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Analysis / Avatar: The Last Airbender

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On Energybending and The Finale.

Throughout Avatar: The Last Airbender, a major theme was what the world expected from Aang as The Avatar and what he wanted himself. The very reason he ended up in the iceberg to begin with was because of his fleeing from his responsibilities and those who "interpreted them" for him. The first episode of Book 2 shows just what happens when someone tries to "Deconstruct" his powers and use them. The finale stressed this beyond belief. His friends, his selves, and the world itself seemed to stress him to do one thing, but Aang was able to finally think for himself and yet still save the day IN HIS OWN WAY.

Look at the personalities of the Bending types. The Airbenders are free-spirited but distanced and detached from the world, the Waterbenders are flexible but not motivated, the Earthbenders are firm but unchanging and fixed, and the Firebenders are passionate and determined at the price of obsession and psychopathy. Look at how each vice brought them down.The nomadic and loose nature of the Airbenders allowed them to be wiped out so easily. The "go with the flow" attitude of the Water Tribes let the South slowly get picked off. (The tale of the last Water Avatar shows what happens when this is applied to a full term as Avatar). The Earth Kingdom's adamancy led to a steely military dictatorship that kept a perpetual illusion of peace. The Fire Nation, in what started as a plan to "illuminate" the world with their flame lapsed to pure destruction.

When they go against their elements they fail as well. When the Water Tribe "froze" stiff in the north they fell into a regime of rigidity and doctrine that could never stand up to the Fire Nation alone (note how out of date their knowledge was). When the Earthbender king became too distant and lax, he was easily manipulated by the Dai Li and Azula. When Zuko lost his "inner flame" and passion he fell into illness. And when Aang lost Appa, his attachment almost took him over the edge.

Aang, as he went through each stage, learned the way of all the Bending types. His free-spiritedness as an Air Nomad let him find his own way. His water training allowed him to adapt to the new situations that he came across so many times in the later episodes. His earth training allowed him to learn how to be assertive and capable of standing strong and firm when the time came. And the fire training thought him inner emotional focus. Flexibility tamed with direction. Detachment tempered with focus. All of these united in the final speech where we see the failings of his past selves. Roku showed how falling too far in the flames of passion led to disaster. Kyoshi's stubborn no-nonsense attitude led to the creation of the treacherous and dogmatic Dai Li. Kuruk's flowing nature led to carelessness, and he paid the ultimate price for that. And Yang Chen preached about how the detachment that the Air Nomads had with the world just winds up isolating them from those who they should protect. Aang avoided these pitfalls and thus SURPASSED the other avatars, unlocking what even they could not: Energybending.

Thus, these trials of Aang's enlightenment can be seen as a long progression and final settlement of his Mind, Body and Spirit in perfect balance.

An example of Instant Awesome Just Add Dragons done to an otherwise great series’ detriment.

I’ll preface this by saying that Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best cartoons out there available that appeals to both adults and children alike. However, I want to go into detail as to the dragons’ inclusion as being detrimental to the whole setting as this is one of the few things that seems to fragment and create holes in the setting and lore that doesn’t need to be there. In short, an example of this trope being done wrong in an otherwise great series.

Since Tropes are Tools, the Instant Awesome Just Add Dragons trope is somewhat of a necessary evil. Having dragons in a fantasy setting usually results in more viewers coming from fans of fantasy stories in general. By the very nature of the trope, the dragons do not otherwise need to be there and if removed would have very little effect on the setting and story overall.

For Avatar, this is an example of where the trope is used to the series’ detriment, and would have been better off using something instead of dragons. The obvious first point is that this is a world full of mix and match critters like badger moles, platypus bears, and where a simple “bear” is considered abnormal. Having the dragon, a stock fantasy creature, even if it’s popular, should be considered odd right off the bat.

The next point would only be obvious when dragons from all fantasy stories are considered in a general pattern. A vast majority of the time, if dragons are part of the setting, they will be very rare, and most of the time this is because they were hunted to near extinction. The problem with this is that most stories do not bother explaining or justifying this, as by the nature of the discussed trope writers want to put dragons into their story without really integrating them in. Avatar, unfortunately, falls into this trap.

The first significant presence that the dragons have is with Avatar Roku, and his dragon Fang. Apart from looking awesome, Fang has no significance to Roku’s character and nothing about the pair’s relationship is explored, like with Aang and Appa, aside from undying loyalty to the end as shown in the Episode “the Avatar and the Firelord.”But at the end of this episode, Sozin comes in to help his old friend, even if they would otherwise be enemies. However, he also has a pet dragon, and after betraying Roku he starts his plans to conquer the world for real.This is also where the dragons’ presence begins to really break the lore of the Fire Nation.

According to Zuko, Sozin started the tradition of hunting dragons to demonstrate the “true” Firebenders, as explained in the episode “the Firebending Masters”. This was originally one of my favourite episodes because it was one of the few that bothered to go into any detail about the dragons. Upon reflection, it’s the episode that tries to answer questions but only raises far more.

The dragon hunting from the get go makes no sense. Sozin had his own pet dragon, so why would he kill his own pet? There’s really no reason given, and none of the characters bother to ask this. Aang, especially, should be asking this since the previously discussed episode with Roku and Sozin showed Aang that there’s good in everyone and are capable of being good friends, even if things go wrong in the end.

But Sozin starting the dragon hunt undermines this lesson completely, as only someone truly irredeemable or maniacal would consider destroying something that is practically useful as well as being a pet, which most people would have some emotional attachment to. In this case, Sozin killing his pet dragon. Did he? This is never answered or mentioned.

At the end of The Firebending Masters, two dragons are revealed to be still alive and teach Aang and Zuko the true nature of Firebending: while it can be destructive, true Firebending grants life and represents the true essence of the Fire nation. All well and good, and why I really liked the episode in the first place. The problem, however, lies in Zuko and Aang’s lack of involvement with the dragon’s future after the series ends. At least, lack of the writers telling anything about their involvement. Zuko should have a duty to oversee the dragons’ recovering from Sozin’s reign as the Sun Warriors directly established that Zuko’s ancestors have crimes against the dragons they need to answer for. I haven’t read the comics, but I’ll hazard a guess that the writers never bothered to address this. Aang should also have an interest in assisting with the dragon’s recovery, since he no doubt would have done the same for Appa and they Sky Bisons. The original Firebenders are such an integral part of the Fire Nation, being the source of their bending powers, however the series goes to great lengths to ignore this.

Another point on the other side of the coin is that from what the viewer is shown, it’s implied there are very few dragons left, if any at all apart from the two shown. This is also implausible given the lore that has been established throughout the series so far. It is said that a firebender who successfully kills a dragon is granted the title “dragon”... however, the only character addressed like this is Iroh. And Iroh actually killing a dragon for any reason is pretty much impossible for his character, especially when considering his reaction to Admiral Zhao trying to kill the Moon Spirit. So the status of the dragons actually being killed in great numbers makes very little sense, but the Fire nation populace as a whole seems fooled by this. In a way, the writers are too.

Legend of Korra was a chance to rectify this, but instead it falls into exactly the same trap. In Season 3 (spoilers) Zuko is shown riding a dragon to get around. Unfortunately, the dragon does nothing except make a futile attack against one of the red lotus members, and gets hit directly by one of her explosions. And then, later on, he’s perfectly fine. This makes the possibility of dragons actually being hunted by Firebenders by Firebending methods even more implausible. And when Korra goes to talk to Zuko about Iroh, the dragon is right next to her, but she barely reacts to its presence. You’d think the Avatar would have a greater interest in the current situation of the original Firebenders, given she’s supposed to keep the world in balance. If the dragons go extinct, that’s a permanent tip in the balance of the world, as Firebenders eventually might go extinct as well. In the same vein, Aang’s lack of reaction to the dragons possible being extinct breaks his character somewhat, especially regarding his dilemma in killing Ozai because “all life is sacred”. If he truly believed that, then he should be far more upset or angry that the Fire Nation could possibly wipe out an entire species, and also their source of power, with no real explanation.

My final point is how easily this could be fixed. If Korra just asked something like “How are the dragons doing since the 100 year war?” Depending on Zuko’s answer, this would fix his part in this as well. Something like “That, unfortunately, is confidential to the Fire Nation.” This would show the Avatar actually showing concern for the balance of the world when it comes to fire nation, and Zuko shows that he did continue to oversee the dragon’s recovery, as the “confidential” would have been the Sun Warriors swearing him to secrecy.

And down to its core, this could have been fixed if something more fitting to the setting was used instead of dragons. Yes, dragons are cooler, but something like giant Salamanders living in volcanoes would have made more sense to the setting. Or if they really wanted to keep the dragons, have the dragons actually shown to have left the Fire Nation of their own volition, as their Firebending powers were being misused to conquer the other nations. Then, Sozin and the other Firelords would have to save face by claiming the dragons are now enemies and should be hunted down, instead of admitting their nation had fallen from grace in pursuit of war. Given how little is actually explained, this is actually a possible explanation behind all of this, but something as important as the original Firebenders going extinct should not be left to the imagination.

In summary writers should be careful in using this trope. It may be cool to have dragons, but if a writer is not willing to put the effort in to integrating it into the setting properly, they would be better off using something else that fits the setting better.

Each of the Nations and their corresponding bending styles are representative of a key philosophy from East Asian history

With the exception of the Water Tribe, who are aesthetically inspired by a Arctic native American cultures, each of the nations of the Avatar setting are clearly based on, or at least heavily feature aesthetic and cultural elements that do, from our own history's Far East. This is evident in such things as the clothes they wear, the architecture of their buildings, the food they eat, and the ways they behave. Yet, if one analyzes the symbolism behind the "character" of the nations, it becomes apparent that a further layer yet exists: each of them strongly exemplifies characteristics of some of the most important philosophies to have shaped Far Eastern thought.

The Water Tribes - or, rather, Waterbending (it may be worth noting that, while the Air Nomads are a nation of benders, the Water Tribes could be construed as the ones whose bending style is most critically entangled with their everyday way of life - without it, their cities would literally melt and they'd all drown and die) represents Daoism. Reflecting Daoist philosophy, waterbending is all about movement with the flow, both physical, symbolic and emotional. It is about accepting and living in the now, being passive and reactive, and letting oneself be shaped by the forces of the universe rather than attempting to force it into any. It is notable that the Northern Water tribe's capital is built around a shrine for a pair of koi fish, which are clearly visually representative of the taijitu (the symbol of the concept of yin and yang), perhaps one of Daoism's most distinctive icons. Perhaps ironically, of any character in the series, the one which most strongly and clearly demonstrates Daoist virtues is actually Iroh, of the Fire Nation - yet, remember that the harmony and transformation of opposites is actually a key theme in this philosophy, and the story of a fiery army-man learning to find peace by becoming one with the Way and spreading wisdom and serenity around them for the rest of their life is reminiscent of that of a number of Daoist immortals.

The Earth Kingdom, bureaucratic, hierarchical, rigid and unyielding, represents Confucianism. Fittingly, it's based on ancient China, a nation which actually was, for many centuries, literally dominated by the philosophy. Like the element of Earth central to Chinese thought, and in accordance with Confucian virtues, it represents a search for stability and harmony in a chaotic universe and seeks to achieve it by creating an order in which every individual knows and accepts their place, reveres those superior to them yet respects those underneath. Confucianism lends itself well to the creation of large, powerful empires, yet as the movie shows, and as some argue has happened to Imperial China, it can also lead to issues of cultural stagnation, corruption, and social injustice if not tempered with intelligence and kindness.

The Air Nomads, whose culture is based to a large extent on that of the monastery societies of the Himalayas (Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan), of course represents Buddhism - specifically, Zen. Like the wind, they seek freedom, and to be like air, they seek nothingness. Their goal is to let go of their earthly tethers and enter the void, becoming empty, and thereby transcending suffering and becoming beings who know only compassion. Also like Buddhists, as Zaheer taught us come The Legend of Korra, it is a grave mistake to assume that they are all merciful Actual Pacifists. Buddhism has produced some of history's most fearsome warrior monk orders, and in Japan, the Buddhist Ikko-Ikki became an early example of, essentially, a grassroots movement of freedom fighters.

The Fire Nation stumps me a bit, I must admit. I think they might stand for Japanese nationalism, although, admittedly, the fact that nationalism isn't native to East Asia does mar the elegance of the entire theory. Another would be that the Fire Nation has no associated philosophy because, thematically, it's lost its way, becoming too reliant on industrialized technology and expansionist warfare - hence its moral and eventually actual downfall.