Lion Turtle in Avatar the Last Airbender
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Credit: Nickelodeon

Avatar: The Last Airbender's world never felt tokenizing because it drew from Asian history

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Jul 7, 2020

Almost a decade and a half after it finished airing on Nickelodeon, Avatar: The Last Airbender quickly reached the top of the streaming chart within a few days of its Netflix debut on May 15. Back in 2005, when it premiered, Avatar garnered critical acclaim and, while initially geared toward kids, was popular with a wide range of viewers who were drawn in by the unique blend of Eastern influences. The show’s popularity even led to a live-action movie in 2010 directed by M. Night Shyamalan that is still derided to this day. The main critique leveled at the film was its white-washing of the characters, as one of the key appeals of the animated series was that it focused on a non-white fantasy world.

Yet a quick perusal of the creators, the writers, and the voice cast reveals that for all the pan-Asian dressing of the animated series, the show itself was largely white-washed behind the scenes to begin with. The showrunners, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, are both white men, as was the head writer, Aaron Ehasz, and the majority of the writers for the series. Certainly these facts influence how we understand the show, particularly as its mass appeal is in its non-white representation. The question is what makes it work, this blend of cultures that never seems forced, offensive, or careless. It takes a myriad of factors, but the majority of the answer lies in history.

For most viewers, fantasy and any world with a magic system tend to be based on elements in the Western tradition. J.R.R. Tolkien’s monumental contribution to medieval fantasy through the Lord of the Rings trilogy set the standard for most fantasy tropes in circulation today. A significant swath of fantasy writing still inhabits a similar, generic European landscape — Game of Thrones and the Netflix original series The Witcher being the most recent, popular examples. Avatar undercuts the Western fantasy genre by beginning from a wholly different foundation, offering a look at what a fantasy world could look like if we began with a non-Western context.

It does this by drawing from events in world history, rather than relying wholly on cultural stereotypes to define the four distinct nations within the show. While the creators made it clear that they were drawing on Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Inuit aesthetics — for the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Air Nomads, and Water Tribes, respectively — the individual nations within the world of Avatar are generally not reduced to stereotypes. This is particularly true for the Fire Nation, built on a blend of identifiable aspects from the Meiji and Taishō eras of Japanese history.

The Meiji Era (1868-1912) is a key moment in the modernization of Japan, beginning with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, which reinstated the Emperor after two centuries of the shogunate during the Tokugawa Era. The Meiji era is defined by large scale social and political change, along with a widespread push for Westernization, a movement called 文明開化 (bunmei kaika) or civilization and enlightenment, and a push toward industrialization. Avatar reflects this moment in history, as it seems that the Fire Nation experienced a similar rapid industrialization. Unlike the other nations it invades, the Fire Nation uses industrial machinery for infrastructure and weaponry.

However, the clearest inspiration for the Fire Nation comes from the era immediately following the Meiji. The Taishō Era (1912-1926) was marked by heightened militarization, along with the Empire of Japan’s encroachment into and colonization of other Asian countries leading into the events of World War II, which fell under the Shōwa Era (1926-1989). From the voiceover in Avatar’s opening sequence, we find out that the Fire Nation began a war 100 years ago and has been attacking the other nations since, decimating them and conquering them in a bid to control the entire world. The Fire Nation is militarized and structured around a totalitarian monarch, the Fire Lord, as the head of the nation.

Even the language the Fire Nation uses for its conquest of other nations echoes that used by the Empire of Japan. In one scene, Fire Lord Sozin, who began the war a century before the events of the series, praises the wealth and innovation of the Fire Nation to Avatar Roku, who is also a member of the Fire Nation. Sozin says:

"Our nation is experiencing an unprecedented time of peace and wealth. Our people are happy, and we’re so fortunate in so many ways…We should share this prosperity with the rest of the world. In our hands is the most successful empire in history. It’s time we expanded it."

Sozin’s reasoning is strikingly reminiscent of the rationale behind the Empire of Japan’s invasion of the Asian mainland; it too couched its imperialism in terms of prosperity and sharing of fortune, dubbing it the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The intention was to create cultural unity between Asian countries in a bid to resist the increasing encroachment of Western imperialism. However grandiose the language, the effects of these military campaigns are clear: Throughout Avatar, the main characters see the desolation and destruction of nations that came from Sozin’s pontification, just as the effects of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere resonate in many Asian countries to this day.

Avatar’s worldbuilding is unique in that it draws from concrete elements of world history outside of the European context, creating an original fantasy world by superimposing and fusing key eras in Japanese history as the foundation for the Fire Nation. What results is a fictional nation that isn’t reliant upon stereotypes, which is often the case when white creators try to draw on non-Western cultures for their fictional realms. What makes the Japanese inspiration for the Fire Nation identifiable isn’t the clothing, the food, or inclusion of a geisha analog — which is usually how "Japan" is signified to a non-Western audience. Instead, the creators drew on Japanese history, which creates a more grounded and compelling foundation for an original world. The Fire Nation doesn’t directly represent Japan any more than the kingdoms of Middle-earth directly represent England. But each draws elements from real-world nations and histories to create something new that feels decidedly real.

Credit: Nickelodeon

It’s this focus on history, rather than on stereotype, that makes Avatar an example of non-Western worldbuilding done well, even by those outside of the tradition they are emulating. Yet there is always the danger of tokenizing, stereotyping, and even oversimplifying characterizations when drawing on unfamiliar cultures or histories. This is why it is so crucial to include a wide range of writers on a project that draws on series like Avatar that are trying to develop a new fantasy world. Even in the depiction of the Fire Nation there are moments, as someone deeply familiar with and invested in Japanese history, where I wonder whether the creators thought through some of the implications of how they depict the Fire Nation’s story arc, particularly in Book Three. Fire Prince Zuko’s gradual realization about the insidious nature of the Fire Nation comes to a head when he confronts his father, Fire Lord Ozai. Zuko says:

"Growing up we were taught that the Fire Nation was the greatest civilization in history. And somehow, the war was our way of sharing our greatness with the rest of the world. What an amazing lie that was. The people of the world are terrified by the Fire Nation! They don’t see our greatness, they hate us. And we deserve it. We’ve created an era of fear in the world. And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness."

While Zuko’s sentiments work well for a clean narrative arc, it also seems like a highly sanitized solution to the main tension within the series, as it implies the sins of an entire nation are essentially erased if a problematic leader is removed. There is historical precedence for this in immediate post-World War II Japan, with the American occupation’s line being that the Japanese people had been duped by the military into going to war. Rather than own up to the atrocities committed during the war, Japan has historically elided responsibility for much of its imperialism. South Korea, in particular, has called for the Japanese government to apologize for Japanese atrocities committed under imperialism, pointing out how many official statements tend to minimize Japan’s active role in colonialism. These same criticisms have been raised as recently as 2018.

In many ways, Avatar presents a similar resolution for its fictional war; it isn’t clear that the Fire Nation takes concrete responsibility for the wide-scale destruction of a number of cities and villages. There is only a call for the end of war and a move toward a peaceful future.

It could be argued that because the show was intended for a younger demographic, this neater, simplistic ending works best. But, on the other hand, the series had never shied away from complex and serious topics throughout its run. Within the first season alone, audiences grapple with war, totalitarianism, and genocide — all heavy topics for a children’s television show. If we are working within the realm of an original world, why not explore alternative historical outcomes? Why not explore the fantasy-world ramifications of these very real-world atrocities?

While Avatar offers a well-crafted fantasy world based on Eastern influence, the blind spots of its creators become apparent in moments like this, where the story falls short of the influences it relies on. Bringing in more writers familiar with the themes and histories that the four nations are built on would have fleshed out moments that lack depth.

Credit: Nickelodeon

But the show was unique, particularly at the time, for the way it went about non-Western representation and deserves credit for the creative and narrative risks it took. In an interview with tor.com, show creator Michael Dante DiMartino said: “In order for the story to feel epic, and to feel like there were real stakes involved, we had to go darker, more serious in places at times, and I am thankful that Nickelodeon gave us that creative freedom."

The hope now is that Avatar acts as a precedent for non-white creators who want to do similar genre-bending explorations in their own shows and that these non-white creators will get the same creative freedom the creators of Avatar did. Avatar’s lasting popularity over the past 15 years shows that there is a clear market for fantasy that pushes the bounds of genre and that imagines new worlds outside of the standard medieval fantasy format.

While speaking with Raffi Khatchadourian of The New Yorker Radio Hour, acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin touched on the importance of Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin’s works in her ability to see herself as a writer in these genres. “You understand that you are capable of what you see," Jemisin said. "If you never see a Black person in a particular space, then you get the very clear message that you are not welcome in that space." In other words: It’s important that shows from non-Western perspectives, created by non-white showrunners, are green-lit both for audiences who crave these stories, but also for the creators who want to see more of themselves out in the world.

As someone who grew up seeing few attempts in media to earnestly draw on non-Western cultures, seeing Avatar hit such mainstream success was encouraging. Suddenly, there were well-rounded characters who looked like me, who moved in a fantastic realm bolstered by an epic story arc. Avatar wasn’t merely about playing off of exoticism or otherness. Instead, it showed how to imagine the possibility of new worlds and different futures, including possibilities for the world we inhabit.

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