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Why You Should Watch Avatar: The Last Airbender

Updated: 7 days ago

Dear Asian Youth,

Long ago, the four nations of water, earth, fire, and air lived together in harmony. But 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. After a hundred years, Sokka and Katara, a pair of Water Tribe siblings, uncover a new Avatar- an airbender named Aang. it’s up to him to master all four elements in order to defeat the Fire Lord.

I remember when I first started the series. “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, or A: TLA, swept me away with its vivid and intricate worldbuilding, stellar characters, and magnificent storytelling. I feel like every kid is obsessed with something really niche during their preteen years. It could be horses, space, or Harry Potter books. Those phases feel intense and, in retrospect, are more often than not a little embarrassing. For me, that phase involved A:TLA. I was obsessed with the show, and I genuinely think it sparked my desire to create visual media. As a kid, you sort of latch on to any character that kind of looks like you. Seeing Katara, A:TLA’s leading lady, was one of the first times I felt that. It’s a brown girl! Like me! And thus began my spiraling obsession with the water tribe (though nowadays, I feel like I’d be an earthbender, ha!) and by extension, the cartoon’s universe as a whole. But A:TLA is more than that. It is a complex story, it is brilliant character arcs, it is so, so much more.

The show has garnered a lot of attention these days due to its newfound place on Netflix. It makes me happy to see that so many people are appreciating such a gem. It’s a show for everyone, and if you haven’t seen it yet (or are still stuck in the slower pacing of season one), this is a sign to pick it up! It’s a fantastic show for so many reasons, from its fantasy world to its narrative relevancy.

**Mild spoilers ahead, so tread carefully.

Worldbuilding: the Value of Inspiration

How many fantasy franchises can you think of that utilize Asian culture for their worldbuilding? I know that sounds super specific, but bear with me.

The typical fantasy world (at least, in the Americanized scope that I’m familiar with) tends to take its themes from medieval Europe. I’m talking about castles, greedy dragons, elves. Imagine if we gave regions outside of Europe the same treatment. We’ve been deprived of fantasy Mesoamerica, fantasy Middle East, fantasy Africa! But I digress. A:TLA’s worldbuilding is special. Asian influence is infused into various facets of the show, including the hard magic system that has correlating martial art styles for each element.

Airbending is based off of BaGua circle walking, a martial art that’s light, flexible, and...well, airy. It’s even based in monastic tradition. Earthbending is influenced by Hung Gar stances, which emphasize strong rooting to the ground. Firebending aligns with Northern Shaolin Kung-Fu, which is strong, dynamic, and powerful. And the gentler art of waterbending (though powerful in and of itself) echoes Tai Chi movements, which are notably softer and less based in strength. Each nation, while not having exact one-to-one correlations with the real world like with bending, has distinct cultural differences that are clearly inspired by a multitude of Asian countries. And that might be what I like most about A:TLA: It recognizes Asia as rich, diverse, and different.

Asian culture is varied, and so are the four nations. We can see their differences simply in the architecture: The Fire Nation palaces echo imperial Japanese structures, which contrast the Air Nomad temples modeled after Tibetan monk temples. The walls of the Earth Kingdom’s Ba Sing Se is Chinese in influence, reminiscent of the Great Wall, and the snow based structures of the Water Tribe are akin to Inuit igloos. But it extends beyond scenic atmospheres. We see the powerful and collectivist Fire Nation culture as highly nationalistic, whereas the glimpses we get of Air Nomads portray them as benevolent jokesters who value humor and freedom. Even within a singular nation, there are cultural differences, just like in the real world. The Northern Water Tribe is sophisticated, powerful, and patriarchal in contrast to their smaller sister tribe in the South. Not to mention the Swamp Dwellers, who utilize a totally unique sort of waterbending.