Avatar the Last Airbender is a TV show that aired on Nickelodeon and was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The show is about a young boy named Aang who is found in an iceberg along with his flying bison Appa by brother and sister Sokka and Katara. Aang, like the title suggests, is the Avatar and the last Airbender. The Avatar is the only person that can control all four elements, water, earth, fire and, air; therefore making him the one person that can restore balance to the world. Unfortunately for this world the Avatar had been missing for a hundred years in which time the Fire Nation began a war that wiped out the Air Nomads and is trying to control the world. The show consisted of three seasons or “books” the first one called “Water”, the second “Earth” and the third “Fire.” In each book Aang mastered that element and prepared to finish the war to restore balance to the world with the help of his friends.
Michael DiMartino studied at the Rhode Island School of Design graduating in 1996 with a degree from the Film and Animation Department (Michael DiMartino, TV.com). He has worked onother animated series like King of the Hill, Family Guy, and Mission Hill. He also co-created with Bryan Konietzko a new show in the Avatar world called Legend of Korra that is currently being aired on Nickelodeon. Bryan Konietzko also graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, just in 1998. He is co-creator of Avatar and the art director. According to his personal photo journal site “landscapes are one of the biggest inspirations and most important components to the animated series I co-created Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Konietzko Bryan Photo Journal About). He worked on, King of the Hill before working on Avatar (Bryan Konieztko About, New York Times).
Once we started talking about Buddhism I started thinking that I had seen some of the things we were talking about before. There was something about the way the Buddhist monks dressed and the way the idea of the Oriental Monk was portrayed that seemed familiar. I did not think anything of it until one day when we started talking about the Dalai Lama that it hit me. I had seen similar things in Avatar. I decided to do my final project on Avatar the Last Airbender, its eastern religious influences, and why DiMartino and Konietzko created a show with so many eastern religious influences. I set out to watch the series again and see all the connections I could make between religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Chinese religions. I came upon many different connections and different portrayals of elements from these religions. There were many times when the elements played upon stereotypes that westerners have about these religions and others when the same stereotype was broken.
Here are three prezis I created, one for each book in Avatar the Last Airbender.
Book 1: Water:
Book 2: Earth
Book 3: Fire
Most of the connections I found were to Buddhism. But the question is not what the connections are but why. Why are there connections to these Eastern Religions in a Western show? In an interview done by Matthew Price DiMartino stated that Avatar the Last Airbender “ came out of a desire to create an epic show based in an Eastern style” (Price, Avatar Finding Wide Appeal). Also that “[They] wanted to base (Avatar) on Asian culture and kung-fu and Eastern religion and thought” (Price, Avatar Finding Wide Appeal). Nickelodeon wanted a legends and lore show and Avatar the Last Airbender was the answer. Konietzko stated in regards to the magic of the common legends and lore “Mike and I love those properties, but we really wanted something that was a little bit more natural” (Price, Avatar Finding Wide Appeal). To the creators eastern religion and eastern culture is “epic” and “more natural”. This shows the western perspective of nostalgia towards the east. The east represents a more natural and untouched source of stories for the creators and for the western culture in general.
In a different interview Bryan Konietzko talked about the themes him and Michael DiMartino have tried to put across Avatar the Last Airbender and their new show based in the same world but 70 years later Legend of Korra. Konietzko states:
“It’s always about balance. And that’s balance within yourself. We try to stay away from good versus evil. It’s more about can you find balance within yourself, balance between you and the outside world. And then it was always about trying to balance these four cultures, and not like, “Oh the answer is that everybody’s the same, and it’s all locked down.” There’s always going to be conflict, there’s always going to be different identities. Whether they’re cultural identities, or personal, human identities, or different creature identities, how do you find balance? And I think that is the question of the world, and you can dress it up in a lot of different ways, but that is what it all comes down to. That is what we’ve always been attracted to in Eastern philosophy. And yeah, it is that Zen thing — there is no answer, and so you just have to keep trying. And I would say empathy. That’s like the one answer. You may not ever fully understand someone on the other side of that line of a nation or an enemy or something. But if you just try to empathize…. I think Aang was a great hero in that way…” (Hero Complex, Legend of Korra Creators)
Here Konietzko states that this is why they are interested in Eastern Philosophy, because it is about balance. I think this shows how they see Eastern religion through western eyes. To westerners Eastern religion is about reflection within yourself but it is more than that. DiMartino and Konietzko created a show based on Eastern cultures, using their philosophy and religions but they did so as Westerners. The way they portrayed each nation and used the balance theme is how Westerners see the religions. When they took aspects from each culture they did not portray each character or situation as being perfect, there was no perfect character. Not even Aang who is very similar to the Dalai Lama, they made each situation and character flawed. It added so much more realism to each stereotype they may have portrayed, intended or not.
This affects how their audience sees what they portrayed. The channel Avatar aired on is Nickelodeon, therefore kids are the intended audience. They show was never watered down, or made easier to understand because of the audience. It is a show that can be enjoyed by anyone and therefore anyone can be exposed to these Eastern cultures.