Oh, yes. I’m doing this. Over the past 15 years, there’s been many a debate about whether or not Avatar: The Last Airbender could be considered an anime or not. One side says no because anime is usually referred to animation done in Japan and this was created in the U.S. for American audiences while the other says yes because of the style, storytelling, and themes that are rarely touched upon in Western cartoons. What do I think? It’s a hybrid cartoon of Eastern and Western animation, so in some ways, yes, it counts as an anime, though I will be calling it a cartoon. Plus, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about the show after binge-watching it on Netflix. Avatar: The Last Airbender is the creation of both Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008. This was a time period where cartoons were at a slump. Both Cartoon Network and Disney Channel were focused on live-action shows and sitcoms while Nickelodeon regularly gave the shaft to shows that weren’t Spongebob or Fairly OddParents. It was also one of those cartoons that leaned heavily towards an anime aesthetic like The Boondocks, Teen Titans, and Totally Spies. Many people proclaim Avatar to be one of, if not, the best animated series of all time. Does that claim hold up after all these years? Well, let’s find out. This is Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them, but when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and two siblings named Katara and Sokka discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang, and although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone. That’s a great way to open a series. It establishes the world of Avatar and it’s one of the coolest worlds created in fiction. The Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Air Nomads, and Water Tribes are based off of Eastern (and Inuit with the Water Tribes) cultures and they possess bending abilities where they can manipulate one of the classical elements. The Avatar is someone who can bend all four of the elements and is destined to bring peace and balance to the four nations. Then, the Fire Nation decided to be power-hungry imperialists attacking the other nations, completely wiping out the Air Nomads save for Aang, who disappears and winds up in suspended animation. 100 years later, he’s discovered by Katara and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe and they set off to help Aang master the other elements, starting with going to the Northern Water Tribe to master waterbending. Avatar has no shortage of great characters and we have to begin with our leads. Aang is a energetic, carefree kid who has to face his destiny as the Avatar and defeat the Fire Lord. That kind of responsibility can be overwhelming for a 12 year old. Katara is the mother figure of the trio who keeps them all in line and she’s a skilled waterbender at that. Her older brother Sokka is one of the primary sources of comic relief in the show and he’s also resourceful and a capable strategist. Other characters of note include Appa, Momo, Haru, Suki, Bumi, Jet, Mai, Ty Lee, Hadoka, etc.
During their adventures, our heroes have to deal with avoiding the Fire Nation, who are searching for the Avatar. Among the Fire Nation is Prince Zuko. In terms of the best Avatar characters, Zuko is easily Top 10 in terms of development. In Book One, he’s a major antagonist who’s set on capturing the Avatar in the hopes that he could restore his honor after being exiled by his father, Fire Lord Ozai. As the series continues, he becomes more sympathetic as we learn about his background and his internal struggle, which is paralleled beautifully with Aang’s. Eventually in Book Three, he joins Team Avatar to help overthrow Ozai so that he can become the new Fire Lord. He’s accompanied by his uncle Iroh, who’s a god-tier parent figure. He always has the best words of wisdom and motivation and only wants the best for his nephew. Mako was the perfect voice actor for Iroh and his best performance is in “The Tale Of Iroh” in the episode “The Tales Of Ba Sing Se.” Dude, I couldn’t fight the tears watching the scene and it’s even sadder when you consider that this was one of Mako’s last performances before his death.
In Book Two, Team Avatar head to the Earth Kingdom to find a earthbending teacher for Aang and they come across a blind earthbending girl named Toph. Real talk, Toph is my favorite character from the series. She’s snarky, quick-witted, and her earthbending skills are off the charts to where she creates a new bending style, metalbending. So Toph joins Team Avatar and our heroes discover information that could help them against the Fire Nation, so they head off to the Earth Kingdom’s capital Ba Sing Se. During this time, the Fire Nation are still on their tails, this time, led by Azula, Zuko’s younger sister. She’s a much more dangerous villain not just because of her firebending skills or even the fact that she can use lightning, but because of her cruel, sadistic nature and ruthlessness in combat and Grey DeLisle was clearly having a blast voicing this character. In this season, Azula and her friends Mai and Ty Lee plan a takeover of Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom, and they succeed in the season finale. The most sympathetic Azula becomes is in the episode “The Beach” (another piece of evidence that this show counts as an anime; it has a beach episode) and in the series finale where she’s having a mental breakdown.
We go to Book Three and Team Avatar, along with help from allies from previous episodes, are planning to invade the Fire Nation during a solar eclipse, which is when firebenders are unable to firebend. But thanks to proper planning from Azula and Ozai, the invasion fails and they’re forced to retreat. This is also where Zuko makes the decision to side with the Avatar against Ozai, who’s voiced by Mark Hamill. Yes, THAT Mark Hamill. And he does a great job protraying Ozai as the heartless bastard that he is. Two things before we get to the series finale. One, I love how there’s so many themes that are seamlessly interwoven into the overall plot: imperialism, nationalism, war, genocide, prejudice, class inequality, as well as the more philosophical ones presented. And two, Book Three has one of the best recap episodes in “The Ember Island Players” where Team Avatar attend a Fire Nation play that recaps their adventures and their reactions to the play are a highlight. Like most people, I would picture them reacting to that awful live-action movie.
Last thing we need to talk about is Sozin’s Comet. The finale that this series has been building up to, making up four episodes. Aang has an internal struggle with himself because of the possibility that he might have to kill Fire Lord Ozai, which goes against his pacifist ideals. During this time, Sokka, Toph, and Suki must stop an armada of airships from attacking the Earth Kingdom while Zuko, with Katara’s help, faces off against Azula, who’s completely lost her shit. This is one of the most epic, satisfying finales ever crafted as Aang has now mastered bending all of the elements and must now beat Ozai. I love the look of fear in Ozai’s face when Aang goes into the Avatar state and is just wiling on him. Aang eventually defeats Ozai by removing his firebending skills, rendering him powerless. The Fire Nation is defeated, Ba Sing Se is liberated, Zuko becomes the Fire Lord, and the world is saved. There’s probably a few loose ends that probably needed to be tied up, but they don’t take away from what’s ultimately a great finale. Plus, I’m sure the comic series that came afterwards would have the answers. There’s also Legend Of Korra, which I haven’t seen yet, but I do plan on watching it someday.
And that was Avatar: The Last Airbender. Is this still one of the greatest animated shows of all time? Hell yes. It’s god-tier in terms of animation, story, characters, action, humor, themes, etc. It’s become one of the gold standards of animation for a reason. It told a smooth, timeless story in three seasons with no bad episodes and it has a ton of rewatch value. Not a lot of shows can say that. Most of you have probably already watched the series, but for those who haven’t, I HIGHLY recommend watching the whole series. It’s truly something special. Avoid the M. Night Shyamalan-directed live-action film. Next time, I’ll be talking about Tower Of God.