Oh, So Tropical: Avatar: The Last Airbender

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.

From left: Katara, Aang, Sokka. Mind, soul, body.

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 …

Four: Toph
Five: Iroh
Six: Zuko

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.

7 thoughts on “Oh, So Tropical: Avatar: The Last Airbender

  1. I first watched ATLA when it came out as a teen, and it’s been one of my favorite “anime” series to this day. There are definitely some cartoony tropes in there, but it is meant to be a kid’s show. But they still deal with heavy issues like war, racism and living with a disability in a way that kids can understand. It doesn’t talk down to it’s audience the way a lot of American kids shows do.

    Toph is best girl

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I liked it. I watched it three times with my grandkids. Your analysis seems fair. American cartoon, with American tropes, with a veneer of Chinese culture. An analog would be Kung Fu with David Carradine, where they reworked a std American TV Western, with kicking and flipping. ATLA was the more authentic, of the two, probably because American culture has grown far more inclusive in the last 50 years.

    Perhaps contrast it with one movie that is American – very American – and yet had huge positive press as ‘getting’ Chinese culture: Kung Fu Panda. The main Character is Jack Black, loud, obnoxious, forward, yet self-depreciating, and the other characters are bare brushstrokes. So maybe less is more. The less character development, the more someone can see their own culture in the characters. Like the less facial detail in how the characters are drawn, and the more someone can see themselves in the character. e.g. Haruhi Suzumiya is nothing but a set of eyes, and you have to fill in her other features.

    On the other hand, just like the American audience is much more open to Asian cultural touchstones, the Asians that produce anime are influenced by American film tropes, e.g. Cowboy Bebop is extremely western.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really thoughtful point. West and east have been swapping cultural influences, in mass media at least, since about the thirties, when you could actually get from one to the other in a reasonable amount of time, and each culture can be “mined” (if you like) to amaze and amuse the local audience. Of course, it is world-wide: one of my favorite movies is A Fistful of Dollars, a western made by an Italian in Spain with an American star from a Japanese movie.


      1. And one of my favorite movies is Seven Samurai. A ‘Western’ that happens in the Sengoku period in Japan, that was then copied back in the west to make more westerns. At least in the arts, there was a lot of interest in taking inspiration from foreign sources. What do you think about Knights of Sidonia?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Recently had the pleasure of rewatching this show back in April-May of this year. Personally I wouldn’t call this show an “anime” strictly speaking, despite the obvious influences but even then it stands out as a masterpiece of Western animation (compared to what is put out nowadays). Character, plot and trope wise I think there’s plenty of good things to say about this show. It even got me to read the comic series associated with this show, which basically depict what happened after the events of Book 3 and they were all right too.

    Liked by 1 person

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