Greetings from the bottom of my glass of bourbon! Okay, my vacation wasn’t a complete alcoholiday, but I have to admit to a few hazy nights in Hawai’i. So, to help me out of my time zone/hangover stupor, our good friend Jack Feerick is going to continue mixing some tunage for you this week. So here we go with an Avatar– inspired mix to celebrate the return of this imaginative series.
One of my favorite animated shows of recent years is wrapping up its run this month — to surprisingly little fanfare. Avatar: The Last Airbender –known overseas as Avatar: the Legend of Aang — is miles removed from the anarchic humor of its Nickelodeon channel mates, Spongebob Squarepants or The Fairly OddParents. I’ll let the trailer below make the case:
Avatar is an ambitious exercise in long-form storytelling and character development, an action-fantasy epic on a massive canvas, unfolding over three meticulously-planned seasons. With a broad cast of characters and cultures, the series is by turns funny, rousing, and tragic, and always a triumph of designâ€”something like a Zhang Yimou wuxia picture as reimagined by Hayao Miyazaki.
“The Earth, the Air, the Fire, the Water” Libana
The story is set in a largely pre-industrial world, whose four main cultural groups each have an affinity for one of the four elements of classical legend. This affinity extends beyond the predictable influences of personality, (e.g., members of the Water Tribe are highly adaptable, while those of the Fire Nation tend to be unstable and destructive, etc.) and into more fantastic directions. Gifted individuals can master a sort of sympathetic magic, called (ahem) “bending,” and thereby learn to manipulate the element in question. Airbenders can summon gusts of wind and glide on air-currents; Waterbenders can heal wounds or conjure waves; Earthbenders draw great stones up from the ground and set off earthquakes; and Firebenders can call forth lethal tongues of flame. A singular figure called the Avatar is master of all four elements, and keeps the four peoples in balance, being reincarnated into each new generation.
As the series opens, no Avatar has been seen in over 100 years, and the peace between the peoples has broken; the forces of the Fire Nation have launched an all-out war of conquest against their neighbors.
“Travelers from Foreign Lands,” Mark Isham
(from The Emperor and the Nightingale)
Although Avatar is an American production, the narrative plays out in an imagined pan-Asian setting. This is largely an aesthetic choiceâ€”the story isn’t based on any specific legendary tradition, and while it’s tempting to read the Fire Nation as an allegorical critique of China’s colonialist project in Tibet and elsewhere, there’s no clear one-to-one correspondenceâ€”but it goes beyond mere exoticism to work on several levels. In addition to giving the show an utterly distinctive visual sense, the Asian aspect is a marketing masterstroke, both drawing in anime fans (who might otherwise be inclined to turn up their noses at a Nickelodeon show) and serving as a signifier for Avatar‘s addictive blend of action and melodrama.
“The Kung Fu,” The Lords Of Percussion
And action is perhaps the key rationale for the show’s Asian flavor. Bending combines aspects of magic and martial arts, with each element corresponding to a different kung fu tradition. The end result is fight sequences that are both wildly imaginative and coherently choreographed. When it’s bender vs. bender, the opponents run up walls or vault through the air, hurling boulders or fire-bolts at one another. It’s a wire-fu extravaganzaâ€”without the wires.
What makes any story work is great characters, and Avatar boasts a hugely engaging cast: Aang, the titular last Airbender, who awakes from a hundred years of frozen hibernation to find his world turned upside-down; Zuko, a conflicted Fire Nation prince whose protracted face-turn provides a counterpoint to Aang’s journey; the aging warrior Iroh, whose affability conceals a lifetime of secrets; the scheming Princess Azula; Sokka, a blustering young hunter of the Water Tribe; Toph, a well-born Earthbender leading a strange double life; and dozens of fascinating bit players whose stories intertwine with Aang’s as he wanders.
The true center of the show, though, is Katara, the teenaged Waterbender who is the first to befriend Aang. Headstrong and empathetic, she acts as a sounding board and moral compass. If Aang is Avatar‘s engine, then Katara is its heart.
“Pushing the Sky,” Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts featuring Mai Yamane
(from the original soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop)
Avatar is at the forefront of U.S. cartoons in its incorporation of anime influences. While previous Western shows have aped surface aspects of Japanese animation, bolting them onto tried-and-true American storytelling styles and structures, Avatar buys entirely into anime‘s narrative innovations and rhythms; each episode functions as its own done-in-one story while continually advancing the larger saga. The three seasons were conceived from the start as a single, complete storyâ€”and while the picaresque nature of Aang’s journey allows for many digressions, the overarching plot never loses momentum. The Stephen Chow-styled fusion of action and witty sight gags offers immediate thrills. However, the greatest reward of the series comes in the clever unfolding of the master narrative, as nearly-forgotten plot points gain renewed importance, and character back stories pay off in unexpected ways.
“Vast Halos,” Hex
Behind the chopsockey pratfalls and the crazy creatures, the sly nods to pro wrestling and the rains of cabbages, Avatar raises some heady ideas about destiny, about loyalty, about responsibility and trustâ€”and gives a primer on concepts drawn from Eastern philosophy and yoga. The Avatar himself, a savior figure born anew into each generation, has obvious parallels with the Dalai Lama and the Buddhist tradition of the bodhisattva. A Season 2 storyline hinges on the notion of chi flow and the opening of the chakras. And the emphasis throughout on balance, harmony, and the reconciliation of opposites amounts to a crash course in the Tao. It’s a mark of the show’s ambition that it tackles such esoteric themesâ€”and manages to be so wildly entertaining in the process.
Avatar began its final run of episodes yesterday on Nickelodeon, and a live-action adaptation of Avatar is in the works, with M. Night Shyamalan (of all people) set to direct. The first of the three films is scheduled for July, 2010. The animated series is available on DVD from all the usual suspects.