Feature photo courtesy of @avatarthelastairbender
Since its recent release on Netflix, this 15-year-old show has resurged in popularity.
When Avatar: The Last Airbender was released on Netflix on May 15, my friends immediately clamored to binge-watch all three seasons. In group chats, they would rave about the show: “It’s so good,” “It’s AMAZING,” “You HAVE to watch it.” I scoffed, feeling that a show that originated on Nickelodeon would be too childish for me to appreciate. But when one of my friends texted me, “I’m going to defriend you if you don’t watch Avatar,” I knew it was time I gave the series a chance. Watching it, I felt a strange sadness that I was missing out on its nostalgic qualities, since the show hadn’t been a part of my childhood, but I am nonetheless elated to have welcomed Avatar into my adulthood.
Originally released in 2005, Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated fantasy series, set in a world divided into four nations based on the four natural elements: Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. The show is set around the idea that only one being, the Avatar, can bring true peace to this world, since it is the only one who knows how to use, or bend, all four elements. There is only one Avatar every hundred years; however, the latest Avatar, named Aang, had been trapped inside a glacier for over a hundred years -- allowing the Fire nation to wage a war and gain power over the other elements and rule the world. In the first episode, Aang is released from his entrapment; the show proceeds to document his attempt, alongside a few other friends, to save the world from the Fire nation’s domination and restore peace.
Immediately, my initial hesitations were disproven: Avatar may be targeted towards younger audiences, and feature young main characters, but the themes and messages displayed are resoundingly mature and important for all ages. As exemplified through the basic premise of the show, Avatar is dedicated to peace and unity. Aang, the main protagonist, is a monk who is philanthropic and selfless -- extending his compassion to the Fire nation people, who are supposedly the “enemy.” Through Aang and his team, including characters Katara, Sokka, and Toph, it becomes clear that the show is not about winning and has even transcendede simple binary of good versus evil: it is instead about understanding how we can see and celebrate our intertwined relationship as people of the same shared world.
While Aang is the Avatar, the one who is destined to save the world from division, he is still incredibly flawed and a dynamic character -- qualities that many children’s shows fail to capture when depicting lionized heroes. . At times, Aang has trouble containing his emotions, such as anger, and often falls into the traps of love and power -- letting temptations get into the way of his mission. Thus, Aang is constantly offered the invaluable opportunity of growth. There are many older, wiser characters in the show in parallel to the children protagonists, mentoring them and teaching them important lessons. One of Aang’s mentors, Guru Pathik, tells him, “we are all one people, but we live as if we’re divided,” emphasizing that “all elements are one, four parts of a whole.” The show's core emphasis on growth, particularly through developed empathy for different people, is a timeless and ageless message that especially resonates with today’s culture and issues.
Avatar is also one of the best and only shows I’ve ever seen with such diverse and comprehensive Asian representation. Watching the show, I was taken aback by how many Asian cultural references were being showcased. Many of the values in Avatar are authentically Eastern, such as the idea of balance, and the concept of chi or qi -- referring to the energy that flows throughout the human body. There are many spiritual characters based on Eastern culture, such as Hei Bei, meaning “black and white” in Chinese, which in the show, is the spirit of the forest based on a panda. This spirit is haunted by the destruction of nature, helping personify our surroundings as a symbolic reminder that we need to treat it with care. There is even a segment in one of the episodes that explains what the seven chakras are -- emphasizing the importance of Eastern spirituality in understanding and establishing peace.
In addition to the Eastern values, the characters represent diverse Asian cultures. The Water Tribe, which is located in Arctic regions, was inspired by indigenous Inuit, Yupik, and Sirenik Eskimo cultures. The Fire nation was modeled after Imperial Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures; a lot of visual motifs and architecture were also inspired by Southeastern Asian cultures. The Air nomads are based on Tibetan cultures, Shaolin Monks, and Sri Lankan Buddhism. The Earth Kingdom is primarily based on Chinese culture, with its capital, Bang Sing Se, modeled after ancient Beijing and the Qing Dynasty. Too often in Western media, Asian cultures are blended into one monoethnic group, taking on primarily Sino characteristics -- in Avatar, however, it is made abundantly clear that there are various indigeneous, Eastern, and Southern Asian ethnicities and cultures, to which careful homage is paid.
Set against cascading waterfalls, hazy mountain ranges, and cities of golden, curved rooftops, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a breathtaking celebration of Eastern cultures, values, and history. Despite being - or perhaps, precisely because they are younger, the main characters are uniquely hilarious, courageous, and powerful. Avatar is a much-needed symbolic narrative of our real life civilization, allowing topics such as war and difference to be more easily digested -- striping away unnecessary complexities to remind us of our most important values: peace and harmony.