Sunday, February 13, 2011

old TV -- Avatar

Avatar is a Japanese animated series (the first season of this series was made into the movie The Last Airbender).

[UPDATE: oops. Donald points out in the comments that although the animation is anime-style, it was not made in Japan and I verified that he is correct. I thought that I recalled someone saying during the controversy over the movie that it was made in Japan, but I must be mistaken. Actually, this helps explain Aang's pacifism, which I thought was more characteristic for a US production than an Asian one.]

The premise of Avatar is a world populated by four nations, one for each of the four elements: earth, air, fire, water. In each nation some of the people are benders --people with an innate ability control the element of their nation.

Bending is not just a matter of mental control; it also requires the use of body actions. The interesting thing is that the actions for controlling the elements are not patterned on Western-style hokus-pokus magical incantations, but on Asian martial arts. I fancied that I could see various differences in martial-arts styles. The air and water benders seemed to use the more subtle, flowing Chinese styles with lots of large circular movements for attack and evasion for defense. By contrast the earth and fire benders used the hard, driving Japanese and Korean styles based on straight-line attacks and hard blocking for defense.

Overall, I thought the bending was well-done dramatically, but it was lacking in ... let's call it "strategic value". What I mean by this is that there turned out to be little difference in what the benders could do in a battle. All benders could hurl chunks or sprays of their own stuff at the enemy and block the stuff that the enemy hurled. An air or fire bender could put up a wall of air or fire to deflect a huge rock that an earth bender threw at him. It would have been more interesting if the various elements had more dramatic strengths and weaknesses that had to be taken into account.

But you can only expect so much in a children's TV series. Avatar is really a children's comedy/adventure, but don't let that discourage you from watching it. The characters are very engaging and if the humor gets a bit silly at times, the silliness is usually short-lived and quickly followed by dramatic events to keep the interest of a grownup. Also, the fact that this is really intended for children and has a comedic element means that I didn't mind the childish plot devices like the two or three impossible coincidences per episode that would normally annoy me.

One thing that did annoy me was the main character's enduring faith that he could save the world from a cruel despot without hurting anyone. Such pacifist beliefs may be admirable in people who have some rational theory to back it up --say a belief in an omnipotent God-- but in this character it simply comes across as an arbitrary convention. You can't expect too much philosophy in a children's show but it would be nice to see some attempt at justifying the moral calculation that says, "better millions of people suffer horrors and murder under a brutal dictator than that I should sully my pure hands with any blood."

Fortunately, there was only one pacifist in the show (among major characters at any rate). There are a huge number of great characters and great villains. There is a demon that steals faces, a moon goddess, an evil blood bender, an ancient toothless earth-bending king with the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager, a giant flying bison, and much more. The imagination behind this series is tremendous.

The plot takes you all over the globe, from the Antarctic to the Arctic and from the great Eastern Continent to the Western Continent. The characters include everyone from village nomads to the royalty of the greatest civilizations on the planet. One of the things that I value most in a story is its ability to invoke a sense of wonder and Avatar does a very good job at that.


Donald said...

Avatar was a great show. I will point out that while Avatar was anime style, it was actually Western animation... in the sense that it was written and directed in the US. Most of the actual animation was outsourced to Korea.

Marcel said...

A giant flying bison? Okay, I'm in.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

You didn't fancy the different styles of bending using different martial arts-- you caught it. (Did you notice Toph has her own style, and when she's teaching Aang, she teaches him standard style? That sort of detail won me over fast.)

BTW, anyone with Netflix, it's on there!

If folks saw the live action movie... forget it, wipe it from your mind, the cartoon is good.

I can see how you'd think it was anime, since it even has a beach episode. *grin*

I don't know if you read fan fic, but if you want more in-depth thinking about it (and you don't go all freaky about Zuko being less than satanic) there's a great story in progress called "Embers" that kinda grew out of the author going "wait... that doesn't work....

She does things like give Aang an off-screen tendency to lecture about Sokka's meat obsession.

If you want some humor, check out "Avatar, the abridged series" on youtube. A little juvenile, but funny!

Suburbanbanshee said...

There's a lot of pacifist anime, actually. It's just that there's also a lot of non-pacifist anime.

Also, a lot of pacifist anime involves the protagonist using weapons and violence, though only until the pacifist climax. :) And there's about a zillion where the enemy is conquered by the power of love and trust. And there's Rurouni Kenshin, too. :)

The Seventies and Eighties were the golden age of pacifist anime.

Tor Hershman said...