By Louis Chavey
The greatness of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” lies in its ability to transcend boundaries. It was a serialized show in a time when television shows — especially kids’ comedy cartoons like those on Nickelodeon — were mostly episodic. “Avatar” was lighthearted and playful enough to make a child laugh while poignant enough to make an adult bawl their eyes out. Perhaps one of its most impressive feats, though, is presenting a bright, captivating world for children while also maintaining an unparalleled degree of complexity, whether it be in the layered characters and their respective arcs or the fictional world that Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created. What makes both of these beloved, renowned features of “Avatar” work so well is Dimartino and Konietzko’s surgical attention to detail, which was especially evident in the fictional setting of the four nations of “Avatar.” Background elements, like technology and geography, and actual events mirror history to build a charming fictional world still rooted in reality.
The world of “Avatar” features four elements — water, earth, fire and air — with four eponymous nations — the Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. Within these nations, there are a select number of “benders” that can manipulate the single natural element corresponding to their nation; the only person who can bend multiple elements is the “avatar.”
The show starts a hundred years after the Fire Nation declared war on the other three nations, thereby disrupting the natural balance of the four elements. The only person who can stop the war is the “avatar,” who has not been seen for the past century. Katara, a fledgling waterbender, and her older brother Sokka, discover the “avatar,” named Aang, in a block of ice. Together, along with various characters along the journey, they must defeat the Fire Nation and save the world from its tyrannical rule.
Each of these four nations were inspired by cultures from the real world: the Water Tribe by Indigenous Arctic cultures like the Inuits and Yupiks; the Earth Kingdom by monarchical China; the Fire Nation by Imperial Japan; and the Air Nomads by Tibetan Buddhist monks. In “Avatar,” the two main adversaries on a global scale are the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom: the battle between these two nations is similar to that between Imperial Japan and monarchical China in the late 19th to early 20th century.
Dimartino and Konietzko set a similar stage for the conflict between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom to that of Japan and China. Technologically, the Fire Kingdom is an industrialized nation, boasting powerful weaponry that could be only mass-produced — a historical parallel with the 1867 Meiji Restoration, which restored power to the emperor and led to a new Japanese government that aimed to build an Imperialist Japan in the image of Europe (McKay 816). In contrast, both the Earth Kingdom and 19th-century China failed to industrialize; China attempted to do so but could not go far enough.
The geographic features of the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom are akin to that of their historical counterparts. The Fire Nation, like Japan, is a chain of islands with the central authority on the biggest island. In a video essay, YouTube channel “Hello Future Me” states that the creation of a strong naval force was most likely needed to protect trade networks vital to nourish the Fire Nation’s growing population. To sustain this naval force, mass-production — one of the main features of industrialization — was paramount. Imperial Japan, however, mainly industrialized in response to the threats of Western countries.
Geographic similarities likewise abound between the Earth Kingdom’s and China’s political landscapes. Both have large deserts — the Si Wong Desert in “Avatar” and the Gobi Desert and Taklamakan Desert in East Asia — that separate the national central authority, the capital cities of Ba Sing Se and Beijing, respectively, from some of their holdings. This distance could not have been overcome by industrialized technology like trains, so power was delegated to provincial governors in the Earth Kingdom and China. In “Avatar,” these provinces wield great political autonomy; some even have their own judicial system. On the other hand, while Chinese provincial power did culminate in the early 20th century, they never had a degree of political autonomy like that of their fictional counterparts.
Fire Nation attacks on the Earth Kingdom in the beginning of the Hundred Year War mirror the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). The Fire Nation chose to attack the Northwestern Earth Kingdom mainly for access to a steady supply of resources: war would disrupt international trade that was crucial to the Fire Nation’s survival. A secondary reason was the Northwestern Earth Kingdom’s unique strategic position: it was close to all nations. Because of its proximity to the Fire Nation, invading and occupying it was relatively easy compared to other Earth Kingdom territories. The Northwestern Earth Kingdom is also close to the Western Air Temple, the Northern Water Tribe and, naturally, the Earth Kingdom, so the Fire Nation could use this territory to keep its enemies in check. Likewise, the First Sino-Japanese War erupted for the same reasons: Japan was interested in Korea’s strategic position and its natural resources.
The structure of the national government in Ba Sing Se somewhat mirrors that of the late 19th- and early 20th-century China. In “Avatar,” the Earth King is merely a figurehead, while the Dai Li, the secret police protecting Ba Sing Se’s culture, is the actual driving force. A similar power dynamic was present in China, except with Empress Dowager Cixi instead of a secret organization. Although the Guangxu Emperor nominally assumed sole control of the throne, Cixi still held immense sway in state affairs; even during the First Sino-Japanese War, officials bypassed the Guangxu Emperor and asked for her authorization.
The success of “Avatar” boils down to its team’s caring about every single facet of the fictional world, whether it be something as focal as building the main characters or as insignificant as weapons that appear for a few seconds in an episode. Even within the narrow scope of elements and events examined in this article, there are numerous other parallels to different cultures and time periods one can draw; there is no singular inspiration for anything or anyone, no absolute interpretation. This unparalleled attention to detail serves to create a world that is similar to ours — yet wholly unique. “Avatar” challenges one’s worldview unlike any other animated kids’ show — and virtually any other TV show out there — by presenting familiar events, characters and other aspects of the world that are distinct enough to make the viewer question injustices and hypocrisies not unlike those of our world. Moreover, the main characters of “Avatar” never stop trying to address these issues, even when it is clearly beneficial to ignore them. The world of “Avatar” did more than just capture the imagination of bored kids — it showed a whole generation of children that their reality can be anything they want it to be, as long as they shape it with care.
Contact Louis Chavey at louis ‘at’ chavey.org.