Each episode starts off with a brief description of the four elements: water, earth, fire, sky. I was curious about this, though. The intro alone already smacks of Chinese inspiration. Anyone familiar with Chinese Philosophy, however, would identify five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The water, earth, fire, sky elemental combo is of Western descent, although the fifth, aether (or ether), would lie at the very center of it. That was my first complaint, to which my brother sardonically replied with one of his usual Pilosopo Tasyo comments.
So watch I did. The artwork doesn't seem to be of Western origins. In fact, it looks so much like Japanese anime, exhibiting very light and vibrant color schemes reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki flicks. The animation was actually done in South Korea. The series itself is a mix of different Asian cultures, with character and animal names that are obviously Japanese. Sometimes, you can guess at the plot twists because of these. (I deduced what would happen in some episodes because the names were dead giveaways, although I did end up translating some Japanese words for my boyfriend's benefit.) There are some villages that would remind you of China, Japan, and some even very similar to ancient Roman civilizations. The martial arts employed depend on which nation the protagonists find themselves in. You can see Tai Chi for Water, Hung Gar for Earth, Northern Shoalin for Fire and so on.
The plot is of epic proportions. Tribes are divided into four elements, each gifted with people that can control a tribe's assigned element. These people are called Benders. Only one Bender can control all four, he who commands balance, he who is named The Avatar. An avatar is reborn a thousand times over in the order of Water, Earth, Fire and Air. The last Avatar came from the Fire Nation, the current one from the Air.
A hundred years ago, the Fire Nation suddenly came into so much power that they decided to take over all the world's empires. They attacked every nation they came across, deftly annihilating all of the Airbenders, in search for the one person that could stop their tyranny. It was at this time that the last Airbender, the Avatar, disappeared. A century later, Aang, believed to be the last Airbender, was unearthed by two Water Tribe children. Awakened, Aang finds out that he must master all four elements before the Fire Nation comes into power again. This is when the real battle begins.
Like many Japanese anime, Avatar has a gamut of interesting characters. Perhaps Western storytellers have started to veer away from the black-and-white tradition of good versus evil, designing their characters with a bit more depth and dimension. Aang, though a trained monk, is a playful prankster. He is accompanied by the untrained Waterbender Katara and her brother Sokka. Aang and his team must elude not only the Fire Nation, but also the banished Prince Zuko, who is hell-bent on regaining his besmirched honor. Prince Zuko is a fascinating villain, scarred literally and figuratively by the responsibilities he bears at such a young age. He is supported by his uncle, the hilarious General Iroh, who happens to be one of the most powerful Firebenders, albeit the most carefree of them all. So much of this reminds me of master mangaka Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha, especially the presence of the gigantic flying bison, Appa. Avatar's characters aren't Takahashi material just yet, but they get close.
There isn't much in the story line that's actually new, but the way the characters interact with each other is really something to look forward to. Overall, while I could say that it's not really as groundbreaking as Heroes, I find that it's just as engrossing.
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