Avatar: The Last Airbender

Genre: Adventure, kids
Origin: American and Korean
Length: 3 seasons
Rating: kid-friendly
Score: Surprisingly good

There’s a long history of anime and other animation being bastardised for American children’s TV: names changed, episodes missed out, important story elements changed, and occasionally even worse. The creators of Avatar set out to create a cartoon for American kids that brought an authentic eastern influence. The Korean animators they worked with had a much greater artistic influence than they usually get, and were able to incorporate elements of oriental philosophy, history, social values and so on in a way that didn’t need to be cut.

The story is of a world where some people can manipulate the four elements: earthbenders shift the rock, waterbenders move water and ice, airbenders control air currents to fly, and firebenders create flame. Each live in their own countries until the Fire Nation starts a war of conquest. The Avatar, the one person who can manipulate all four elements, has a responsibility to stop them; but the latest Avatar is just a little kid. As the name suggests he’s the only survivor of the air nomads that the fire nation wiped out. He travels with a brother and sister from the water tribes, trying to find a way for one person to stop the path of an empire.

Cartoons typically have clearly defined good guys and bad guys, and at first the Fire Nation seem like obvious the bad guys. But as we learn some of the reasons behind the war, get to know members of the Fire Nation’s royal family, and see how war affects people from all nations, we see a nation of ordinary people following the wrong path.

The influence of recent history is visible. The air tribes, monks who lived in the mountains and had no real military, are clearly similar to Tibet – including in the way they were wiped out by an expanding empire. The water tribes seem to be a combination of native peoples like inuit, mongols and polynesians, scattered and completely unprepared to fight a war. The fire and earth nations both combine elements of the Chinese and Japanese empires. The fire nation is a huge, agressive military machine; the earth nation is a complacent, inward-facing empire.

Aang, the current Avatar, is not the typical kid. He’s been shaken by the defeat of his people and by what he sees in the world. He has to move past revenge and he steps up to responsibility well. His duty is not to defeat the bad guys, but to restore balance to the world. The decision he’s faced with at the end is of how to end the war in a way that doesn’t set the stage for the next one. Slightly more interesting and ambiguous is Prince Zukko, exiled son of the Fire Lord, who travels with his uncle, a disgraced general. Initially they are on a mission to capture the Avatar as a trophy to win back Zukko’s place. But as the series goes on Zukko sees the effect of the war and becomes less sure of his path.

What makes the show good is the influence of eastern philosophies. It emphasises balance rather than victory, self-knowledge over worldly success, and thinking about the effect of your actions not just today but for the future. Being made for kids means that the actual violence is sanitised, but it deals with big themes. You generally don’t see people die on screen, but it doesn’t pretend death doesn’t happen, and the effects of violence on both victim and aggressor are explored.