During Avatar: The Last Airbender’s original syndication from 2005-2008, I was pretty much in the dark about the Nickelodeon cartoon. For one, I pretty much didn’t watch t.v. during college—save for the internet feed and the shows I was a die hard fan of—and when I finally did hear about Avatar, I immediately brushed it off as a lame attempt at trying to adopt an anime flavor. Most importantly, knowing that it was an American production about an Asian-centric fantasy world, I wasn’t exactly feaning’ to know more about it; the alarm that went off in my head was similar to, “Well, there goes Disney effing up another culture, yet again…” Fail. Having finally seen the show, however, I can safely say it’s totally shut my trap: the cartoon is good—scratch that, it’s amazing—and I only wish it was around when I was growing up.
Avatar starts with the discovery of Ang, a legendary savior who was frozen in ice more than a hundred years ago. In a world where humans fall into one of four different tribes—each representing an element: water, air, earth, fire—Ang, the avatar, is the only being capable of wielding all four elements, and he’s especially important as he’s the only person who can fight the Fire Nation (accurately depicted on banners with the Chinese character for fire: 火), which has enslaved all of the tribes. The first season traces Ang & co.’s adventures throughout the world, which has an RPG-like style of plot development: there are episodes dedicated to off-missions, whether they’re for fun, character development or getting to know a new town/group of people, but there is still a very clear sense that the characters are following an important trajectory. This central mission obviously stretches all the way to the end of the third and final season, so like some of the best RPG storylines out there, this leaves a lot of room for smart plot and character developments.
Upon first glance, the most striking thing about Avatar is the animation itself. In this day and age, most American cartoons are completely digitized, which often lends a flat, overtly glossy and overall cheap appearance. Avatar takes the best cues from anime. I’m not exactly sure how much of it is digital—if at all—but the series looks like old school, hand drawn cell animation, complete with lushly painted backgrounds. The creators went all out with the production: art, music, voice acting; it’s all top-notch. You could’ve told me this was an English-dubbed version of an anime, and I would’ve believed it. In fact, that’s pretty much how I’ve felt throughout all of season one.
But that brings up one thing I absolutely hate about anime: dubs. Because Avatar is clearly set in an Asian-centric world with English-speaking characters, there’s the very likely possibility that the show ends up feeling exactly like a dubbed version of an original. For me—president of the subtitle club—I absolutely cannot stand watching any work of film or television in a language besides the original. Like many other people who share the same opinion, the problem is feeling as if there is a blatant lack of authenticity. What is so remarkable about Avatar is exactly that: it completely immerses Western audiences in an Asian-centric world, and it’s handled with respect and accuracy. When it comes to names, towns, depicted traditions and etc., Avatar borrows heavily from Asian lexicons, many of which are Tibetan, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and Japanese.
For example, episode seven depicts a spirit creature—who actually looks a lot like Kaonashi the begging spirit from Spirited Away—called “Hei Bai” (黑白), which means “Black and White” in Mandarin. The characters only refer to it as “Hei Bei,” which is pronounced accurately by the voice actors; they could’ve called it “The Black and White Spirit” and lazily left it at that. Similarly, my favorite episode (eleven) features a wonderfully amusing depiction of the age-old prejudices between the Northern Chinese effete and Southern Chinese bumpkins. The north-south fist-shaking trope isn’t what makes this episode special—this is not unfamiliar to the history of other cultures, as well; it’s the fact that the writers have chosen to confront issues of discrimination through the scope of Chinese culture. Whatever and however they went about writing it, it’s well-researched/well-versed. Moreover, this episode really gives light to what makes Ang so powerful: true, his purpose is to defeat an enemy, but his real strength lies in bringing humans—whatever their prejudices are—together.
Along with sharp writing, rich characters and a unique and lively world-scape, Avatar promotes a healthy image of Asians and Asian cultures in general. It effortlessly shows the American audience (as well as many other audiences abroad) that yes, these Asian characters are perfectly capable of speaking English (without feigned and/or stereotypical accents), and no, it’s not weird, strange or foreign. At the end of the day, Avatar is an intricate and well-written tale, which easily joins the ranks of other kid-favorite fantasy tales that feature other cultures. Its success in mainstream America, as evidenced through its stellar ratings and trunk load of awards and accolades, speaks for itself.
While season one is great in and of itself, it’s really only the tip of the iceberg. Now, with firmly established characters and a fully rendered fantasy world, season two kicks it up a good number of notches, in terms of further unraveling the suspense and mystery behind Ang’s past, present, future and destiny, as well as those of his friends. Stay tuned for reviews of seasons two and three, as well a commentary on the upcoming film adaptation of Avatar, particularly the controversy surrounding casting.
No reactions to display.