AVATAR: 10 Years Later
By Justin Carter
Ah, doesn’t this take me back.
Anime and I never really got along in my younger days. Sure, there was some episodes of Pokemon and early morning watches of Digimon, but those I’m convinced were required viewing for children of the 90s, otherwise said kids would just stop existing. There was Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh as well, but those were more of my cousin’s thing, and they lost me around the time that pink slime monsters started doing Tae Kwon Do (DBZ) and white haired children sounded like they were imitating their pissed off dad (YGO). Thankfully there was one anime that I did really love and still do to this day, namely Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is going to hit 10 years old over the weekend. So to celebrate this occasion, I took it upon myself to rewatch the whole series. Mostly for nostalgia’s sake, but also because there were some things I had muddled memories about.
Oh sure, I can recite the big plot points like anyone else–Aang’s backstory, Jet, Siege of the North, losing Appa, Fall of Ba Sing Se, Day of Black Sun etc.–but it was just the minor details that escaped me. Most of them were from the first season, which upon a second viewing doesn’t shine the way it did as a child. Don’t get me wrong, if there’s one thing that Avatar was, it was consistent; it wasn’t the type of show that would have six episodes of hot garbage followed by one jewel before going back to garbage. But quite a few episodes aren’t exactly worth going through again, particularly an episode that has our heroes helping two feuding Earth Kingdom tribes. It’s just not good, and there’s no getting around it, and it’s not one of the many episodes that impacts the plot.
Said plot is fairly straightforward fantasy: long ago, the four nations lived in harmony until the Fire Nation decided that world domination was a better plan. The people of the Water Tribes and Earth Kingdoms have gone to war with the Fire Nation, while the Air Nomads have been wiped out for over a century. Katara and Sokka, a pair of Water Tribe kids, find an airbender named Aang trapped in an iceberg and discover he’s the Avatar, the only person in the world who can control all four elements. Hunted by the Fire Lord’s banished son Zuko, the three travel the world to find Aang a master for each element so he can fight Fire Lord Ozai before he can wipe out the world. And what I like about it is that It’s a straightforward story that gains more depth as things progress.
There are a lot of characters to account for when everything is said and done, but the show did a great job of focusing on a core cast whose actions drove the plot. They all start off as archetypes, but gain depth as the show goes on. The best examples of this would have to be Sokka and Zuko. Early on in the series, Sokka is a sexist goofball with some admittedly smart ideas but is very ignorant and skeptical of the mystical side of the world. By the series finale, he’s still a goofball, but he’s also the most creative person on Team Avatar and has learned humility and is more accepting of the spiritual side of the world.
Zuko, meanwhile, starts off with a pretty basic villain template: he wants to capture the Avatar to regain his honor. The show makes him the deuteragonist, sometimes having his stories run parallel to Aang’s. This is evident in “Zuko Alone,” a season two episode that features only Zuko among the primary cast, revealing his messed up family history and his time away from his Uncle Iroh. It’s rare for a cartoon in particular to focus on the villain and flesh them out, even rarer to legitimize their actions and make you feel for them. When Zuko finally does join Team Avatar in the back half of season three, it actually feels well-earned and appropriate for the characters.
Avatar was also essentially the most kid-friendly anime that was actually intended for kids. Other anime had their scenes edited or episodes removed entirely to appeal to younger viewers, because in Japan, anime is either really violent or really sexy in that sort of disturbing way. Which isn’t to say that Avatar was lighthearted–the Fire Lord basically enacted genocide on the Air Nomads, and Zuko and his sister Azula are very much children of emotional and physical abuse. It was really the only cartoon at the time that had an equal range of representation–the Water Tribe were Inuits, Air Nomads were monks, Earth Kingdom was a mix of various dynasties in China, and the Fire Nation draws its influences mostly from Japan.
Also worth noting were disabled characters actually kicking ass and not letting their disabilities keep them from fighting. Second season addition Toph Beifong ends up being one of the most powerful people in the world, creating the metalbending subclass of Earthbenders. The show never made her blindness a cheap joke; while they did poke fun at it now and then, it was more from Toph herself using that for humor. Just for fun, I asked my various friends on Twitter what drew them to Avatar, and their responses were all different:
“It knew exactly when to be funny, serious, badass, impactful, and sad and did it incredibly well every time. Filler didn’t feel like filler & actually had character development. Loved the character dynamic. Funny yet heartbreaking.”–Ryan Johnson
“I loved that they addressed sexism (Sokka’s development arc), had characters with disabilities, POCs, hilarious writing, and they tried really hard to give everyone a fleshed-out history instead of having flat characters. Made a big difference. Also having a wide age range of people who can still kick ass, rather than erasing people who were past “middle-aged.””–Toria Spencer
“The nuance in how they showed the different nations not being nessesarily perfect good guys vs. evil evil bad guys.”–Katie Schenkel
Avatar is very reminiscent of the original Star Wars trilogy in that it’s a very much a story about a young adult discovering something bigger than themselves. One could easily make the comparison between Darth Sidious Order 66’ing the Jedi and Fire Lord Sozin killing the Airbenders. The similarities are definitely there, from the journey of Katara’s waterbending novice to master over three seasons to Zuko being the less whiny Darth Vader to his father’s Darth Sidious (who is, ironically enough, voiced by Mark Hamill). It’d be appropriate to say that this is the anime equivalent to Star Wars for kids born in the 90s, but it sadly hasn’t taken off with the amount of fervor that George Lucas’ sci-fi epic did. Sure, it has a devoted fanbase, a great sequel series in Legend of Korra, and a successful series of graphic novels, but it also has two bad video games. There may have also been a film, but historians are unable to confirm this, as it was lost to the vacuum of time and space forever.
So if there’s any anime that warrants another watch from start to finish, it’d be this one. The first season admittedly isn’t as great as what comes after it, but that complaint could be lodged at any TV show, and usually are. It had everything it needed to succeed–a well told story, fun characters, nice balance between action and humor, good writing–and it knocked it all of the park. Avatar gladly still stands as one of the greatest cartoons of all time, and anyone who disagrees should remember that they dedicated an entire episode to making making fun of themselves, and it was just as great as the rest of the show.