Thursday, December 17, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Series Notes

So, I've pretty much said without saying that Avatar: The Last Airbender is probably going to be right up high in my top ten favorite animated series of all time, along such luminaries as the Batman/Superman/Justice League run (in my eyes, they're one long series, and if you go back and watch it all in one run, you'll understand why), Animaniacs, Gargoyles, and Jem and the Holograms.

...what?  C'mon, that show was insane, even by 1980 cartoon standards.

Do I need to do an episode by episode review?  Because I've been itching to start something else or go back to doing more Marvel Disk Wars.

But there are things that are spread across the entire series that are hard to discuss in a single seasonal review, so I'm taking advantage of this post to highlight some of the things I found really interesting about the production of the show.

(A lot of information is pulled from the Avatar Wiki, so take it with a grain of salt, but anybody obsessive enough to fill out an entire Wiki for a show is either truly obsessed or so focused on their own fan fiction that it's fascinating anyway)

There are some mild spoilers below.

First, let's discuss the fighting.  Each one of the nations has its own distinct "style" when it comes to elemental manipulation.  Each one is based on a real world martial art, and there are recognizable sword fighting styles as well.  The water benders use a smooth, flowing motion when they use their abilities.  It's slower than some of the other moves, but is extremely effective once it starts moving since they're usually able to surround themselves with water to wield.

Technically this is Korra, from the sequel series, but deal with it.  It works.
The moves are based off of Tai Chi Chuan, a martial art style that focuses on defense and internal health.  Considering waterbenders tend to use defensive shields a lot and can use their water in "healing ceremonies" it makes a lot of sense.

Tai Chi flowing movements, as done by Jet Li
Firebending is, naturally, the power used by most of the bad guys of the series, so it's the most destructive and direct.  Looking at it from a tactical standpoint, it doesn't have the same variety of uses as many of the other "bending" paths, but it makes up for it by being one of the most combat effective when it comes to "take your opponent down now."  It's also one of the most physically demanding, since it tends to involve athletic leaps, punches, and kicks in a constant stream of motion.

Again, we have Korra, the Avatar of the sequel series.

Once again, the style is based on a real world martial art, this time coming from Shaolin Kung-Fu.  Physically demanding and aggressive, it also uses a lot of the same movements and fighting maneuvers, something you see more of as you watch the show.

As shown here from "I Have No Idea What Movie This Is."
What's particularly interesting is that they didn't just pick martial arts styles out of a hat and assign them, they actually focused on what each martial art is strong and weak against.  Tai Chi, a defensive martial art, is actually extremely effective against Shaolin Kung-Fu.  However, it's weak against our next example.

Earthbending is the most "solid" (pun intended) of the martial arts.  It's based off of Hung Gar, though Toph tends to use Praying Mantis Chu Gar.  Look, I'd explain the differences, but then I'd have to get into the complete history of this branch of Chinese martial arts.  Both deal with low stances, remaining steady, and in varying degrees lots of solid forearm punches and low kicks.

Toph, bending up a storm and kicking butt.
And here's some Hung Gar, actually shown in comparison with King Bumi doing similar moves himself.

Tai Chi, with its accurate attacks but lack of power, often doesn't do as well against these techniques, and in fact waterbending tends to be weak against earthbending.  Finally, there's airbending.

Airbending is the style we see the least of in the series (for rather obvious reasons), and it's a quick-moving style that involves a lot of circular movements.  It has a lot in common with Tai Chi (and in fact there's probably good reason why Aang is able to learn waterbending so quickly compared to the other styles he tries to pick up).

Aang and a few others, airbending up a storm.  No pun intended.
It's an evasive combat style based on Ba Gua Kung Fu, all about staying out of the way of your opponent's attacks, and it's really effective against Tai Chi but weak against Shaolin Kung Fu.

There's a part of me that always wished I learned some form of martial art, and I have to admit the Ba Gua Kung Fu style looks like it would be extremely interesting to learn.  Either that or Tai Chi.

Okay, enough animated gifs, let's talk some more about some of the show highlights.

I personally love it when show creators like to tease their fans, and few episodes of anything have done it quite as well as one of the last episodes of the third season, "The Ember Island Players.  The entire G'Aang attend a stage production that's meant to be based on their lives and is twisted enough to become Fire Nation propaganda.  Katara is portrayed as an overly emotional girl, Sokka is a clown, and Toph is a huge muscular man who "sees" through sonar by screaming at everything (needless to say, Toph is the only one who thinks the entire show is genius).  The episode rips apart everything people commented on, as to the vagueness of certain character deaths that happened off-screen, whether there's a relationship brewing between Katara and Zuko, and so many other "in-jokes" that people who watched the series will get.

There's also a "characters hang out at the beach" episode, a classic trope from anime, but instead of it being the good guys, we get the bad guys hanging out and trying to be social.  Ty Lee, Mai, Zuko, and Azula all go to their summer home, catch some sun, and absolutely dominate a volleyball tournament.  Nothing, NOTHING is as entertaining as watching sociopath Azula attempt to be "girly' and flirt with a boy at a party.

Zuko's entire character arc from villain to repentant villain to villain again to being a hero is probably one of the best examples of a bad guy changing his ways that I've seen in a long time.  You feel so much for the young man during his journey, and even when he's doing "bad things" you understand why he's doing it, and how, to his own people, he might not be viewed as a villain.  It makes some of the more pivotal scenes later (such as when Zuko finally confronts his father and takes the teachings from his uncle to heart) extremely powerful when you realize what it took Zuko to get to this point.

Speaking of Iroh, there's one episode that gives little spotlight segments for many of the characters, with one focusing on this goofy old man was once a powerful general, and we see how, even years later, he still sings and cries for the son he lost in battle.  It's heartbreaking, and I had tears in my eyes watching it.

As a whole, this series is just absolutely superb.  It has enough detail in it to keep anybody of any age watching it, with plenty of humor for young viewers to keep them smiling but enough fantastic martial arts and combat (and a few sly adult jokes) to keep the parents entertained.

This series will be in my "favorite things" list this year, guaranteed.  I might break it down to just "Azula: Villain Of The Year" or something, but there WILL be a presence from this show in that list.

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