By ANTHP2000 9 Comments
I've been thinking for a while now of doing some write-ups on some of my personal favorite groups of characters from the titles, talking about their history, their relationship dynamics and what really makes them great. Thought I'd start with Aang, who started it all, and his fam.
"Water. Earth. Fire. Air. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance between the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. But that all changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar mastered all four elements. Only he could stop the ruthless firebenders. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years have passed and the Fire Nation is nearing victory in the War. Two years ago, my father and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation, leaving me and my brother to look after our tribe. Some people believe that the Avatar was never reborn into the Air Nomads, and that the cycle is broken. But I haven't lost hope. I still believe that somehow, the Avatar will return to save the world."Katara, (The Last Airbender, Book 1: Water, "The Boy In The Iceberg")
One hundred years after the Genocide of the Air Nomads by Firelord Sozin, Katara and her brother free Aang, the biologically 12 year old boy, from the iceberg he subconsciously put himself into before the War. The Avatar returns, and the journey to the defeat of Firelord Ozai begins. From the poles to Omashu, to the Foggy Swamp and the impenetrable City, under Lake Laogai and the Western Air Temple, deep within the Fire Nation. Aang and Katara explore the world, and with it life itself. They make fiends, allies, enemies, and grow into full fledged heroes; the heroes we grew up with.
When we first meet him, Aang is trying to hide his identity. It is not until Prince Zuko comes for him that Katara and her village learn it is the Avatar they unfroze from the block of ice. This is a kid that never wanted to accept such a burden on his shoulders. Being the Avatar had only brought him trouble up to that point, the Monks tried to take him away from his home and family in the Southern Air Temple to harden him because they knew the War approached. He fled, denying his responsibilities, he was not there to protect his people when they needed him, he disappeared for 100 years, letting the entire world down. Throughout his travels, Aang came across people who were glad the Avatar had returned, gave them a beacon of hope, he came across people who had given up and could not believe anymore, and others that felt nothing but anger for his disappearance (The Storm). When he finally forgives himself in The Guru, he makes one crucial mistake and fails the world, all over again; one of the most graphically beautiful scenes between Aang and Katara is the death of the Avatar under the Crystal Catacombs of Old Ba Sing Se:
The light, the slow, dramatic elevation to the sky, and Aang's hands representing the Avatar holding the universe within their grasp are all imagery serving for the visual display of hope that arises with the savior, hope you can see in Katara's eyes as they are ready to turn the tides in this battle, and this war. Until lightning struck through the back of Aang and exited his body from below, a moment the second book's been building up from the beginning, lightning generation -- the weapon used to kill Aang -- having being introduced in the same chapter where the Avatar State and the Cycle are explained. Katara's eyes break down in tears, and we see the protective side of hers in that moment more than ever as she engulfs Zuko and the Dai Li in water to catch Aang's body dropping from the air.
Katara holding Aang's lifeless body in form identical to Michelangelo's Pietà emphasizes this side of hers further, while adding to the tragedy of the event. Soon after, Aang is resurrected, in a similar fashion to Jesus Christ. The artists use Christian beliefs as a means to dramatically represent the fall of the Earth Kingdom and the personal failure of Aang, while still letting in a ray of hope for the viewers. The scene closes with a parallel to the very first scene in the series, when Aang wakes up in Katara's hands.
Weeks later, Aang is devastated when he wakes up and finds out that everyone believes him dead. It is the beginning of his journey all over again. Only this time, it is more personal; he's not just let a faceless world down, he's disappointed the people he met in his travels, he's disappointed his masters, he's disappointed his friends, and he's disappointed Katara. He refuses to hide his arrow tattoos for the benefit of everyone. For one, foolish moment he thinks he can do it alone. The spirits of Avatar Roku and Princess Yue appear to enourage him. Aang would not have made it out of the storm without them, and he could not make it out of the storm he'd put himself into after Ba Sing Se alone either. Aang is a 12 year old kid who had to forgive himself for not accepting the burden of an entire world, twice.
Aang and Appa.
While we are on the self-forgivance aspect of Aang's mental journey, I think the tragic loss of Appa halfway into the Earth Kindom should be discussed. As someone who's lost a pet in a very similar manner, this arc touches me deeply. Animals are often the best company -- we see them as the inferior spieces because they are not quite as smart, or as civilized, or advanced intellectually. This also makes them more pure and innocent though. Your pet-companion is not going to hurt you, it's only going to take your stress away and show you love, and make you feel needed.
An airbender's sky bison is their best friend for life, and for Aang to lose Appa to poachers after leaving him behind for minutes it is heartbreaking, unjust, and painful. Aang blames himself. It doesn't matter that he tried to put the blame on Toph to subconsciously soothe the pain in the beginning, the truth is he believes it to be his fault. And he continues to believe it down the line, all the way to the capital city. Appa's Lost Days serves not just as a means of character development for Appa, or just as a message against animal cruelty, but also as a justification of Aang's anger, sadness and self-blame. Aang is losing himself throughout this part of his travels, and when he finds Appa, he finds himself again.
Making your destiny.
The parallels between Aang and Prince Zuko have been there throughout the entirety of the show, and Aang's character arc during Sozin's Comet epitomizes this motif. Perhaps it would be wise to use a common mentor to elaborate on this, revisiting Aang's talk with uncle Iroh in the Crystal Catacombs;
"Perfection and power are overrated. I think you are very wise to choose happiness and love."Iroh, (The Last Airbender, Book 2: Earth, "The Crossroads of Destiny")
Guru Pathik advised Aang to let go of his wordly concerns and detach himself if he is to serve his duty as the Avatar. It is interesting how this is juxtaposed to what Avatar Yangchen told him prior to the Comet's arrival; Aang could never detach himself if he is to save the world. She said to him what he wanted to hear from the Guru back in the Eastern Temple -- but it was not what he wanted to hear now. These are polar opposite pieces of advice, but what they have in common is that both of them lead to unhappiness, they lead to Aang abandoning his true self for a destiny his elders believe they should impose on him. Aang's destiny is either to kill the Firelord, or to let the world burn. Zuko's destiny is either to capture the Avatar, or to fail himself for life. But destiny is a funny thing, and you cannot force it onto someone -- Aang chose to make his own destiny.
"You may not always see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if you keep moving, you will come to a better place".Iroh, (The Last Airbender, Book 2: Earth, The Crossroads of Destiny")
And so Aang kept moving, and he kept looking deep within himself. And he found a way. The Lion Turtle, inspired by the Chinese World Turtle, was going to play a crucial role in the defeat of the Firelord from the beginning, and the imagery of the wise, timeless beast had been following Aang from the beginning of his travels.
Aang stayed true to himself, his mind, his heart -- his choices in the heat of the battle. He weathered all lies and illusions without being lost, and he touched the poison of hatred and remained unharmed. Facing the physical, human embodiment of raw evil, he was the victor, going from the boy in the iceberg, to Avatar Aang, and he did so without losing his truth.
I am aware of the critcism around the writing of Aang's arc in the final chapters, of the negative correlations between the potential for moral dilemmas and the Lion Turtle as a Deus ex machina. I dismiss those. This is not what Aang's story is about. Aang's story is about a child thrown into a world full of hatred, war, and despair, and in that world, he chooses love, peace, and happiness. Aang is pure, he is a hero who symbolizes the ideals of a good man. He has all the power in the world, and uses it to do good. He respects all life, from the last seed of a burning forest to the most vile, cruel man on the planet. He loves, he forgives, he helps and he gives hope. What may be perceived as his weakness, is in actuality his strength. His positive attitude is what makes him the heart of Avatar, and a compelling protagonist, as well as a fine role model for kids and people everywhere. Most of us cannot be like Aang, and in no small part that is because we do not have as much power and opportunity as he does -- which might be a good thing. But we can try to be as much like him as we can. I'm glad I grew up with Aang, and I would not change one thing about his journey.
But what would that journey be without Katara? The fierce, compassionate, level-headed glue that kept them all together. Katara is a unique character within the lore; she is the person whose eyes the story is been told through. She is the main form of narrative exposition, the writers' self-insert in the story. She was there in the first and the last scene of the series, and she is the backbone of every circle she became a part of, providing us with insight through her natural intuition and careful nature.
It makes sense, provided her role in the narrative, that the role Katara served in the context of the team would be that of the most human character. Katara comes from an average village, with average every-day struggles in a time of war. She is an average girl who's suffered the cruelty of that war on a deeply personal level; the war took her mother away, an everlasting emotional struggle she's going through depicted visually in the shape and form of the necklace she inherited from Kya. The war took her father away for years after, and it forced her to mature into a necessary mother figure to her brother and friends. Katara was there before Aang's time, and she lived through the war before him. This combined frame is what Katara represents: the struggles of a kid who's lost what means most to her in the War, a kid that grew up too soon. And while we can see that this part of her can be a tad difficult for others to accept sometimes, as we saw in The Runaway, it is also what they most love about -- and need from -- her.
This emotional maturity is what also makes her one of Aang's most competent and efficient allies; she was the most challenging fighter on the team for Princess Azula, even moreso than the Avatar himself, for the Princess did not have a psychological edge on her like she did with everyone else, a strength Katara fully acknowledges.
It's of no surprise that some of the most realistic, painful story arcs, where the viewer follows not so much the protagonist, the villain and the first line soldier, but the little, relatable guy who's lived through a circumstance as unjust as the timeline of The Last Airbender, focus on Katara much moreso than anyone else: Imprisoned was a story about every villager forced to hide, pay the enemy with their hard earned money, bullied every day, sentenced to life in prison, leaving back women and children to fend for themselves. It's a boy hiding a part of himself, it's neighbor betraying neighbor, it's mother having her son taken away from her. The Serpent's Pass was a story about every fugitive forced to leave their home in search of a safer world, a woman bearing a child during war-time -- a child that would symbolically represent hope within the madness of war. The Painted Lady is the epitome of Katara's beliefs and a true test of her character. It is Fire Nation people who suffer all the above she witnessed in the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes, but she looks past the "Fire Nation" label and focuses on the "people". She will go out of her way to help them, because she will never turn her back on people who need her. This is an interesting parallel to Aang briefly undertaking the identity of Kuzon to help the new generation of the Fire Nation -- Katara and Aang share an understanding of war and its effects on humanity.
The dark side.
Katara's inner struggle is a recurring theme in the third book. She is powerful and compassionate, a warrior and a mother, a feminism symbol, she fights against the wrong in the world and fights for the right in it. But she is also very humane, and she has to combat part of herself to be that person. The day Prince Zuko joins the group marks the first time we see a particularly frightening side of hers, as she threatens to take his life the moment he slips. Katara spent a chapter denying the mad, inhuman power Hama forced on her, the dark side of waterbending physically representing the dark side of herself, but she uses it with no remorse in a state of pain and anger, and need for closure and revenge against the leader of the Southern Raiders.
When it comes down to her confrontation with her mother's killer, Katara's inner turmoil is graphically presented in her waterbending, an integral part of her person.
The dark, gloomy setting of a rain-storm encapsulating the darkness of Katara's feelings and hiding her tears opens way for her to stop thousands of raindrops dead; in the same way time and mind stop during the moment in which she considers taking a life. She gives shape to a liquid barrier, shielding herself from all things around her -- it is only herself and her judgement. The rage crystalizes itself as she decides to go through with the execution of the man, turning the water to sharp-edged ice directed at him.
But at the last minute, that rage cools down, and the ice turns to water and falls against the ground in front of her. Katara proves strong enough to not end this miserable life of his, and in the process she learns to come to terms with the loss of her mother. She manages to forgive Zuko, in whom she previously saw the personification of war, cruelty, and betrayal. She pulled through. In Korra, we learn that bloodbending has been declared illegal thanks to her, a symbolic way of Katara's abandoning of her dark side.
Travelling the world, Katara took in valuable lessons on friendship, trust, and power, and we took those in with her. You could argue that The Last Airbender is as much Katara's story as it is Aang's. And as the two complete each other, they made for a powerful duo, a great legacy, and a happy family, with the mantle passing down to the next generation.
The shadow of Aang.
Having established democracy and the United Republic, Aang, a now much celebrated Avatar, has passed away, and Katara resides in the South Pole acting as a mentor to the new Avatar. Their youngest, Tenzin, a sensitive but courageous, level-headed, traditionalist plays the role of the narrator in this new title. Tenzin is rather special to me as a character; his personality is one with which I most relate to in a lot of ways. But he is also special as soon as the first book of Korra's story, he and his family acting as the major connection between the two eras. This monk is a complicated figure in that he is passing down his father's teachings back to him, through Korra, a fact that makes the relationship between the two of them quite remarkable. Tenzin is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of Aang's legacy. His very namesake is inspired by the same person Monk Gyatso was inspired by, he bonded with a sky bison he named Oogie, a reference to the love between his parents, his four children's eye colors represent the balance between the four nations as Aang thrived to achieve it, and he even received his own tattoos upon inventing the air cycle, a technique strikingly similar to Aang's own air-scooter. Tenzin is truly his father's son; but is he just that?
The truth is, being the Avatar's, the last airbender's, legacy is a lot of pressure, and as much as Aang and Katara did not intent for Tenzin to feel this way, it is very clear why he would, reading through his parents' letters to him in Legacy. Tenzin feels like he could never live up to Aang -- much moreso when it is revealed that he has never been able to meditate into the spirit world at will. In his efforts to change that, he loses himself. Tenzin's scene in the Fog of Lost Souls is a very graphic way of presenting that conflict within him; Zhao, a character of Aang's time even appears and refers to him as the Avatar, further adding to the flawed way in which Tenzin views himself not as a separate individual, but as a continuation of Aang's life. Tenzin cannot escape this fog and save his family without finding himself first -- he is not just Aang's son, he is his own man.
From my interpretation of the cinematic language in this scene, the conversation occurs entirely inside Tenzin's head. Afterall, the spirit of the Fog has you confront your worst fears mentally. The positioning of the two and the subsequent reshaping of Aang's body into Tenzin's displays the latter personal growth; he can finally see himself as Tenzin instead of being trapped into the self-perception of being a failed reflection of his father.
"I don't know how to contemplate the world without first thinking of the people I care about."
I've seen criticism of people not wanting to accept that a character as inherently good as Aang made such mistakes as a father. But why is that a negative? The best people make mistakes, and no one is born a parent. It's worth remembering that Aang did not grow up with an actual, biological family. He grew up with monks, and the closest he had to a parent-son relationship was his teacher-student dynamic with Gyatso. Aang's flaws as a father are mostly brought up after we're introduced to Tenzin's older siblings, Bumi and Kya, who were raised feeling neglected by Aang. When the two first arrive at the Southern Air Temple, the air acolytes do not even recongnize them.
"You think you're some savior has to carry on dad's legacy. [...] We're Aang's kids too."Kya and Bumi, (The Legend of Korra, Book 2: "Civil Wars I")
If Tenzin can be seen as the legacy of Aang himself as a person, Bumi and Kya can definitely be seen as the most significant parts of Aang's life; his support system, his love, his family. Bumi represents Aang's friends from before the iceberg, King Bumi, the mad genius, with whom he shares a striking physical resemblence, and his friends from after, the crafty, tactical uncle Sokka. On the opposite end, Kya is named after Katara's late mother, and her very character is a more mature, wise version of her mother as we saw her in The Last Airbender. Kya is compassionate, joyful, teasing, good-natured, protective and brave. She knows what her people feel, need and when they need it. Her interactions with Bumi (Civil Wars II), Jinora (The Guide), and Korra and Asami (Turf Wars I) best paint that picture, and it's of no surprise that she believes in auras. The whereabouts of Kya's necklace are unknown, but there's a fine chance it is the one Pakku crafted for Kanna at the end of the Hundred-Year War.
The legacy Bumi and Kya carry on their shoulders can be seen more explicitly in the third season; Bumi's newfound airbending abilities are revealed to his family in an identical fashion to how Aang's airbending abilities were revealed to King Bumi in Omashu. Meanwhile we see more waterbending from Kya, whose healing abilities, a significant part of her mother's person, are not the only skill she inherited from Katara. Katara's waterbending style is unique in that she has experience with masters from all three styles in the world; the North, the South, and the Foggy Swamp. Kya is the one waterbender whose style is identical to Katara's, best seen in her duel with Zaheer, in which she needs to put pressure on the airbender to not let him escape the Island. Kya's reaction to finding out Zaheer's true identity is notable; of course the adults of Korra knew of the Red Lotus, but there's a particular difference in how Kya interacts with Zaheer and how she interacts with Ghazan and Ming-Hua later in the book. It has been theorized that Zaheer is the one that killed Sokka in battle 13 years ago, when the Red Lotus first tried to kidnap Avatar Korra, and that this fight was as personal to Kya as it could be as a result. Looking at the choreography, it adds up, seeing as Kya was unusually direct and overextended herself at points, which is what gave Zaheer the openings to knock her down and flee.
And while this legacy is very apparent, Kya and Bumi are, much like Tenzin, separate characters to Aang's companions. Bumi made a difference in the world becoming a well decorated military general for the United Republic, a respected ally of Lord Zuko and Republic City, while Kya grew to become the wise, aware person she is upon travelling the world and finding herself, her sexuality, and her ideals. Both Pema and Tenzin's siblings heart-warmingly support him in the third book, fittingly titled Change, when Tenzin, after emotionally taking in the new airbenders from all around the world to mentor them in the ways of the Nomads, is having a difficult time adjusting to change, which, in Tenzin's own words, can be good or bad depending on how you view it. These people are airbenders, but not Nomads, and all the good will in the world cannot negate that. Coupled with Tenzin's denying to accept that his own kids are growing up, he needed the support of his siblings more than ever. In the process of offering that support, Bumi and Kya also became part of Tenzin's wider family known as the New Air Nation, enough so that they were willing to risk their lives to protect them. Protect them, and their father's new life. Tenzin, Bumi and Kya all share in the same legacy; one thing I like is how Aang notes that Tenzin being the son of a waterbender, the Southern Tribe's culture is a part of him too. The same can be said -- and seen -- with Tenzin's siblings.
I do not expect characters of this age to develop all that much. I am more eager to find out as much as possible about their lives and what led to them being who they are; but Aang and Katara's kids actually did develop too. Bumi got over his insecurities against his father and Tenzin, and the latter changed himself fundamentally: the finally satisfied-with-himself, traditionalist who sported a modernized glider suit. Even Kya, who was already the most mature, complete person in the family, grew past her demons by the end. You have to love this family; they are the lot of them people we need and deserve more in our lives if we are to be happy, like the happy family that they are.