Thursday, August 29, 2013

A look back at Avatar the Last Airbender

With Legend of Korra returning for its second season soon, I figured it was about time that I took a look at the series that started it all and one of my favorite cartoons of all time: Avatar The Last Airbender. Since most people reading this have already likely seen the series (and three seasons is a lot to cover), I'm going to focus more on my initial reactions to it rather than getting into a lot of the plot. I will however cover the plot of the first episode.
From left to right: Sokka, Suki, Toph, Katara, Zuko, and Aang
When I first started watching it, I was in middle school, and didn't quite know what to think of it after seeing the initial trailer. So I decided to check it out one day and oh boy, I had no idea that I was in for such a ride. I had been starting to become a fan of kung fu movies back then but this show basically cemented my love for them. The animation was impressive, fluid, and has a semi-anime look but what really caught my interest were the fight scenes (the animation really shines here) and the fact that each of the bending styles were based on different martial arts. Water was based on Tai Chi, Fire was Northern Xiaolin kung fu, Earth was Hun Gar (or in Toph's case Chu Gar southern praying mantis kung fu), and Air was based on Ba Gua.

Team Avatar:
Aang: The last airbender and the avatar, technically 112 years old. Frozen in a glacier, he is found by Katara and Sokka who help him look for bending masters after the Southern Water Tribe is attacked by Zuko.
Katara: The young waterbender who, along with Sokka, found Aang frozen in the glaciar. Due to being the only waterbender in the South Pole she had to learn alot of stuff on her own.
Sokka: Though not a bender, he has a great head for strategy and eventually becomes a master swordsman. He also carries a lot of the comic relief in the show along with Uncle Iroh.
Toph: A blind earthbender, yet she can see by using her feet to feel sound waves coming from the earth beneath her. Tomboyish, and a great ally to the team. She even invents metalbending.
Zuko: The disgraced prince of the Fire Nation. While at first he wanted nothing more than to capture Aang for the sake of his honor, his Uncle Iroh eventually made him question this path and after a nail-biting soul searching arc for him, he joined the team.
Suki: One of the Kyoshi warriors. Like Sokka, she isn't a bender but she is a master of hand-to-hand combat and is able to hold her own against the likes of Ty Lee and Azula.

Uncle Iroh: Though he is technically a side character, he was almost directly responsible for Zuko resolving his identity crisis. A funny yet sweet old man, he is also a powerful firebender. He even left the Fire Nation to help Zuko with his quest to capture Aang.
That old man is badass
The Villains: Some of the most consistent villains they face are Azula, Ty Lee, and Mai. Though they don't show up until season two.
From left to right: Ty Lee, Mai, and Azula
Azula: The princess of the fire nation and Zuko's sister. After Zuko fails to capture the avatar, the task is given to Azula, which is what intiates Zuko's identity crisis. She is cold and ruthless. Her flames burn blue instead of the usual orange.
Ty Lee: A non-bender who has impressive acrobatic skills and is a childhood friend of Azula. She is able to hold her own with benders and can temporarily render their bending useless and even immobilize them by striking pressure points.
Mai: A childhood friend of Azula. A non-bender. She is an excellent marksman and will usually fight with throwing knives.
Fire Lord Ozai: The head of the Fire Nation and father of Zuko and Azula.

Side characters: Avatar the Last Airbender has an astonishingly detailed world for a kids' show with very memorable characters and even the side characters are great. King Bumi is my personal favorite.
Seriously, who wouldn't love this crazy old man? XD
A lot of the side characters they introduce serve a purpose, and many of them even return to help out during one of the later battles in the final season. Rarely do they waste characters in this show. Even the side characters that you only see twice are memorable. The older characters are especially memorable though that may be due to their fights scenes. Come to think of it, this show had a lot of "badass old man" type of characters in it.
Case in point!
From left to right: Jong Jong, Bumi, Iroh (center), Pakku, and Piandao
The Order of the White Lotus has a lot of "badass old men" type characters. Despite the war raging, the Lotus Society is made up of members from each of the nations seeking a peaceful world.

The beginning: The series begins at the Southern Water Tribe. Two siblings, Katara (a young waterbender and the only one in the south pole) and Sokka are out hunting one day when they stumble upon a boy and his pet sky bison frozen in a giant glacier. This boy is Aang and he is the last of his kind. He is an Airbender and the new avatar (a reincarnated person who can use all 4 elements who has existed throughtout his and acts as a sort of peace keeper between the four nations). Aang's growth as the avatar isn't complete as we learn he only knows airbending. Aang is able to escape the glacier and falls in love with Katara at first sight. Despite being the avatar, Aang acts just like you'd expect to a kid to act. He cares more about having fun.
Not long after Aang is freed from the glacier, the Fire nation tracks him down. Here we're introduced to the disgraced Prince Zuko, who seeks to capture the avatar to restore his honor as well as earn his father's love. They attack the Southern water tribe and take Aang prisoner. Katara and Sokka rush to save him. As the fight ensues, Aang reaches his emotional limit and he triggers the avatar state (a state that temporarily unlocks his full powers as the avatar) and is able to defeat Zuko and they escape on Appa. Realizing that they can't remain in the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and Sokka set off with Aang to help him find masters who will teach him the other 3 elements so he can defeat the Fire Lord and stop the Fire Nation from taking over the world. Thus begins their epic journey.

You really get a great feel for who the characters are and their motivations, they don't seem like the usual one-note characters you get in kids' cartoons. You even get to see Aang grow from a fun-loving little kid to someone worthy of his destiny to save the world and he still shows that he knows when to relax and have some fun. You even learn how avatar state and the cycle of rebirth work as well as how the avatar is tied to the spirit world. The avatar actually has a lot of presence in the world and you get to see how Aang has affected this world in his past lives, both the good and the bad. You also get to see how Sokka grows more and more as a warrior throughout the final season.

The world really has this massive feel and quite a lot of detail to it. The locations, the cities they visit, and even the nations themselves don't feel like just places or destinations they need to go to just for the sake of the story. Everything in the world has its own unique feel to it. Nothing about the villages feels generic.
Even though a lot of it could be considered filler, its enjoyable and it really helps build up the personality this world has. From the four nations to even the smallest villages, I found myself wanting to learn more and more about this world. They even go so far as to explain how the 3 of the four bending styles came into being.

The bending styles themselves have quite a few variations as well, the ones with the most variations are water and earth. You get to see waterbending being used to heal, control the water in other people's bodies, and the show even goes so far as to show a style that is only practiced in the Earth Kingdom swamps (foggy swamp style). Earth's variations are metalbending (something created by Toph), Sandbending which is mostly practiced in the deserts in the Earth Kingdom, and Toph's own style of earthbending. In a great bit of ingenuity, certain bending elements are able to be combined to create substyles of bending like air and water mixing to create cloud bending or water and earth creating mud bending. Fire even has a secondary style: Lightning bending which only the most powerful firebenders can use. There is even one guy who has a style unique to him. Sokka dubbed him "Combustion Man" and he can shoot fire from an eye tattooed on his forehead. I'm not even sure what to call that style.

Foggy swamp style
Sand bending
Blood bending
Toph Metal bending

The series even has a really great character arc for Katara at the northern water tribe and even has her experience culture shock as she realizes that though they came from the same place, the policies of the Northern Tribe are quite different from the Southern Tribe, i.e. women being forbidden to learn to use their bending for battle. That arc has one of my favorite fights: She goes head to head with the Northern Tribe's greatest master, Pakku, and you get to see just how much Katara has learned on her own. Its a shame they left that out of the live action movie.
Overall, the series has an excellently detailed world with very memorable characters with great moments and is astonishingly beautifully drawn with jaw dropping fights. It does an excellent job of mixing the action, the comedy, and the drama. So if you haven't checked it out already, I really recommend it, and I especially recommend it to any kung fu fans out there. This series is one of the best cartoons I've seen to date and I'll be honest, I cried when it ended.

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