Textual analysis: Avatar the Last Airbender

Avatar: the last Airbender was the brainchild of Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The series revolves around the main protagonist Aang the Avatar who must master all four elements (Water, Earth, and Fire. He already knows Airbending at the beginning of the series) in order to defeat Firelord Ozai ruler of the Fire Nation.

Codes and Conventions

Avatar is an adventure series so one can expect exotic locations, different kinds of people and cultural references. An example of this is the four nations of the series are based on East Asian cultures and mythologies. It succeeds as an adventure series because its plot allows it to visit exotic locations and cultures. Even though the characters live in an Asian setting they act very much like ordinary kids that most of us can relate to in the western world “The concept of genre offers the possibility of recognising similarities even in the midst of great diversity”  (Shepherd and Watters 1998 p. 97).

Each of the characters has their personality and quirks and as a kid’s show you would expect characters that children can relate to. For example Aang is fun loving and adventurous, Kitara is the level headed den mother of the group, Sokka is the voice of reason and Toph is the rebellious tomboy.

The show’s use of Asian mythology suits it for the fantasy genre, it also has a lot of elements that defy realistic logic but as a fantasy program its allowed to get away with it. The bending of elements is one of the show’s core themes and is impossible in the real world; e.g Firebenders can create fire out of thin air which is impossible in the real life without a fuel source, and there are animals like Appa who can fly without any obvious methods of flying (No Wings). In addition the four forms of element bending are based on real forms of Chinese martial arts: The Water benders are based on Tai Chi, The Earth benders are based on Hung Gar, Fire benders are based on Northern Shoalin Kung Fu and Air benders are based on Baguazhang.

I believe Avatar is popular thanks to its use of martial arts, humour, unique setting, entertaining and well rounded characters which can appeal to a variety of audiences and not just children. Someone who is a fan of Chinese martial arts movies may find something in Avatar that appeals to them. This clip from youtube covers the making of the series and the influence of Chinese martial arts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mit5F3d2cWM). If someone is familiar with martial arts then one can assume that they would be at least familiar with the vast mythology surrounding them. Avatar creates a very unique mythology that is deep enough to suck you in and would also attract anyone who is a fan of mythology in general. People who have  seen the “Lord of the Rings” movies may find something in Avatar that appeals to them as the characters are on a quest and they run into people who need their help.

Avatar is also unique for the fact that its animation style is anime which was popularised in West during the 90’s by shows like Pokemon and Digimon. Anime is characteried by simple styles with a lot of detail. One of the most striking elements is the size of characters’ eyes particularly on the female characters and the exaggerated facial expressions for certain emotions. In Avatar a lot of these characteristics are present and usually for comedic moments particularly the main characters (it’s never used in serious situations or on the Villains).

Structurlism

Please note that it is very difficult for me to draw anything from colour and this will not be as in depth as the other analysis in this article. The art style in Avatar looks and feels natural with pale colour hues and shadows, the characters blend in with their environment and I think thats what makes it appear natural to our eyes. If you look at the characters cloths they don’t wear any bright colours and the shadows are very natural in their placement.

If the colour was generic and bright I believe the series would lose it’s unique art style and the characters would clash with their surroundings and it would lose it’s natural feel. This would have been a paradigmatic change. Other paradigmatic changes could include replacing the characters bending abilities with weapons, change the setting to a more european style and swap the genders around. Any amount changes I make would just flat out ruin the series as it stands now and I don’t think it would be as successful. For instance if the characters all used weapons that would make the bending (one of the show’s core elements) irrelevant. (http://tvmedia.ign.com/tv/image/article/110/1102486/avatar-the-last-airbender-20090112015911722_640w2_1277765874.jpg)

In terms of conotations the series visuals definitely give away that its a fantasy adventure series. The pictures are full open landscapes, tundras, islands and seas which makes the audience think of adventure. The strange creatures and bending powers would tell you that it was a fantasy series because the animals are taken as natural by the characters and the benders abilities have no basis in reality. Given the benders abilities I would expect fantastical and over the top battles between the characters and they would have stamina enough to resist the punishment being dealt to them on a regular basis. The architecture is based around Asian cultures so I would expect certain things you would often associate with them such as meditation, Yin Yang and spirits. In terms of denotations a lot of what I expected came to be what I literally got when I watched the series.

Narrative Types

Aristotle 

Like most programs Avatar has a beginning a middle and an end. In the beginning Aang is frozen and is discovered by Kitara and Sokka. In the middle Aang must master all four elements which is the driving force of the series. In the end Aang defeats the Firelord and restores balance to the world. This is definitely the most abridged version of the plot and this structure is purest example of the Aristotle theory.

Vladimir Propp

In correspondence with Vladimir Propp’s theory of there being eight character types I will try to draw comparisons as much as I can.

  • Hero- the main protagonist of the series is Aang.
  • Villains- Firelord Ozai, Zuko, Azula.
  • Donor (someone who provides something to other characters)- Katara teaches Aang Water bending, Toph teaches Aang Earth bending, Zuko teaches Aang Fire bending, Iroh trains and guides Zuko.
  • Dispatcher (Someone who provides information)- Sokka who discovers the Fire benders are powerless during a solar eclipse, Zuko who warns Aang of the Firelord’s plan to use Sozin’s comet to conquer the world.
  • False Hero- Jet, this character is fighting against the Fire nation however he is willing to kill innocent people in the process.
  • Helper (provides assistance in some way)- Katara who can heal, Sokka who can navigate, Toph who can access to important places like the Earth King’s palace due to being of noble birth and can hear things before everyone else by vibrations in the ground. Iroh who cares for Zuko during their travels.
  • Princess (characters who need rescuing not necessarily human)- The World needs saving from the Firelord’s rampage.
  • Father (A male parental model) Katara and Sokka’s Father plays a big role in the plot especially in the third season when the heroes are planning to attack the Fire Nation during a solar eclipse aka the day of black sun. He plays a supportive role to his children encouraging them when they are low.

In conclusion it does apply in some areas but I had to stretch to find the comparisons in other places such as the princess and father characters.

Izetan Todorov 

Izetan Todorov’s theory on story structure is more league with Aristotle’s theory although a lot more in depth with equilibrium and disruption of the equilibrium.

  1. A state of equilibrium at the outset: The Intro of the show mentions a harmony between the four nations.
  2. A disruption of the equilibrium by some action: The Fire Nation declares war on the other 3 nations led by the Firelord Sozin.
  3. A recognition that there has been a disruption: the 100 year war.
  4. An attempt to repair the disruption: Avatar Aang’s quest to learn all four elements and defeat the Firelord.
  5. A reinstatement of the equilibrium: Aang defeats Firelord Ozai, Zuko is crowned the new Firelord and ends the war

Izetan’s theory certainly fits this series better than Vladimir’s as it was easier to find elements that matched up with what Izetan was saying in his work on narrative structure.

Allan Cameron

Allan Cameron spoke of different tools that can used to expand the narrative of stories without being regulated by the three act structure. They are flashbacks, forking paths, episodic and split screen.

  1. Flashback: There are a number throughout the series, usually to give insight into a character’s background and explain the story in greater depth. There is one episode where Aang communicates with Avatar Roku (the Avatar before him) to discover the origins of the war, at the same time Zuko is reading scrolls written by Firelord Sozin (Zuko’s great grandfather) who was Roku’s friend before he started the war.
  2. Forking paths: There are no instances of what if scenarios in the series.
  3. Episodic: Almost all the episodes in the series are intertwined in some way; however there is one episode which is entirely made up of short stories that are not connected to one another. The episode is called “The tales of Ba Sing Se” and it is comprised of a number of stories staring the main characters.
  4. There are no instances of Split-screen in the series.

In conclusion it seems some were relevant and others were not. Flashbacks feature heavily throughout the series and there is an entire episode with episodic stories. None of the others contributed anything.

Levi Strauss 

Levi Strauss believed the source of conflict within a narrative was something called binary opposition. Some might interpret this as good vs evil. When it is expanded it covers conflict of ideologies, nationalities, race and religion. Any two ideological things can create conflict with one another and that is the source of many a story. Binary opposition in Avatar the last airbender can be represented by the conflict between the tyranny of the fire nation and the freedom loving heroes.

Representation 

Girls play a very significant role in the series and one of the most important female characters is Katara, she is very headstrong, keeps her cool in difficult situations and is never willing to give up. Katara is one of the most powerful water benders in the series and is a talented healer (she saves Aang from certain death at the end of the second season). With all that being said she still has girlish characteristics such as she cares about the way she looks and plays the role of a den-mother t the group.

Toph is the complete opposite of Katara in that she behaves more like a boy would; she spits, she doesn’t care about her looks, she gets into practical jokes like the boys do and she is more willing to start fights. Toph was born blind which means she takes most people’s offers of kindness as charity, Toph doesn’t like people offering to help because she feels it robs her of her independence. This is also a representation of empowered disability as Toph lives a normal life despite the fact that her parents think she is constantly vulnerable due to her blindness. Toph compensates for her lack of sight with her earth bending, she can sense vibrations and she is also one of the most powerful earth benders.

Azula is one of the best female cartoon villains in my opinion. She is intelligent, resourceful and a master strategist. Azula is one of the most powerful fire benders and she can also cast lightning which is a rare move for a fire bender. She delights in tormenting her enemies and is extremely manipulative, this comes to a head when she conquers the earth kingdom in the second season by taking control of the Dai lee and usurping the earth king.

In general the girls are some of the strongest characters in the series, they are well developed, they are intelligent and powerful fighters. In most modern cartoons females are portrayed as strong characters and this show continues that trend.

In terms of age the main characters are all in their early to mid teens so this would make relatable to the target audience as I’ve already mentioned. Old people are often associated with being wise and learned, in Avatar Zuko’s uncle Iroh fulfills the role of a mentor to his nephew while being a humble and kooky character (He loves tea and lives rather casually except in dire circumstances). Normally one associates old age with frailty but in Asian cinema and media Old people are master fighters capable of holding their own. Avatar being based heavily in Asian myths takes that to heart with characters like King Bumi, Master Pakku, Jeong Jeong and Master Piandao who are all masters of their fighting styles. This is a contrast to most western representations of old age.

Overall

Overall Avatar is one the best animated series that I have watched in a long time. Although Gargoyles is still my absolute favourite animated series of all I would rank Avatar very high on my list. It fulfills every expectation I would have for an adventure series. There is a compelling story filled with lovable characters and devious villains, it has a unique setting with its own rich mythology, The fights and the bending are sight to behold, has a fantastic musical score and great voice acting all around and finally It all meshes together extremely well. I didn’t realise how well everything in the series was woven together until I conducted this textual analysis which now makes me appreciate even more than I did before.

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