Avatar: The Last Airbender

29 Apr

The Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender has been an international success since it’s debut in February 2005.

The human world had been broken down into four separate kingdoms, some of the inhabitants are able to rule and control the element of their kingdom: Air, Water, Fire and Earth.

However, the Firebenders became power hungry and destroyed the kingdoms taking over as much of world as they could. Only the Avatar, the person who can control all four elements has the power to stop him however he has been missing for over one hundred years and the Firebenders destruction has lead to the extinction of the Airbenders. The story follows Aang, the newly reincarnated Avatar, and his two friends Katara and Sokka on a journey to spread word that the Avatar has returned and provide the promise peace once the Fire Lord has been defeated.

The story is extremely focused on Asian and Inuit culture and themes. Element bending is based on real forms of martial arts; Waterbending to Tai Chi, Earthbending to Hung Ga Kung Fu, Firebending to Northern Shaolin and Airbending to Baguazhang.
The calligraphy style of the title and all other texts used throughout the cartoon is Eastern Asian.

水 for water is paired with 善 for benevolence and adaptability.
土 for earth is paired with 強 for strength and stability.
火 for fire is paired with 烈 for intensity and passion.
气 for air is paired with 和 for peace and harmony.

The characters partake in Asian traditions of meditation, tea therapy and music.
The Avatar partakes in a Buddhist tradition that is used to find the reincarnated Lama in the quest to find the newest reincarnated Avatar.
The characters are depicted in an animation style that the developers stated was influenced by “anime, Chinese art, hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism and Yoga” which eloquently shows Asian influences of race and identity.

Which leads us to question why in the feature length film directed by M. Night Shyamalan the protagonist characters were cast as white children and the antagonists were the only characters who were cast of Asian descent.

The Last Airbender CastThe Last Airbender Cast

M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of Nickelodeon’s cartoon, was highly anticipated by die hard fans. However, once the trailer had released, many fans responded with skepticism and anguish. The characters that had been cast did not live up to the expectations of the viewers and many people were wondering why the change of heart and the sacrifice of racial minorities for characters in an opportunity that could excel the careers of many underrepresented Asian individuals.

Wired author, Corrina Lawson, states that even her child was a bit taken back by the casting situation. Corrina provides extremely eloquent and historically accurate reasons why the casting should have been done in a more accurate manner:

“The Fire Nation mentioned in the theme song owes a large debt to imperialistic Japan. The characters may look rather pale, but their features certainly have a Japanese quality, one that is completely deliberate.

In many episodes, exiled Prince Zuko is shown to possess not only a uniquely unhappy family, but to have dwelled in a palace shown through flashbacks of his childhood that shares many features with a traditional Japanese royal residence. The style of dress, ponds, and shape of the buildings are very, very similar to the pagodas, elaborate etiquette systems, and traditional gardens that the Japanese palaces had.

Moreover, the attitude of the royal family parallels the expansionist dreams of pre-WWII Japan.  Zuko’s sister, favored Princess Azula, is a prodigy at war strategy, diplomatic negotiations and military ventures. Azula, along with the first season’s General Zhao, are very much Japanese traditionalists and imperialists.

The Earth Kingdom poses the most significant- if not an equal- threat to the Fire Nation. It is portrayed as a more agricultural and divided country, very similar to that of China’s Golden Age- and their characters certainly resemble the Chinese.

The Water Tribes are just what their name implies- a loosely organized collection of free people that live very much like the Innuit and dwell at the North and South poles of the world.

The Air nomads are essentially wiped out- with the exception of Aang, the sole survivor- and what little we know of their lifestyle leads us to believe that they resembled the North American Indians of the Great Plains.

The reason I explain this is so one understands that it isn’t merely looks that make the white casting for Avatar wrong. The societies portrayed in the show are actually very specific. How someone looks should arguably not be that important in how they play a role, but the extremely specific ethnic portrayals in Avatar make this a real problem.”

M. Night Shyamalan’s response to everything? It went pretty much like “everyone sees themselves as Katara, so she can be any race.”

I suppose my argument here is why would a company sacrifice the ethnic diversity of a high budget film based on a very popular and well renowned cartoon unless they were attempting to make a point or create a relationship.

More significant than the omission of a multicultural cast was to see that the only character who was cast from the racial minority was that of Prince Zuko: the enemy of the trio. This poses questions of media signs and signals that the developer was attempting to push onto the young audience of this film. Were they attempting to create a relationship with the viewers by making Aang, Katara and Sokka white, a similar demographic to most of the audience? Were they attempting to play on the cultural stories of the black / white binary in order to illustrate that Prince Zuko’s character wasn’t white therefore he was “the bad guy”?

Unfortunately, this movie was so unsuccessful that we may never get to see the subsequent books in the series and witness the conclusion; however, it may open a door for a writer or director who wants to do the film the right way.


2 Responses to “Avatar: The Last Airbender”


  1. nuclear war 2011 - May 2, 2011

    […] this you can read: http://jadedhaven.wordpress.com/2011/03/30/color-me-done/ On the same topic: https://usfacingrace.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/avatar-the-last-airbender/ Additionally you can check out: http://thepaulw.wordpress.com/2011/02/24/does-it-really-matter/ […]

  2. The Last AirBender Movie « Haopee's Corner - October 12, 2011

    […] took this The Last Airbender picture from the review of Amber Murray. She had some pretty interesting insights and analogies […]

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