A Profound Animation: Avatar: The Last Airbender Almost a Decade Later
It’s been almost a decade since the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon. Truth be told when the animation series first aired, though I had been a big fan of Japanese anime when I was younger (Still watching One Piece, which will likely run my entire life), I I didn’t find myself particularly interested and maintained that dismissive attitude towards the series.
Because if you honestly asked yourself “how profound can an animation on Nickelodeon possible be,” the chances are more likely than not that your initial answer would be, not very. And I know this because I held onto the same thought persistently for eight years, until just last month by coincidence. I asked a few close friends if they had any good shows to recommend, and coincidence, a chorus grew that maybe I should check out Avatar, because the series might be a bit deeper and more philosophical than I’d been giving it credit for. But, as per usual, I steadfastly refused, guided by the deluded belief that my highbrow sensibilities and totally objectively correct and pretentious opinion of what constitutes art could in no way be incorrect. Until a Friday night came along where I was browsing through the surprisingly random Amazon Prime film and television archive when I stumbled upon all three season available to stream. So I began the first episode. That was last month.
After I binged watched the series the first time around, I couldn’t entirely decide whether I had loved or liked what I had just seen. So, instead of jumping to a keyboard and this platform to give a quick hot take, I went about a rather unprecedented route. I decided that, given I couldn’t quite articulate how I felt aboutAvatar upon the first viewing, I should maybe try re-watching it, and then go about making a more decision on how I feel.
This week I just finished watching the entire sixty episode series for a second time.
Now, this is a strange argument for me to make, especially since as late as last month I was still dismissing Avatar: The Last Airbender as some dumb children’s show. But, as the credits rolled on the series finale for a second time, I couldn’t help but think that I might have just watched one of the greatest animated series of all time.
Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, Avatar: The Last Airbender takes place in a fantasy world is divided into four nations each corresponding to one of four elements: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water. Each of these nation’s possess the unique ability to “bend” or “control” the elements associated with their nation and cultures. The preface of the series introduces to us to a century prior to the beginning of the show, where a world that lives in harmony is suddenly thrown into turmoil when the leader of the Fire Nation launches a surprise invasion of the other nations. Once the attack begins, the only thing that can save the world and restore balance is an individual, one is who born each generation with the ability to manipulate all four elements. Known as The Avatar, he is the most powerful bender in the entire world and serves as a sort of planetary guardian who is meant to maintain the balance between the spirit and material worlds.
In this story, the protagonist and Avatar is a young twelve year old boy named Aang. However, just when he is needed the most, he disappears. And one hundred years later he’s discovered by two siblings from the Water nation, Sokka and Katara, who find him trapped in an iceberg near the South Pole. Together, the three must help young Aang lear the four elements and confront the leader of the Fire Nation in order to restore balance to the world. As Aang sets off to master the remaining elements, he finds himself by Zuko, the crown prince of the Fire Nation who was banished from the kingdom by his father and can only return if he captures the Avatar. While the focus of the series is about Aang’s journey, it is Zuko who actually becomes the most complex character in the series. His introduction to the show comes in the form of a simple cookie-cutter villain, he undergoes one of the most dramatic transformations of the show, and as the pieces of his pastare slowly revealed, what emerges is the portrait of a tortured young man torn between two contradicting personalities, one driven by anger and a drive restore his honor and vindicate himself in the eyes of his unloving father, and the other, a naturally peaceful young man trying to maintain his humanity. This kinder tendency of his is represented by Zuko’s companion on his question, the character Iroh, who serves as mentor and guardian for much of the series. Iroh is a fat, jolly, and rather silly old man, who’s humble and disarming appearance hides his wisdom and strength. He also happens to be a fan of tea.
Avatar: The Last Airbender consists of three seasons, each of which has twenty episodes. The basis for the symmetry is that each season corresponds to the seasonal time, location, and element that Aang has to master -water, earth, and fire, before his final confrontation with the Fire Lord. It’s this sort of beautiful attention to detail that really makes the series such a wonder. The philosophical underpinnings of the show come directly from Buddhism, Taoism, and Shintoism, and for the American creators of the show, this kind of reverence for Eastern civilization is a treat to watch and imbues in the show an utterly genuine tone and makes for a setting that is both fantastical and philosophical.The influence of Eastern culture and philosophy is evident, but it is the way the creators so reverently execute that deserves all the praise in the world. Not to be outdone in simply being inspired by these traditions, each method of elemental bending is represented by a real martial art, meaning that the manipulating of each element, from the hurling of boulders, to shooting fireballs, to gusts of air or water, are unique in their animated movements.
In addition, the compact nature of the story’s arc makes for a truly compelling watch. compact nature of the story’s arc. Once the story is set into motion, and it is made quite clear in the beginning of the series what direction the narrative will take, all that is left for the audience is to enjoy the way in which it unfolds. The show is a surprisingly mature and nuanced view on contemplation and suffering for the decisions he’s made. to work through his anger, hurt, and self-delusion. Throughout the series, Aang learns the values of temperament, courage, sacrifice, forgiveness, and strength of will. It is these application of these that make him into the avatar.
Now, there is going to be many an adult won’t be particularly interested in seeingAvatar because in their opinion it’s a bit too childish for them. Having so long been against the show, I empathize with the mindset. Even now, I felt a little embarrassed to be telling the same friends who recommended the show to me and whom I mocked for the suggestion, that I wanted to write a few words on it. But, it was one of the few animations that engaged me visually and mentally simultaneously, both entertained me and left me asking questions of myself. And that’s what a great show does. And though shows like this are more often than not live-action, unlike Avatar: The Last Airbender they rarely strike upon the balance found and maintained so effortlessly. Even as the show dips into childish tendencies, it is always rooted in a deeply philosophical and intricate story that is moving as it is impressive, and tests the nature of morality until its final episode.