Anime: The Last Showbender?

Someone once told me that I was hard to predict, but easy to read. Knowing myself, I think I can agree with that. A big part of that’s because I tend to repeat myself frequently about my personal preferences and disinterests. Ergo, it comes as no surprise that my favourite show is Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I’ve wanted to do justice to this 61-episode series for some time. Back when I still blogged regularly on ScrewAttack, I wrote a review that never saw the light of day because Microsoft Word corrupted it as it was 95% complete. I also attempted two lists, one for its fight scenes and another about my favourite episodes, to no avail. Now that I write for Infinite Rainy Day, I figured I’d try again from a different angle. Because the big debate that keeps floating around the internet is whether or not this show is an anime. It’s tough to really sink into, but I’ll start with the reasons it might be regarded as such:

Let’s start with storytelling. The big dividing factor between West and East is their approach to storytelling. In the West, animated shows are usually episodic. They might contain bits and pieces here and there that link thematically, but for the most part Episode 25 and Episode 35 of the same series can be watched isolated and you can still deduce what’s going on. In the East, however, anime is treated like a real narrative, complete with story arcs, climaxes and denouements. Ergo, it’s pretty easy to tell which is which.

Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t like that. It’s a product of the West, true, but it has the narrative flow of a traditional anime. The story is divided into three seasons, or “Books”, and tells the story of a special individual who must stop a war and restore balance to the world. It has episodic moments too, but even then they connect to a grander story. With that all having been said, is Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime?

In the world of anime, the key factor that stands out is the cinematic feel. Anime, like movies, have camera techniques that tell the story. Avatar: The Last Airbender does this too. So many of the best moments incorporate that flair, as the cinematographer has openly admitted to studying camera angles during production. If anime uses camera angles, and Avatar: The Last Airbender uses camera angles, then does that make this show an anime?

Traditionally, anime shows have developed their own shortcuts to save time/resources. Manga Iconography, stock footage, even close-ups during talking are used so money can be better allocated to fight scenes and key moments. Avatar: The Last Airbender does some of the above, particularly the Manga Iconography, but, being a Western show, it has a high-enough budget to compensate for shortcuts. Still, it uses these stylistic shortcuts on occasion. Does that make Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime?

Speaking of which, the action scenes in anime, particularly Shonen, are usually top-notch and awe-inspiring. They employ top-quality angles and colours, and are almost always a visual feast. Avatar: The Last Airbender is the same. I’d argue that it surpasses the fights in most Shonen shows simply because of its budget. Does that make it an anime?

Whenever an anime is dubbed these days, it’s usually given a high degree of importance. You have top translators, writers, localizers, ADR directors, sound mixers and voice actors/actresses to make the final product pleasing to the ears. Avatar: The Last Airbender has all of those; in fact, its voice-work, hemmed by legendary DCAU veteran Andrea Romano, is some of the finest I’ve ever heard to-date. It pools nearly-everyone in LA, including the late-Mako, to create something that rivals Wolf’s Rain, Baccano! and Cowboy Bebop. I know it’s not really dubbed, but it might as well be given how much it sounds like it is!

I could on forever with the comparisons, including the use of recaps, expository dialogue and music to tell the story, but it’d be futile. Avatar: The Last Airbender might have much in-common with anime, but it also has much in common with films too, and we know it’s not a movie. Besides, a turkey can walk and quack like a duck, but at the end of the day…it’s still a turkey. A confused turkey, but a turkey. Avatar: The Last Airbender is no different, as it’s not made in Japan, but rather the West.

Here’s where I pull an M. Night Shayamalan and say that, yes, Avatar: The Last Airbender IS an anime. It’s an anime in the same vein as Spongebob Squarepants, or Batman: The Animated Series. Even The Simpsons and Pixar films are anime! This is because the word “anime” is Japanese for “animation”. “Anime”, in the end, is really no more broad than “cartoon”, as it encompasses the entire spectrum of shows or movies rendered by a group of individuals and put on film.

So yes, Avatar: The Last Airbender is and isn’t an anime. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still watch it, or even re-watch it, as it’s a compelling fantasy that touches on real-world politics (The Third Reich, colonialism, The 100 Years War, the annexation of Tibet) and incorporates them into its expansive and well thought-out universe. It’s smart, subtle, laden with rich philosophies and subtexts and is incredibly empowering for girls. And it holds up as one of the few Western kid’s shows with timeless and cross-cultural appeal, such that the whole “is it an anime” argument seems like it shouldn’t actually BE an argument!

In short, Avatar: The Last Airbender both is and isn’t an anime. You’re welcome, internet!


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