So, this article has been sitting in my blogging folder since the live-action series production news was released. I thought a dozen times about publishing it, then my concerns for the fandom were quelled. Except…on Reddit.
Maybe a month ago now, I came across this article written by someone who clearly had never watched the show. Sure, it could have been an assigned topic they were unfamiliar with, but even reading a synopsis on the wiki would give you more information than whatever that article attempted to confer.
Hence, my posting of this article in its original form which has still aged pretty well given the number of updates and news we’ve received.
Before I begin, I would just like to point out that the irony is not lost on this older post. In it, I talked about New York Comic Con’s upcoming revival of their Anime Festival. I pointed out that production staff and even voice actors of the original ATLA series would be in attendance. Yes, this is to promote their new Netflix series, The Dragon Prince, but it also just felt like something was in the air.
After this news initially dropped, I’ve waited about two days for my emotions to settle. The good, the bad and the in-between all resurfaced with this development. Like Natsume Yuujinchou, Avatar: The Last Airbender is just one of my all-time favorite series. They both premiered around the same time frame as well, becoming a part of my collective for years now.
I also gave myself more time to try and find posts that I wanted to use to source some of the things I would like to cover. Sadly, because it has been so long, some of the accounts associated with them have been deleted. I specifically remember reading and learning certain things years ago, but without proof, it’s all null.
Early 2005, ATLA premiered on Nickelodeon. The show aired from February 21st 2005 to July 19th, 2008. It garnered love worldwide and strong fandoms formed on DeviantArt and Tumblr.
Adding to Tumblr’s prominence in the community, co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino joined the site with blogs. Production staff and show consultants like Sifu Kisu also held blogs, but other creatives have unfortunately deleted theirs years later.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the Book 3 ending. This led to numerous comprehensive critiques concerning the show and even chatter speculating if there would be a Book 4.
Around this time gossip and leaked information from the writer’s room was rife. I am still in the process of confirming elements and tidbits that proved true to the outcome of the show’s story.
The Actual Story
ATLA was special because it depicted the horrors of war and colonialism. After discovering his destiny as The Avatar, Aang ran away as any twelve year old would do. While fleeing, the boy got caught in a storm and was encased in an iceberg. Fire Lord Sozin decided to expand the Nation’s reach and unfortunately, Aang had awoken with the realization that his people were gone.
Aang wakes up to a new world one century over with a brother and sister duo at his helm. Katara and Sokka are from the Southern Water Tribe, a small settlement in the South Pole that has been decimated by the Fire Nation. The Northern Water Tribe bolsters greater numbers and is more fortified. We visit this settlement later on in the series.
Katara is the last waterbender amongst her people, the rest kidnapped by the Fire Nation. There is also a looming secret surrounding her mother which I will not spoil here.
Her brother Sokka was a misogynistic jerk in earlier seasons and seemed to overcompensate for his lack of bending out of jealousy. Sokka also felt inadequate concerning his masculinity, since he was too young to participate in his culture’s rite of passage before the departure of his father and the other warriors of his tribe.
During the course of the series, Sokka grows more confident in his abilities. He even learns from a master and creates a nifty space sword from a fallen meteor! Sokka meets Suki during the gaang’s travels, the leader of a fierce group of women called the Kiyoshi Warriors. Suki has to knock Sokka on his ass a few times which in turn knocks some sense into him.
The gaang meets the blind bandit, Toph. She learned bending from badger moles who were blind just like her, sensing the vibrations in the earth to “see”. Later in the series Toph even invents a new form of bending!
Then there is honorable Prince Zuko, Princess Azula, and their Uncle Iroh. I won’t go into too much detail here, but Zuko is my favorite character from the series and he had the greatest redemption arc of all time. OF ALL TIME.
Not to mention all of the colorful characters the gaang meets – from fan clubs to bands of misfits in the woods to entering a literal police state that captured and brainwashed dissidents. And that’s not even factoring in the spirit world shenanigans!
Asian Coding and Canon in Avatar: The Last Airbender
I don’t use Twitter much, but I happened to come across the ATLA live-action adaptation news there and Reddit simultaneously.
For some reason, many people didn’t see the problem with the racebending that went on in the film that shall not be named. I see this argument in the anime community a lot. It’s not related, but I just want to put it out there as I associate the two in my mind.
In anime, if a character has a Japanese first and last name they are interpreted as Japanese, despite their “western” features. If the character has blonde hair, blue eyes, a foreign first name or a Japanese last name, they are usually haafu.
If they are a full-on gaijin best believe the anime will mention they are from England, Germany, Scandinavia, etc. at least five times each episode to hammer it home. Also, the ‘foreigner’ or gaijin will usually have terrible Japanese.
This argument also comes up a lot in the cosplay community. There is always someone offended at actual Japanese cosplaying anime characters believed to be ‘white’ based on appearance. It is always the same tired argument despite what year it is.
Just one more important point before I move on:
Avatar: The Last Airbender is NOT an anime.
There have been westerners making shows in the aesthetic as an anime in recent years, but for the most part anime are Japanese animations. ATLA is an American animated cartoon.
Not all cartoons are meant for children, despite a rather disturbing popular consensus. Animation is simply another medium of storytelling that can be aimed at any age group and/or demographic. It gives freedoms that traditional film, digital cinema, rotoscoping and CGI simply could not exhibit.
You wouldn’t put Dora the Explorer in the same category as The Legend of Korra now, would you? I mean if you would, it’d be pretty weird…please don’t.
Okay better example: The Simpsons, Futurama, even Disenchantment on Netflix. Shows with the same key production folks loosely involved. Clearly targeted at adults, but maybe because they are on different networks that association is not as strong as the ATLA/LOK series.
My pet peeves aside, to explain why the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender are not ‘white ‘ but rather Asian-coded, we have to examine which cultures they are based on.
The show uses various schools of martial arts that make up the bending on the show. The showrunners would literally consult masters like Sifu Kisu for the best practices. There are Chinese characters written throughout the series. The show’s opening credits, along with “The Tales of Ba Sing Se” and “The Cave of Two Lovers” episodes for their heavy usage of Mandarin characters also immediately come to mind. Even Zuko’s Blue Spirit wanted poster had Chinese characters.
Imperial Japan is said to be the inspiration for the Fire Nation. China is generally the Earth Kingdom. Inuit tribes and culture are the Water Tribe, and Tibetan Monks are the Air Nation Nomads. Some characters even bear names inspired by their cultures and this carries over to the next series (i.e. Tenzin, Asami Sato, Mai, etc.).
This is off topic, but I can’t help but laugh every time I think of Asami Sato or Toph Beifong. There used to be this joke that they were the only characters rich enough to afford last names.
Unanswered Questions and Plot Points
From start to finish minor and major controversies surrounding the show. None sent fans into a fever pitch like these six words:
What happened to Zuko’s mother, Ursa?
A plotline that was never fulfilled in the main series, DiMartino wrote a post on his website about Nickelodeon not being interested “in doing animated TV movies”. The creators pitched a movie surrounding “the search” for Zuko’s Mother, which later became a Dark Horse three part graphic novel. The 2013 post seems to have a broken link, but can be found in the archives of his website.
Given the history, I am excited but can’t help but feel a bit weary. I will be covering news concerning the shows development and full reviews when it does premiere, which I’m estimating could be late 2021 or even 2023 at the latest, as they are in the “very early” stages of development.
I have cut a good portion of this article out as I need to research a few more leads first. When I have enough information, I will go further into some of the “unsolved mysteries” and urban legends in the fandom.
I know many people may not like this article, but it just had to be done for the fandom. I just didn’t like seeing long-term fans such as myself getting completely massacred by those who don’t know even a fraction of the full story of what went on while these series aired. I don’t claim to have all the answers, only the production crew and those involved would know the full story. But these are things I have known for years and like many fans, can’t seem to forget.
Have you been a fan of the series since the beginning? Do you read the graphic novels? Did I miss something that you would like to be added in the next post?