Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
Anime has provided audiences with a glimpse of Japanese life by exposing them to its culture and insights regarding family life, religion, spirituality, and morality (McKevitt, 2010); but rather the presentation of culture solely existing in behavioral cues and beliefs, it is also inherent in anime’s style of art and storytelling. The anime-inspired cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender, falls under this spectrum in both its characters and unique premise:
An adventurous quest set in an expansive world that draws on an oriental setting, and mythology and storytelling where humans, animals and mystic powers mingle. This show follows the adventures of teenage Aang and his friends who must defeat evil with their special powers, enabling them to bend and manipulate nature’s elements [earth, fire, water, and air] (Daliot-Bul, 2014, p. 85).
The creators of the series, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, have stated that a combination of their love for Japanese anime, martial arts, yoga, and Eastern philosophies led to the manifestation of the series (Daliot-Bul, 2014; Navarro, 2016). It also features high-budget and hand-drawn animation sequences that are commonly defined within anime production. Realistic depictions of the character’s motions are showcased, especially in the fluidity of the various martial arts styles presented throughout (Otmazgin, 2013). Anime film director Hayao Miyazaki was a huge inspiration to the creators as well, as his films Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away heavily impacted their love for animated storytelling; as well as their decision to tell a story that tactfully combines elements of action, adventure, and magic (Navarro, 2016).
Unlike traditional American cartoons that typically consist of formulaic and self-contained episodes, Avatar: The Last Airbender focuses on story development, which is enormously common in Japanese anime (Daliot-Bul, 2013). The series was conceived along a predefined plot, meaning it was implemented based on one large story arch that each episode feeds into (Navarro, 2016). The entire goal of defeating main antagonist and dictator Firelord Ozai, is established during the very first episode, and each of the three seasons directly tie into Aang training to his full potential in order to achieve this task (DiMartino & Konietzko, 2005). Within anime, deep and compelling plots often comprise of both character development and emotional appeal (Mckevitt 2010). As an anime-inspired cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender is no exception as it uses character growth as a pivotal element of its storytelling (Navarro, 2016). The preliminary antagonist introduced in season one, Zuko, stands out immensely in this front. In being cruelly banished from his birthplace by his own father, who also happens to be the Firelord, Zuko can only regain his honour upon finding and capturing Avatar Aang. As a result, Zuko is consumed by his obsession to capture and defeat the Avatar. Throughout the series, elements of his backstory are revealed, giving the seemingly two-dimensional character a dynamic personality. Zuko’s abandonment issues materialize through his internal battle between good versus evil. He fights both halves of himself and switches sides multiple times throughout the process; eventually settling on joining Aang on his quest, and training him in controlling the element of fire (DiMartino & Konietzko, 2005).
Protagonists within anime, and anime-inspired cartoons, often have vices making them more real and three-dimensional (Chambers, 2012). Aang, being a naïve kid at first, undergoes various ordeals that induce his maturity throughout the series’ three seasons. In training to defeat Firelord Ozai who has terrorized the world’s nations, Aang begins to struggle with the thought of ending the dictator’s life (DiMartino & Konietzko, 2005). In anime, death is often seen as an extension of life; characters are often killed off, sometimes mercilessly (Chambers, 2012). In this sense, discussing struggles related to death is very common, yet heavily avoided in American cartoons. In addition to openly discussing the thought of death, Avatar: The Last Airbender also features the emotional demise of a handful of side characters (DiMartino & Konietzko, 2005). In Japan, animated works are not stigmatized as “children’s programming” as they are in North America (Chambers, 2012). Instead, they are typically complex and engaging, being capable of appealing to older demographics (Chambers, 2012). Even light-hearted and child-targeted anime typically carry sophisticated philosophical themes that even adults can relate to (Mckevitt 2010). In being heavily inspired by Japanese stories and aesthetics, Avatar: The Last Airbender falls under a similar category as anime in its themes of war, violence, abandonment, inner turmoil, and death.