The Avatar (The Last Airbender) storyline and its legacy

One of my favorite American made cartoons is Avatar: The Last Airbender, which first aired about 9 years ago. It was a bold piece of art that explored many difficult and challenging themes, including war, oppression, loss. In the post below I will roughly summarize the storyline, so if you somehow don’t know the story yet and don’t want it to be spoiled, stop reading and go watch the show first.

The storyline is very roughly based on East Asian geopolitics in the middle of the 20th century. In particular, the storyline is modelled after the fall of Imperial China and the rise of Imperial Japan. The world that the show is based in, the so-called Avatar world, is divided into four nations, based on the four elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth. The Fire Nation is a relatively small but industrially advanced island nation on the ‘west’ side of the world; the Air Nomads were a nomadic people based on four Air Temples scattered across the world (North, East, South, West); the Water Tribes are two distinct tribes, one based in the North Pole and the other in the South Pole; while the Earth Kingdom occupies the main continent in the Avatar world and is by far the largest both geographically and by population. Based on their art and geographic location (for example, the Fire Nation is composed entirely of volcanic islands), it is clear that the Fire Nation represents Imperial Japan. The Earth Kingdom is not-so-subtly a representation of Qing Dynasty China, and the Air Nomads obviously represent Tibet. The Water Tribes seem the outlier and are based on the Inuit People, an indigenous people in Northern Canada; which certainly isn’t Asian.

The story begins in a similar fashion as the era of conflict in 20th century Asia, with  the Fire Nation declaring war on everyone else. Unlike its historical counterpart the first act of war by the Fire Nation is the so-called Air Nomad Genocide, where they wiped out the pacifist Air Nomad faction. This never happened in history (if you accept that Air Nomads are Tibetans and the Fire Nation is Japan), but is obviously an allusion to the Chinese ‘occupation’ of Tibet in 1950 and the subsequent ‘cultural genocide’ that is supposedly happening in Tibet today. Nevertheless, to the average audience member of the show who is a child or a teenager in North America, this is probably too subtle to be detected. What can be said however is that this is a very dark premise. The protagonist of the show, the new Avatar Aang, wakes up in a future where he is the last of his people. He keeps up a remarkably optimistic outlook on life and continues his quest.

Nine years after the Avatar series aired, it still stands tall as a pioneer in many areas. First, it is clear that the creators had a very specific story they wanted to tell. While there were many filler episodes in the original series (and indeed some of the best episodes with the most re-watch value are said fillers), the main storyline was sketched very clearly: there is a definite doomsday event that was foretold all the way back in the first season, and all main events in the show leads up to the final showdown. This is by far not the norm in western media (but is in fact the norm in Asia); where each episode tends to be stand alone, and there is a fairly thin ‘main plot’ that ties a season together. Certainly there is usually never an overarching story that ties the whole series together, since nobody knows whether the show will be renewed for multiple seasons. The fact that Avatar is so clearly crafted as a whole from the beginning and that it didn’t add more seasons after its finale despite its phenomenal critical and commercial success is a testament to a new culture in show crafting.

Second, it tells a very serious story while still remaining a kid’s show. While some children shows try to leave crumbs for adults (such as all the dick jokes in Shrek), they tend to be crass gags that kids usually don’t get. Avatar however tells a very deep and complicated story, involving many complex characters (indeed, no main character can be characterized as one-dimensional; with each character there is a deep desire to learn more about them). It is also consistent with a historical phenomenon: many of history’s greatest achievers made their mark when they were young. It is even said that the greatest discoveries tend to be made by young people, who are unbound by traditional ways of thinking. This makes a show where the fate of the world depends on the actions of a few youngsters all the more believable.

Third, it is a show that seriously challenges conventional societal norms. While in the original show the protagonist is still a male (which is typical), the sequel features a female Avatar. Further, the show deeply explores the many flaws and vulnerabilities of the protagonist Aang, and how he usually relies on his friends to get through his challenges. This deviates from the traditional notion of masculinity where a man ought to be strong and independent. The females in the original series are also strong characters. Katara, the female lead, is definitely not a damsel in distress. In fact, it is likely that she has saved Aang from bad situations than the other way around. Further, what is particularly empowering about this character is that she makes a lot of decisions on her own, even if the group (and in particular the male lead) opposes it. Empowerment really is about the ability to make choices and not have to conform one way or another, so this is a really positive addition.

In the future I intend to write more about the subtle historically inspired events in the Avatar canon.


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