Avatar: The Last Airbender took anime seriously when few shows did

Of us who grew up watching Avatar: The Last Airbender have high-key been in misery since its sequence finale aired in 2008. In contrast to different notable pop cultural phenomenons like HBO’s Recreation of Thrones, whose divisive ending dampened viewers’ affinity with the status TV present, the premise of Avatar viewers’ discontent comes from how spectacular the present was. Like a picturesque illustration of a stallion mid-stride, Avatar’s journey from daring pilot to emotionally climactic finale left a void in viewers’ spirits that they’ve but to fill with one other present of its caliber. And who can blame them? Avatar: The Last Airbender hit in a different way.

Avatar: The Last Airbender was, by all accounts, a formative cartoon brimming with fantastical element-bending motion; fallible heroes; gripping, complicated, and nuanced villains; and enthralling world-building. What’s extra, Avatar completed all this whereas exploring grown-up subjects like genocide, sexism, ableism, propaganda, psychological well being, apartheid, bigotry, and geopolitics, with out speaking all the way down to its Y7 viewers. Avatar’s myriad themes spoke to the form of X-factor plot factors seasoned anime followers would cherry-pick when recommending top-shelf shows to unversed associates.

Earlier than Avatar, youngsters may solely discover this sort of programming on Nickelodeon’s competitor, Cartoon Community, with equally fashionable shows like Powerpuff Ladies, Samurai Jack, and Teen Titans. Like these Cartoon Community shows, an enormous, distinctive part of Avatar’s endurance amongst die-hard viewers is how its creators seamlessly wove a few of anime’s biggest tales and iconography into the material of the present.

Anime influences in mid-aughts Western cartoons have a little bit of an advanced historical past for anime followers. Though piecemeal references to touchstone anime moments just like the Akira slide have populated numerous instances in cartoons through the years to elicit its cool issue, different cartoons of the time — like Codename: Kids Next Door, The Fairly OddParents, and the entirety of Kappa Mikey — have been made to mock how eccentric and madcap anime cliches have been compared to Western cartoons. Avatar, alternatively, felt like a departure from the norm in how its meticulous borrowing from anime’s je ne sais quoi made it really feel extra in step with anime than conventional Western animation.

There are some methods this correlation is a transparent line: a sequence a couple of mystical superpowered boy on a globe-trotting journey choosing up new expertise and making associates alongside the best way to help him in his inevitable showdown with a world-ending large unhealthy is the narrative define for numerous shonen anime. Correspondingly, the trajectory of Avatar’s industrial success yielding a cute but short-lived chibi parody series, an over-hated sequel series, and a universally abhorred live-action Hollywood movie is just about a ceremony of passage for licensed basic anime sequence.

However whereas Japanese audiences view any animated movie as anime, whether or not it’s Minions or Akira — the Japanese time period “anime” is borrowed from the English “animation,” in any case — followers abroad rigidly distinguish anime as media that originates in Japan. And but, the distinctive environment stemming out of Avatar evoked a typical chorus from a subset of its viewership saying it wasn’t simply one other Nickelodeon cartoon, it was an anime. Whereas a big majority of followers are nonetheless entrenched in on-line debates over whether or not Avatar’s anime-esque qualities justify it being thought of an honorary anime, what’s plain is the truth that its creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, had anime on the mind whereas conceptualizing Avatar. In Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Artwork of the Animated Collection, Konietzko and DiMartino revealed that works from prolific anime studios like Neon Genesis Evangelion maker Gainax and Studio Ghibli influenced lots of the design decisions made in Avatar’s early growth.

“Mike and I wanted to make an American show that took its stylistic cues from the sensibilities of Japanese anime,” Konietzko mentioned. “There is such a keen sense of observation in much of the animation out of Japan, in the study of movement, cloth, perspective, optics, lighting, and effects. But like most of my American colleagues, I was no expert at drawing this style either. I had struggled every day for two years to capture the essence at the heart of what I loved in designs from studios like Gainax and Studio Ghibli.”

Picture: Gainax

Aang in his avatar state combined with the moon spirit to become a giant water monster in the season 1 finale

Picture: Nickelodeon Animation Studio

Konietzko and DiMartino took Avatar’s motion choreography seriously. Throughout a Q&A section on the 2007 San Diego Comedian-Con, Konietzko revealed that a few of his favourite fights in anime come from acclaimed director Shinichirō Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, extra particularly Spike’s bout in opposition to Asimov Solensan in Cowboy Bebop’s pilot episode, “Asteroid Blues,” and Mugen’s battle with Sara in Samurai Champloo’s twenty first episode, “Elegy of Entrapment (Verse 2).” On the identical occasion, Avatar director Giancarlo Volpe recounted a time when the workers was “all ordered to buy FLCL and watch every single episode of it.”

Though DiMartino and Konietzko had a transparent imaginative and prescient for easy methods to go about crafting an Avatar pilot episode depicting its heroes trekking out on a grand journey in opposition to the Fireplace Nation in 2003, the previous illustrators on shows like King of the Hill, Invader Zim, and Household Man confronted a hurdle when it got here to discovering the appropriate studio to animate the present.

“Because we were paying homage to the anime style and were huge fans of studios like Gainax, we really loved the idea of doing a coproduction with a Japanese studio. However, after many unreturned phone calls, we realized that the Japanese studios didn’t love the idea of doing a coproduction with us,” DiMartino mentioned.

Happily, after assembly with Tin Home, the Korean studio behind Great Days, the duo discovered the animation staff that might streamline Avatar’s preliminary designs and ship the “anime-inspired look” DiMartino and Konietzko have been searching for.

Whereas evoking the motion, humor, and emotion of anime was paramount for the duo, Konietzko harassed that he was cautious of copying a selected studio’s designs and artwork kinds when drafting conceptual illustrations of its characters. It’s not sufficient to name one thing anime when all you’ve carried out is copy a famous artist’s techniques with no regard for the creative intent behind them. Like a talented magician, you’ve received to know when to execute creative cues successfully with out drawing consideration to your sleight of hand. (“There are some flashy sensibilities in anime that attract hardcore fans, but that can be off-putting to people who are less familiar with the aesthetic,” Konietzko mentioned, including that a few of the “lizard-like nostrils and nonexistent noses” in his favourite anime personally freaked him out.)

This, partly, is why the present’s discretion in implementing anime’s intense fisheye close-ups — sometimes utilized in anime when characters are experiencing a psychotic break — was so successfully off-putting to the typical Nickelodeon viewer who noticed the Joo Dee brainwashing scene underneath Lake Laogai. Of us who’ve watched fashionable anime like Naruto, Berserk, or Steins;Gate have grown accustomed to the extraordinarily wide-angle visible method as shorthand for one thing menacing or traumatic transpiring with a personality. Likewise, uninitiated viewers can extrapolate the impact as a method of speaking the intense lengths Ba Sing Se’s Dai Li brokers resort to — forcefully warping the views of its public servants — to perpetuate an air of fabricated peace. All in all, its use successfully knowledgeable the story beat it was entrusted to visualise, even when the reference may’ve gone over some viewers’ heads.

Avatar’s titular hybrid animal designs have been additionally influenced by Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movies. Arguably, essentially the most overt homage Avatar pays to anime is Aang’s loveable flying bison, Appa, which was impressed by Studio Ghibli’s beloved 1988 animated movie My Neighbor Totoro.

“I found myself unconsciously drawing fanciful hybrid animals, something I used to do when I was young. Mike and I are big fans of Hayao Miyazaki, and my sketches from this time were heavily influenced by his sensibilities,” Konietzko mentioned. “I started drawing the bald, arrow-tattooed boy herding some bison-manatee creatures in the sky. Wasn’t sure how the wingless creatures could fly, but I didn’t get in the way of the ideas and just let them flow onto the paper.”

Shades of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke could be present in Avatar characters like Koh the Face Stealer (No-Face from Spirited Away) and La the ocean spirit (Princess Mononoke’s Forest Spirit). The artwork guide additionally mentions that the design of Avatar’s ghoulish spirit Hei Bai was impressed by Evangelion’s Angels and that Jet’s character design pays homage to Cowboy Bebop’s Spike Spiegel.

The distinction between Konietzko and DiMartino’s fanciful Ghibli hybrid animals and their Gainax-inspired nightmare-fuel Spirit World counterparts communicates an air of caprice and menace viewers can simply acknowledge as part of Avatar’s iconography somewhat than being a pastiche of its inspirations. And in a 2020 interview with Polygon, Konietzko revealed the Ghibli connection pushed them additional, with Princess Mononoke inspiring how they went about depicting ethical ambiguity with Zaheer, the first antagonist within the third season of Avatar’s sequel sequence, The Legend of Korra.

“One of the things that resonated with me so deeply about Princess Mononoke was how there weren’t any villains, but rather people with competing interests,” Konietzko mentioned. “That wasn’t a perspective I was seeing in Western animation at that time, but that struck a chord with me and the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.”

The nuance of characterization Avatar devotes to its forged, particularly antagonists Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, feels uniquely knowledgeable by anime. All through Avatar’s 61-episode run, viewers are drip-fed significant narrative beats that humanize the Gaang’s narrative foils as greater than one-dimensional villains, however dynamic and textured characters equally swept up within the drama of the Fireplace Nation’s conflict marketing campaign. These eye-opening moments — which culminate in fan-favorite episodes like “Zuko Alone” and “The Beach” — don’t insult viewers’ intelligence by presenting a tearful backstory that vindicates the hurt they inflict on others. As an alternative, Avatar employs these occasions to enlighten viewers as to why these youngsters act the best way they do. Avatar’s concerted effort to flesh out its heroes and villains alike was one thing American cartoons seldom explored.

In an ironic accident, Avatar’s distinct East-meets-West type finally earned it comparable ranges of on-line clout among the many anime studios that impressed it. Now, each time shows like My Adventures With Superman, Voltron: Legendary Defender, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts — all animated by Legend of Korra’s Studio Mir — crop up on the scene, followers reward the shows for the way their visible type is “like Avatar” as a great omen for the standard of the present.

Suffice it to say, Avatar’s anime influences led to an inflow of different Western animation, like Owl Home, Steven Universe, and Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to unabashedly put on their anime influences — from sources as diversified as Tenchi Muyo, Finish of Evangelion, and Studio Set offon their creative sleeves whereas crafting their very own distinctive tales. And the business is all the higher for it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is now streaming on Netflix.

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