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Avatar, the Last Air Bender, a Review

Avatar, the Last Air Bender
The Complete Book 1 Collection: a DVD collection of the
anime cartoon series by Nickelodeon 2005
(Further DVD’s available for the rest of the series, through 2008)

Worldview:  Moral, without an apparent higher power. Eastern flavor; spirits occasionally join the action.

My kids enjoy watching DVD’s of this set of anime animated tales. It’s popular among their peers.  I think it’s time we took it apart.

One review pegs the creation of this series to the advent of Harry Potter, and a demand for more complex, fully-conceived children’s TV.  This series has an overarching story and an eventual final episode that wraps up the loose ends.  It has a well-formed story line.

It portrays a world where there are four nations. They are named after the elements: earth, water, air, and fire.  The conflict is provided by the Fire Nation, which is trying to take over the other nations and has, at the beginning of the series, succeeded in wiping out the Air Tribe–with the exception of Aang, who has been sleeping in a iceberg for 100 years.

Certain individuals in each tribe have super abilities called “bending,” which involve ability to use the element special to their tribe for martial-arts style fighting, or for feats of superhuman strength.  Others don’t have these abilities at all.  Benders in the Water Tribe can gesture to throw ice crystals. Benders in the Fire Nation can throw fire. Benders in the Earth Kingdom can gesture to throw rocks and open cracks in the earth. Air Nomad benders can create winds. There is only one individual who can learn to bend all four, and that is the Avatar.

The Avatar is assigned the task of bringing peace among the four nations.  It appears to be a position somewhat like the Tibetan Buddhists believe about the Dalai Lama.  When an Avatar dies, his spirit goes to the spirit world, and another Avatar is soon born and identified. So it’s sort of a reincarnation cycle. The Avatar dresses like a young Buddhist monk.

The Avatar at any given time has the ability to travel to the spirit world and discuss things with his predecessors. Since he can learn all types of bending, he can become very powerful. But the Avatar in these stories is only 12 years old and has a lot to learn. This is Aang.

It is never discussed where the Avatar’s assignment comes from.  Perhaps the writers of this series are assuming an Eastern sort of God, who isn’t a person at all but rather more of a life force.  In one episode the Moon is shown to be a person, of sorts, or a goddess? It’s not clear. However, my kids aren’t out to worship the moon goddess because of watching this episode. They can tell it is fantasy.

I believe the Eastern idea of morality is really more a matter of tribal loyalty. Instead of a story with bad guys and good guys, there would be a story of Group 1 versus Group 2.  The groups wouldn’t differ markedly except in their allegiances. (If I am wrong, please set me straight!)

But this set of tales is made by Nickelodeon, which is American. The writers are Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. These sound like American names, not Japanese names. I suppose this is why the bad guys, the Fire Nation, really do behave like bad guys.  The primary bad guy Fire Lord Ozai is ruthless, even to his son. My kids told me they think that the Fire Nation behaves like the Japanese did in World War II, trying to take over the world.

So the Avatar is a tale with a moral compass. It is full of well-developed characters, including plucky kids who don’t give up. There is a satisfying happy ending.  But the tale also has some Eastern mythology underlying it. You can decide whether to expose your kids to it.–Phyllis Wheeler