Updated: May 28
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.
As a fantasy lover myself, I feel suffocated seeing the same tropisms in fiction. Avatar is a breath of fresh air, and the Asian influence is more than just a backdrop. It’s a reminder that there’s so much the world has to offer in terms of inspiration if we look beyond what we already know, in this case, Europe. As Uncle Iroh says, “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.”
Characters and Growth
While I won’t get too deep into individual arcs of our characters, I do want to say that they are all drastically changed by the end of the story and undergo unique development. They bounce off of each other very well which makes for memorable interactions and relationships. Personally, I’m always a sucker for characters who just like each other and have good banter. And I haven’t even touched on the villain-hero dynamics! Aang and Zuko’s relationship as foil characters has so many significant and interesting parallels, and our season two villains possess fantastic presence as well as interesting motivations. No character is one-note, they are all given a degree of attention and depth.
I particularly like how the protagonist- Aang -exemplifies something not often seen within “chosen ones”. He’s sensitive and inwardly emotional, but is still portrayed as extremely skilled and strong. He’s realistic: as a young kid with too many expectations heaped upon his shoulders, his flaws are believable. Watching him grow from a goofy kid to a powerful Avatar is so insanely satisfying because of the show’s pacing, which depicts his power crawl magnificently.
Furthermore, I’d mark A:TLA as my first exposure to genuinely strong female characters. They are diverse as well. When I say diverse, I mean that the girls of A:TLA are all different in terms of their personalities and experiences, and are allowed to be strong in more ways than one. They are not put on the “girl power!” pedestals that I see so often in pieces of media, but instead are treated the same as any other character, gifted with unique development and their plight and the struggles that come with being a girl in a patriarchal society are not ignored.
Storytelling: The Real-World Relevancy of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”
One of the more negative things I hear the most about A:TLA is the slow start. People don’t seem to be too interested in the juvenile humor of season one. But therein lies the beauty of the series. The tone matures as the story progresses, and our characters develop from the events occurring. It is a tale about the tragedy of senseless war, with children fighting in battles they inherited. That’s not to say season one is terrible. Season one is essential to understanding the full scope of the series. It is the infrastructure and fundamental groundwork of the entire show.
A:TLA’s major themes are serious and extremely relevant. Co-creator Michael DiMartino quoted a Salon article that heralded Avatar’s anti-facism message:
“The sobering difference between watching "Avatar" in its time versus seeing it now is that life in America looks and feels a lot like life in the Fire Nation as Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and eventually Zuko experience it. It is a place addicted to its increasingly hollow sense of greatness and even superiority, steered by a leader more concerned with his own glory than caring for his people.”
While it may be a show for kids, Avatar touches on mature topics and how they affect our characters. Our protagonist is a survivor of genocide. Government corruption is given a central arc within season two. The evils of propaganda and nationalism are put front and center in an episode that features the Fire Nation.
Speaking of the Fire Nation, it’s fairly obvious that their wartime efforts parallel real-world occurrences of colonization. Environmental destruction, exploitation, and the plight of the lower class are all featured as the crimes of the Fire Nation. Within their classrooms, children are indoctrinated to the glory of their empire and their leader early on. The Fire Nation creates a false narrative to their people about how powerful and superior they are, even when they are the undisputed villains. A sour reminder that history is penned by its victors.
Even more interesting are the themes presented on an individual level: dealing with grief, learning how to forgive, and the feeling of loss. Aang and Katara, our protagonists, are both faced with an overwhelming vengeance towards those who have hurt them, and both come to terms in different ways. They are children fighting in a war, and watching the effects of that war upon these characters really hit home how desperately they need to end such senseless carnage.
The Cultural Appropriation Question
While being a fantasy story, A:TLA obviously draws a lot from Asian culture- in fact, the creators (before their departure from the Netflix project) initially promised an all POC cast for the live-action series. So this is technically a story about POCs written by white creators. Does that mean “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is an instance of cultural appropriation?
Perhaps, technically. Only if you remove the context of maliciousness from cultural appropriation and define it as one culture adopting something from another culture. In my opinion, it’s a good example of cultural appreciation. The cultures are represented with nuance and respect. In the circumstance of malicious cultural appropriation, there would be a degree of cherry-picking and ignorance. The lack of which is pretty much displayed through the fact that culture is more than a backdrop. It is very much imbued with the narrative and how our characters interact with the world. While there are no outright parallels with real Asian movements, I feel that the stories that center around being Asian (and the histories that come with it) should be written by Asians. But that is not A: TLA’s focus. It is an exploration of justice, war, and peace. To be completely honest, A:TLA is not an outright Asian show. It does have some elements that make it very Western, like the name pronunciations. Still, it’s wildly important to show Asian kids that their stories can exist on a scope beyond more realistic thinkpieces. Diversity should be found in facets beyond realism, like a fantasy adventure show.
Interestingly, and perhaps one of the reasons why the show seems to resonate with so many Asian-American youths, Avatar is an “Asian-American story”, as Gene Luen Yang of the Avatar comic books commented on the series in a CharacterMedia article: “‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ was quintessentially Asian American in the way it blended Eastern and Western cultures. The same way that we as Asian Americans are a blend of East and West.”
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a masterpiece. I find myself returning to it when I feel overwhelmed or sad, since what the show embodies to me is hope. Hope that a scarred world can someday recover from violence and hate. Hope that, in the face of adversity, the young can rise to triumph oppressive forces in power. Katara’s speech to the Earth Kingdom prisoners sticks out in my mind:
“Some of you may think that the Fire Nation has made you powerless. Yes, they have taken away your ability to bend. But they can't take away your courage. And it is your courage they should truly fear! Because it runs deeper than any mine you've been forced to dig, any ocean that keeps you far from home! It is the strength of your hearts that make you who you are. Hearts that will remain unbroken when all rock and stone has eroded away. The time to fight back is now!”
It is a reminder to remain stalwart, to pursue justice with passion. And even if we are ignored, even if we are knocked down...to continue fighting is the boldest thing one can do.