Warning: This post is a total geek out over a fictional universe and a TV show whose demographic was 6 to 11 year-olds. I’m in my thirties, and I’ve just found a new obsession.
Now that you’ve received your caveat, let me continue.
I’m about five or six years behind on this one, but I recently discovered Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s been a long time since I have been whisked away to such a wonderful fictional fantasy world and met such great characters.
The first I ever heard of the show was right after the series finale aired, and a woman at my work center was raving about it. She told me that it was a great show, and she was really excited about the way the series ended. I looked into it, but seeing that it was a Nickelodeon show and that the target audience was children, I dismissed it.
A few years later when the M. Night Shyamalan live action film version of the story came to theaters, I decided to give it a try, and I remember thinking that it was an interesting idea, but the execution was awful. A few friends who were fans of the show assured me that they were bitterly disappointed, and the original animated series was much better.
Recently I had an evening where I felt like watching anime. Avatar: The Last Airbender is not exactly anime, but it kept popping up in my search results, so I decided to give it a try. No exaggeration here, that decision changed my life.
The premise of the show is that there is a world controlled by the classical elements of water, earth, fire, and air. Each element has a culture, and some of the people from each culture are able to “bend” or do martial arts katas to magically control their particular element. One person in the world, the Avatar, is able to control all four elements. When the Avatar dies, he or she is reincarnated as the next Avatar. The show follows the adventures of the Avatar Aang, who is the last surviving airbender, as he tries to stop the war that the Fire Nation is waging on the rest of the world.
The world itself is no less brilliantly made than Middle Earth, Earthsea, or any other fantasy world I’ve been drawn into. It is inspired by Eastern themes combining Japanese anime with Hong Kong martial arts. Chinese characters and calligraphy appear throughout the series, and the characters’ clothes and hairstyles look like something out of a martial arts epic. The cultures of the Avatar world derive from Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and even Inuit and South American native cultures.
Another interesting part of the world are the animals. Most of them are an alien combination or modification of familiar animals. For example, Aang has a pet flying bison, which is a big, six-legged, furry white beast with bison horns, which, true to the name, can fly. Other animal combinations include turtle ducks, buzzard wasps, cat gators, and plenty of others.
The best thing about Avatar: The Last Airbender, in my opinion, is the characters. The main cast is made up of teenage characters who have all the same problems of real world teenagers, struggling to find their identities and grow up, all while trying to save the world from tyranny and oppression at the hands of the Fire Nation. All of the characters have distinctive personalities, strong motivations, and realistic internal struggles. My favorite character was Iroh, the eccentric elderly uncle of Prince Zuko. The old man was funny, but wise, and in many ways reminded me of my Opa.
I often found myself laughing at the silly antics and bad jokes of the characters, particularly Toph and Sokka, but the best thing about the experience of watching the series was seeing the personal growth of each character. The main cast of characters all began as children looking to prove themselves or overcome events from their pasts. Every single one of them is a realistically damaged person, and even the heroes have their moments of darkness where they slip up or struggle to do the right thing. While they all keep their distinctive personality traits, they also grow up and become more powerful as they find their places in the world.
I just finished watching the series finale last night, and I was blown away. I completely understand why my friend was raving about it after it first aired, because it was climactic, dramatic, and ultimately satisfying. Still, now that I’ve seen the end, I have the empty feeling that I get when I’m not yet ready to remove myself from a fictional world, and I’ve been trying to find a way back in. The series has a few followup graphic novels, and I just found out that a second series called The Legend of Korra is set several years after the death of Aang and follows the new Avatar.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out Avatar: The Last Airbender, I highly recommend it for adults and children alike. This was a great series!