Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most successful animated TV shows to ever come from the United States. The series started airing in February 2005 and wrapped up in 2008. Viewers got instantly hooked into an epic story of how inequality and greed for power can trigger social changes of catastrophic proportions. While the story of the show is praiseworthy, what makes it distinct is how heavily Avatar borrows from Eastern culture, from the spiritual concepts to martial arts.
The culture of the Water Tribes is inspired by the real-life Arctic lifestyle of the Yupik and Inuit tribes. Most people live in igloos and rely on fishing to survive. The spiritual practices of the Water Tribe seem to have influences from Chinese, Japanese, and Native American cultures. The Earth Kingdom has clothing, cultural, and architectural similarities to Chinese civilization. The propaganda and information control in the state bears a stark resemblance to modern China. Military uniforms in the Fire Nation resemble those worn by ancient Chinese armies. The architecture of Air nomads is based on Tibetan and Sri Lankan Buddhists. The compound of the Sun Warriors has buildings influenced by Hindu and Buddhist architecture.
The word “avatar” comes from Hinduism and means “descent,” indicating that a higher power has taken on human form to restore balance on Earth. The main character, Ang, studies about chakras, which house the life force in the human body, according to the religion. Even Ang’s vegetarian diet is similar to what is practiced by Hindu monks. The lifestyle of the Air monks is based on Buddhists. The process of finding a new Avatar in the show resembles the way Tibetan Buddhists select their Dalai Lama. One character achieves enlightenment under a tree, similar to the way Gautama Siddharta attained Buddhahood. The Taoist concept of yin-yang is also predominant in the show.
Martial arts effects
There are several martial art styles in the show. The airbending style is derived from the Taoist Bagua stance and movement. Waterbending is a slow-moving fighting style and is similar to Tai Chi. The firebending fighting style uses fast, aggressive attacks and is inspired by Shaolin Kung Fu. In addition to these techniques, instruments like the boomerang, taken from Aboriginal Australian culture, are also present. Hook swords depicted in the show bear a strong resemblance to the jian swords used in ancient China.
Music and writing influence
The writing system used in the show is not composed of made-up characters. Instead, Avatar features traditional Chinese. Anyone fluent in the language will easily be able to read writings appearing in the show. The background score was largely Asian in style, as the makers wanted to give an epic, otherworldly feel to the series.
The show bagged numerous wins at Annie Awards, Primetime Emmys, and Genesis Awards. A movie version was released in theatres in 2010, but failed to impress viewers as the film could not capture the wonder and excitement that the original series had evoked. Last year, Netflix announced a live-action series of the animated show, with the original creators hired to oversee the project. The show is expected to stream on Netflix sometime in 2020.