the Fire Nation Navy who despises young Zuko, baiting him and telling the banished prince he has “no home. No allies. Your own father doesn’t want you…in his eyes you are a failure and a disgrace to the Fire Nation…you have the scar to prove it.” We get the full backstory in The Storm; Ozai is a cruel man, challenging his own thirteen-year-old son to a fire duel and purposefully burning his face. Telling his own son that his sister was born lucky while he was lucky to be born. Not winning any father-of-the-year awards.
[As many other fans will point out: Oh the irony! For those of you not in the know, Ozai is voiced by Mark Hamill, most famously Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. He has also lent his voice to the Joker from several Batman cartoons]
Iroh has always been a supporter of his nephew. After the loss of his own son, he has viewed Zuko as his own. He’s aware of Zuko’s faults, but he chooses to love and support and teach him. (And teenagers never make it easy). The Winter Solstice Part One: The Spirit World illustrates that it is reciprocated; Zuko begins the episode annoyed with his uncle, but when it becomes clear that he has been captured by Earthbenders, he hunts them down, even passing on chasing the Avatar. He arrives just in time to prevent the Earthbenders from crushing Iroh’s hands. Iroh compliments the prince on his excellent form and Zuko acknowledges “you taught me well,” and Iroh tells the Earthbenders that though the pair is outnumbered, it is the Earthbenders who are outmatched. Of course, Zuko points out at the end that Iroh really needs to put some clothes back on.
Devastation was clear on Iroh’s face when their ship exploded, with Zuko still on it. He tells a bruised Zuko “no nephew of mine is going to stow away on a ship without back-up,” and gives Zuko last minute advice before the young man hunts for the Avatar in the tundra. Iroh knows what his brother, Ozai is like; he tries to protect Zuko as best he can. And he understands the balance of the world; cautioning Zhao not to kill the Moon Spirit. The idiot is drunk on delusions of power and doesn’t listen and Iroh takes out the squad with little difficulty.
Avatar is a coming of age story, for all of the primary characters. Even the animation reflects it, showing them all a little more round-faced, voices pitched a little higher at the start of the season compared to the end. We witness children, and teenagers take on adult problems.
As a family show, it’s also about family; family that one is born with and how supportive, or not they are, and more importantly, the family that is chosen. When Katara, Sokka, and Aang visit the Southern Air Temple, where Aang grew up, they find evidence of the Fire Nation attack. Gyatso, Aang’s mentor and guardian, was surrounded by the remnants of a host of soldiers. Aang is grief stricken and furious and a mess of other emotions and enters the Avatar State, putting Sokka and Katara in danger. But Katara gets close enough to talk him down, saying that she and Sokka are Aang’s new family. It’s revealed in The Storm that Aang ran away because the council wanted to take away everything he knew and everyone he loved.
In Bato of the Water Tribe, we glimpse Sokka and Katara’s family. Seeing Bato is a reunion and a small piece of their father. Aang almost costs them their chance to be reunited, but they’ve grown as young people and know their place is with Aang; they’re extended family. As Hakoda told Sokka, “being a man is knowing where you’re needed most.”
Another clear theme is honor. From my albeit limited knowledge of Eastern culture, honor is highly valued. During the Agni Kai between Zhao and Zuko in The Southern Air Temple, Iroh blocks Zhao’s disgraceful attack after his defeat, asserting that “even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” Even more poignant, considering Zuko is attempting to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar. In The Blue Spirit, when Zuko believes that Zhao will succeed in capturing the Avatar first, he despairs “My honor. My throne. My country. I’m about to lose them all.”
Hope and destiny are brought up through the series as well. It is Aang’s destiny to be the Avatar and to master all four elements. And it appears to be destiny as well that he returns when he has, before the comet. He gives people hope, even Zuko, for it is with the Avatar that Zuko aspires to return home and please his father. Zuko still feels that it is his destiny to rule the Fire Nation, he still views himself as the rightful heir to the throne and next in line.
The season ends on a mixed note; enemies were defeated, but friends were lost. Aang saved Zuko and Zuko tried to save Zhao. Iroh helped Katara and Yue. Alliances were getting muddled. Iroh and Zuko manage to escape and Katara, Sokka, and Aang now must travel back to the Earth Kingdom so Aang can master the next element. The Avatar has entered the war and change is coming.
What are your thoughts, feelings, favorite episode? Who are your favorite characters?
Next Time: Book Two: Earth