I had a date with a nice lady whose only experience of anime was Avatar: The Last Airbender. “I wonder what you think of it?” she said.
Well, we weren’t seeing each other any longer by the time I got to it. C’est la vie. But I DID get to it, and I’ll tell you, there are a lot to like here.
But damn, there was something jarring about it. It just seemed off for some reason. I’d watched hundreds of hours of anime and as I was watching I was thinking, “This is a good series but there’s something disconcerting going on here.”
Bizarrely, for a story created and written by Americans for Americans, ATLA (If I just say Avatar people will think I’m talking about a James Cameron movie not named Alita Battle Angel, and we can’t have that!) is explicitly Asian in design. Aang and his friends LOOK Asian in ways that, say, Haruhi Suzumiya doesn’t (when she’s not in her school uniform, at least).
Ever notice that the supposedly good-looking kids in anime look very generic and round-eyed? In a lot of shows looking distinctly Asian is associated with being unattractive. Toradora, right?
Plus the themes in ATLA are deliberately lifted from Chinese myth and mythos. I’m not saying that’s wrong, and in fact that’s something I like: I like to learn about other cultures. I’m sure there are people who regard it as cultural appropriation, but it didn’t feel or read that way for me.
You know what bugged me? The characters. They were tropes, and not only were they tropes, they were AMERICAN TV tropes.
Sure. Right? Nothin’ up my sleeves … watch my lips:
First, you’ve got The Kid With The Powerz. Someone who looks like an ordinary child/teenager but is actually much more than they seem.
In the US we call this kid Kim Possible or Ben 10 or … could I go on or could I go on? Oh, heck, remember Kirk Russell when he was a child actor in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes? (Yes, I am REALLY overage!)
Number two: The Brainy Sidekick
In the US the Brainy Sidekick is of the gender opposite the Kid With The Powerz, so that you have Positive Role Models On TV (TM) for all the kiddies. Sure enough, we’ve got Aang and we’ve got Katara. He got the powerz so she got the brainz. (I mean, she has powers, too, but they are pupil/master; she’s training him because he’s going to be better than her … and he is.)
Number three: Dumb Big Brother
Sokka. Now that everyone’s got a positive role model, we can toss in some comic relief. Since the target audience is younger, we can make fun of the older kid.
What that also does is form them into a stable Mind (Katara), Body (Sokka), Soul (Aang) trio, with all the good narrative things that combination does. Briefly, because they have all the bases covered between them they can overcome all their challenges, but because their strengths are different there is a certain amount of conflict in the story.
Also, since they are American TV tropes, we can see Mind and Soul prevailing more frequently than Body. Got to condition those kids not to engage in physical bullying. American TV.
Number four: Bratty Little Sister
It’s not fair to make the little sister dumb, because she’s LITTLE, right? And she’s not beating people up because she’s LITTLE, right? So she’s got to be a brat. I mean, after all, aren’t all little brothers and sisters brats?
Number five: Crazy Uncle
Can’t be a parent, because a parent is supposed to have some kind of direct control over the kids. There are a WHOLE BUNCH of anime that would make no sense if there was a functioning adult in any of the households. Can you even imagine Haruhi Suzumiya’s PARENTS??
But a Crazy Uncle is different. Because he’s an uncle rather than a parent, he cannot exert direct control, but because he’s an older generation he can provide wise advice. See it? He can lead them to water but he can’t make them drink.
And because he’s crazy a) we have another comic sidekick and b) you never know whether the advice is any good, leading to more tension.
Lemme see, any others? Oh, yeah…
Number six: The Reluctant Villain
Villains who are just villains are simple. They are bad because they are just drawn that way. (Apologies to Jessica Rabbit: “I’m not bad, Mister Valiant. I’m just drawn that way.”)
But the Reluctant Villain can be interesting because their reluctance is their flaw. Will they thwart the hero? There’s only so many times the hero can whup the villain before that gets boring. Even Pokemon had to run out bad guys tougher than Jesse and James! But if the villain is reluctant, there is another source of potential failure and also a source of creative tension. Not just “will he or won’t he win” but also “should he or shouldn’t he win.”
Also, the Reluctant Hero gets to change sides. Sometimes. Just sayin’. Although not in ATLA … oh, wait …
You know where we saw a lot of these stuff? Did you watch the old Jackie Chan Adventures? There was no Brainy Sidekick there (they probably couldn’t, since the BS would have to be female and Jackie’s girlfriend, so that wouldn’t work), so that role got rolled into the Crazy Uncle. But Jackie had the Powerz, Uncle was Crazy Uncle/Brainy Sidekick, Jade was Bratty Little Sister, and Tohru was both Reluctant Villain (season one) and Dumb Older Brother (season two). Different shows, same character tropes. Because US TV viewers expect those tropes.
Avatar: The Last Airbender was a good story with a lot going for it. I especially liked Aang’s development as a person (not just an Airbender); that was nicely handled. Aang may be a trope, but he’s a well-written trope. And I liked the way they allowed Aang and Katara to have real feelings for one another that blossomed into a genuine romance without the interference of a gaggle of leering friends. That was nicely handled, too.
But if you’re used to anime the whole series is just a little off. It’s supposed to be a Japanese medium, it’s supposed to be a Chinese story, but the characters are American TV tropes.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.