Sophie Andersen ‘21
In my humble opinion, Avatar: The Last Airbender is the greatest show of all time and I firmly believe everyone should watch it. The American animated television series, which aired on Nickelodeon for three seasons (2005-2008), was created by Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko. The show reached and has maintained astounding success: according to research by the NDP Group, it was Netflix’s most popular kids’ animated show in America in 2020. While it was originally geared towards children, people in every demographic have come to enjoy the captivating show. This should come as no surprise: despite the show being seemingly lighthearted and funny, it also includes themes such as totalitarianism, genocide, imperialism, gender discrimination, disability, oppression, and marginalization.
The series depicts a world in which individuals have the ability to “bend” one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, or air. Four eponymous nations emerge as a result, all of which draw inspiration from mostly Asiatic cultures: the water tribe is inspired by Indigenous Arctic cultures like the Inuits and Yupiks, the Earth Kingdom by monarchical China, the Fire Nation by imperial Japan, and the Air Nomads by Tibetan Buddhist monks. The only person who can bend all four elements is the Avatar, the bridge between the physical world and the spirit world who is responsible for maintaining harmony. When one Avatar dies, their spirit is reincarnated into a new body. The protagonist is Aang, a 12-year-old Avatar who has been frozen in ice for 100 years. Two teenagers of the Southern Water Tribe, Sokka and Katara, accidentally discover the iceberg near the South Pole and revive him. In the absence of the Avatar, Fire Lord Sozin, the totalitarian monarch of the Fire Nation, has launched a world war and carried out a genocide of the Air Nomads, making the Aang the sole survivor of his nation. Alongside his friends and his flying Bison Appa, Aang races to master all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from achieving global domination.
It is possible that the success of Avatar: The Last Airbender can be largely attributed to its historic parallels and ability to transcend boundaries. While it is based largely on the conflicts between Imperial Japan and China in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is still palatable for kids.
The 1867 Meiji Restoration led to Japan becoming industrialized and the establishment of a government that strived to follow in Europe’s footsteps. We see this portrayed in the powerful naval force and weaponry of the Fire Nation. The subsequent Taishō Era of Japan mirrors the Fire Nation’s rapid militarization and colonization of other countries. Furthermore, just as China failed to industrialize, the Earth Kingdom lacks advanced technology. The Hundred Year War, a conflict initiated by the Fire Nation attacking the Earth Kingdom, is based on the First Sino-Japanese War. This war between the Qing Dynasty of China and the Empire of Japan started because Japan wanted influence over Korea due to their natural resources and geographic position. These are just two of the numerous historic parallels in the show that add crucial depth to the plotline.
An integral aspect of the show is that the viewer is given many insights into the complex narratives of people struggling to survive the ramifications of the war. We see the damage of Imperial Japan indoctrination in Fire Prince Zuko who says “Growing up we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. And somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was.” Through Katara and Sokka, we see the grief of two adolescents who lost their mother to the war. But, every episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender contains a valuable lesson and conveys a message of hope that good will prevail. The show teaches children and adults alike to keep fighting for change.