Avatar the Last Airbender was and still is a great show for people of all ages. Although it has been seen as strictly a children’s show, it does tackle some very heavy and difficult topics; topics such as – but not limited to – war, genocide, death, loss and abuse. These sound a little too harsh to be in a show for children, however Avatar the Last Airbender tackles them in ways that the younger audience can understand and take in. Heck, if done correctly, we could use this show to compare to world history to help students better understand WWII along with other events. When watched in its entirety, you can actually see where the creators took inspiration from historical events.
As we can see, war is a pretty prominent theme throughout the show. Heck, we start the show while they’re still in the middle of the Hundred Year War! As the characters go on their adventures, we see how people are affected by this war. We see poverty, extortion, death and the despair of many people. Aang and his friends meet a boy named Haru, whose village is under the control of the fire nation. He had to hide his earth bending abilities because the soldiers were taking all earth benders to a labor camp in the middle of the ocean with no earth to bend; no way of defending themselves. This made it easier for the soldiers to control the village and keep them in line.
In the second season, we see Zuko traveling through another village in the earth kingdom by himself. While he’s there, we see that the village is very poor and neglected. We also see earth nation taking advantage of villagers by stealing supplies for ‘the cause’ and threatening to take young boys to the frontlines of the war. Here, we see that there are people taking advantage of the ill affects of the war to take advantage of others who may not be able to defend themselves. Not every soldier is there to protect you, even if they’re on your side. That is a very dark reality, but I’m glad it’s shown none the less.
In the second episode of season one, we see Aang and his friends go to the southern air temple; his home. While there, he discovers the remains of his friends and teachers. This is when he realizes that the fire nation has killed all the air nomads. He is the last of his people.
Now, the characters never use the word genocide in the show, but this is a prime example of what is and what it looks like. In this scene alone, the viewer gets an up close and personal – albeit fictional – look at the effects of genocide.
Katara and Hama’s stories are also examples of genocide. Throughout Katara’s story, we see how the fire nation also tried to wipe out the water benders in her tribe. It was the whole reason why a fire nation soldier killed Katara’s mother; she claimed to be a water bender in order to protect her daughter. We also got to see how they began to take out the water benders when they met Hama, an older woman from the southern water tribe. She was taken from her home sixty years prior – where the fire nation ship from season one episode one came from – when the raids first started.
Death and Loss
In real life, people deal with death and loss in many different ways. Some become depressed, others angry, and so on. The characters in this show are no different.
Jet – the show’s resident peter pan – lost his family when fire nation soldiers raided and burned down his village. He takes in others whom have also suffered similar atrocities and leads his group in messing with any fire nation forces that they come across. All seems well, until he’s seen taking his anger out on an elderly man walking through the woods. Although this man was from the fire nation, it’s very clear that this man cannot defend himself. Jet backs off when Sokka calls him out on harassing an elderly man. He even planned on flooding a nearby village in order to take out the fire nation soldiers who are stationed there. The pain of losing his family and home manifested in anger and rage. He would do anything to rid the world of the fire nation, even leave innocent people to drown without warning. He calms down later in the series.
Katara and Sokka lost their mother in a fire nation raid. Although they both suffered that loss, it affected them differently. Sokka becomes the leader, the man of the house as their father went into the army shortly after their mother died. He works hard to protect the people that he loves. Katara becomes more of a mother figure, making sure everyone is cared for. She also sets out to kill the person who murdered her mother. It should be said that she was in the house when the soldier was questioning her mother. She saw the man that killed her mother. Also, before she decided to go after him, she was separated yet again from her father when Azula attacked them in their hiding place. The fire nation separated her family yet again. However, she does not kill the man. She doesn’t forgive him, but she doesn’t exact her revenge either.
Iroh was a fierce, calculating general for the fire nation. He believed in the fire nations cause. That changed after his only son, Lu Ten dies in the front lines at Ba Sing Se. The very city he was trying to bring down. He has his armies retreat, does not fight his brother for the throne – Iroh was supposed to be fire lord after his and Ozai’s father died- and travels throughout the four nations. He went with Zuko after Ozai banished him (zuko). He then becomes a father figure to Zuko, helping him find his path and his identity as an honorable person because he acts honorable, not when his father decides he is. You can see how Lu Ten’s death affects Iroh in The Tales of Ba Sing Se. In this episode, he helps multiple people while on his way to what seems like a picnic with a friend, maybe Zuko. In the end, he sets up his things by a tree. As he takes out a picture, he says “If only I could have helped you.” and proceeds to sing Leaves from the vine while sobbing. He used his pain to help people the way he wished he would’ve helped his son before he died.
I will talk about other characters more extensively in another post.
It is no surprise that fire lord Ozai was an evil person, believing that he was the ruler of a supreme nation. He ruled with an iron fist, which he would turn on anyone, even his own family.
Throughout the show, Zuko bore the brunt of Ozai’s abuse, even when they were oceans away from one another. His abuse not only resulted in a scar taking up almost half of Zuko’s face, but also effected Zuko’s self esteem and how he saw himself. In the first and second seasons, we see Zuko struggle to capture Aang in order to restore his honor in his father’s eyes. Even when he is able to go back home and restore his place in his family, it isn’t what he thought it would be. There is still a lingering fear that he would be sent away again, which prevents him from speaking out against his father’s plans to burn down the earth kingdom when Sozin’s commit arrives. He still feels like he’s walking on eggshells around his father. Even Azula, Ozai’s favorite child, fears her father’s wrath. This is shown in Part one of season three’s last episode when Ozai tells her that she will not be joining him in his quest to burn down the earth kingdom. She tells her father “You can’t do this! You can’t treat me like Zuko!”
Conclusion Although there are themes in Avatar The Last Airbender that seem mature, it breaks them down in ways that children can understand. It also opens the door for conversations between children and their parents about tough subjects. It also can teach lessons on how certain actions can negatively effect people, working with others and how a little kindness and compassion can go a long way. This is way more than just a kid show. It’s educational