Sunday, June 21, 2015

Untimely Revue: Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season 1

Welcome to the first episode of Untimely Reviews here on Cthulhu Wept! I've done this before elsewhere, but it's time to do it here. Anyway, the target today is Avatar: The Last Airbender, Season One. Letsago!

You know, the first time I tried to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, I couldn't even finish the first episode. Something just didn't jive with me. Whether that was my expectations going in, where I was in life, or just me having a bad day, I don't know. What I do know is that I've really enjoyed watching the first season (I'm around half-way through season two, and I need to pick it back up). What follows is based on my notes as I watched, organized roughly into sections, with some overlap in spots.

First, let's talk about Character Development!

I absolutely love Katara. She's my kind of lady. Her unhappiness with gender norms—particularly those at the North Pole—make her really interesting. At times she conforms to those roles, like when she develops the ability to heal with water, but she also doesn't want to be restricted to only those roles. She's both kick-butt and empathetic, and wholly awesome.

Aang is cool. There's enough balance between his pranksterish side and his deeper side that he doesn't seem…cartoonish. Heh. I find his combat style very interesting. He's all about avoidance, with no direct violence. It strikes me as very Buddhist, which I suppose is fitting for a character who grew up in a pseudo-Buddhist monastery. Even when he gains the ability to firebend and waterbend, he's still only using his powers in self-defense for the most part. When he's conscious, that is. The Avatar State is a whole nuther story, one that seems like bad mojo all around. The Avatar State strikes me as something the Avatar would be pretty desperate to avoid. Aang's relationship with Katara is foreshadowed from the very beginning, with his opening line to her. (More on that later!)

Sokka, though... So far Sokka seems like a stock anime character. He's always hungry, kind of an idiot, prone to making bad decisions, etc. etc. etc. Credit where it's due, he's brave. It's a bravery that gets played for laughs a lot (as in the initial defense of the South Pole where he's commanding toddlers) but he's still brave. Which is yet another stock anime/cartoon sort of character. 

Now Iroh, I love Iroh. My favorite character, and one of the most nuanced. He's just like everyone's old uncle or grandpa or wise old dude. It's another stock character, but it works so well as a counterpoint against the rest of the Fire Nation. He's just charming, and a little sad. And compared to everyone around him, sane. He's just a breath of fresh air. Someone without any big agenda other than to protect his nephew/surrogate son and act as a moral compass for those around him.  

Zuko is eh. Potential to have a good arc but I'm not really a fan. Much like Iroh or Sokka, he's more or less a stock character. In this case, the conflicted villain who will come around to the hero's side by the end of the series. I've seen it in many of the anime and cartoons I've watched frequently. It doesn't particularly bother me, it just leaves me a bit unimpressed. Also, his obsession with honor won't come back to haunt him at all. Not a bit. No way. (Also also, is it just me or does his voice actor have a lisp? Not sure if it's meant to be Zuko's scar, or just a lisp. It doesn't bother me, just intrigues me).

The various villains are also pretty well done. Again, even though many are just sort of stock filler characters, their ambitions and choices make them unique. Take Zhao. He's kind of a bumbling, angry villain, like Bebop and Rocksteady or any number of any other cartoon/anime opponents. But there's an intensity to him, a willingness to do WHATEVER it takes to catch Aang, that sets him apart, tells us something about him and about the Fire Nation as a whole. Bebop and Rocksteady were determined and angry and dumb, but they still had limits. Not Zhao. He'd do whatever a kid's cartoon will allow him to do in order to catch the Avatar. 

The interactions between all these characters, as well as the minor characters, is well-handled. Even the characters who are mostly just set dressing (cabbage man comes to mind), seem to have personalities. The dude who is zen-dodging a Platypus Bear, Cabbage Man, the troupe of stoner musicians (oh, come on, they're stoners, admit it). All of those characters get one episode or less to be developed in, and yet don't feel two-dimensional at all. They feel like people. 

All of the major characters interact with each other in particularly vivid ways. The weird triangle between Zuko, Aang, and Katara, where they all seem really unsure of how to react and respond to the others, sticks out for me in particular. Zuko keeps trying to capture Aang, Aang repeatedly says "We could have been friends" or words to that effect, Katara cares about Aang, Zuko is kind of weirdly aggressive towards Katara, Aang has a crush on Katara, it all feels very dynamic. The same goes for how Iroh treats Aang and Zuko—I get this strange sensation that Iroh sees his son in both of the boys, and doesn't want either to do something regrettable. 

What I'm saying is, despite some really stock trope characters, this first season has some really strong characterization and interaction. Even though Zuko, Sokka, and Iroh all conform to stock character actions in some ways, they still defy that and manage to be interesting all the same. That takes doing. Taking stock roles and turning them into likeable characters is hard work.

Now, let's talk about Art Direction, Music, and Writing!

Um. As far as it goes. The animation is solid. The art style doesn't have as much "character" as some shows but it's definitely not bad. It works, it fits the overall vibe, some of it is pretty cool. The music makes me feel pretty let down. It feels very generic, like they took standard cartoon music and added some Asian instruments to it. I would have loved traditional Japanese/Chinese/elsewhere in Asia folk tunes and instruments. Those different regions have scales and tones and musical patterns that are vastly different from Western music, and would have created a really unique atmosphere. Ah well. 
While I'm not a huge fan of the art style, the art design is fantastic. The Fire Nation ships, the Earth Kingdom cities, the clothing designs, all of that is quite well-done. Aang's clothes evoke a Buddhist monk aesthetic, Sokka and Katara look like Asian Inuit (that's a thing now), the Fire Nation has this great military/industrial look to it… All pretty cool. 

In particular, the difference between the various nations and locations is handled well. You can tell a Fire Nation silhouette apart from an Earth Kingdom silhouette with ease, and I appreciate that. Each nation feels very diverse, aesthetically, culturally, and societally. 

At first I was afraid that Sokka would be the punchline for everything, but that isn't the case. The humor is actually handled well. Which should have been obvious as soon as Aang said, "What? Do I look like a 112 year old man to you?"

Talking about humor, the writing, especially dialogue, is darn good. It's not amazing, but it's good. The characters have distinct and realistic speech patterns, and it feels natural. That's difficult to do, let me tell ya. 

Overall I'm pretty much neutral towards the art style and aesthetics of this show. They don't amaze me, but few shows do. You don't get the art direction and filming of a True Detective or the incredible soundtrack of a Cowboy Bebop very often, and not being on that level doesn't make The Last Airbender a bad show by any means. The writing is also quite good, with dialogue that fits the characters and feels natural, so that's a plus in my book.

Now, on to Plot and Individual Episodes!

This here is where I ramble a bit about episodes I found particularly noteworthy in some respect. Mostly good things, except for the first entry.

The imprisoned Earthbender episode was meh. Not a huge fan of it. Wasn't bad just lacked sparkle. Felt a bit too moralizing. Katara giving her speech, no response; Aang gives them the means and all of a sudden the Earthbender morale is back. Am I supposed to take away some sort of "tell someone to improve their lot in life and they won't try, but give them the means and they will" message? Because I didn't.

Oh, man, the Mad King episode is glorious. Building on Aang's story while helping him grow as the Avatar and as a person. It sets up a theme I think is going to be really important: It's not the skills that make you an Avatar, it's the mindset, the wisdom. Also it's interesting to see Aang interacting with a childhood friend, having the reality of his age driven home once again. 

The Winter Solstice episode was great. Built up Zuko's inner conflict, provided backstory for Iroh, set up the mid-season climax, had a great plot hook, built on Aang's powers, and was mildly creepy.

The Jet episode was excellent for two reasons. One, more development of Aang Katara and Sokka, the relationships between them. Two, seeding the idea that Fire Nation aren't the only nation with bad people. With the benefit of a bit of foresight, I think that idea is going to come into play next season.

The storm episode did a nice job of paralleling Aang and Zuko, setting up each of their back stories. Also, this is the first time we meet Azula, who looks to be this show's Joffrey. Oh, and cementing that Iroh is by far my favorite character. Seriously. Iroh is the best.

The Blue Spirit episode was excellent. Zuko is beginning to take action against the Fire Nation. There's a mental split going on that is exemplified by him turning his back on the Fire Nation emblem at the end. It's a subtle, subtle thing, but really nice. I love subtle touches like that. I'm a sucker for 'em. Aang choosing to save Zuko also seems to be foreshadowing something.

So the Jeong Jeong episode really showcased Aang's immaturity. That isn't his fault, but it makes it clear he has a lot of growing to do. But he is capable of growing, compared to, say, Zhao. I suspect that Zuko is a middle ground between those two characters. That said, seeing Aang's level of firebending power was cool. As was Katara's development of healing abilities. I feel bad for Jeong Jeong though. 

The Northern Air Temple.... Seeing Aang react to how things have changed was good. The ending sets up new weapons for the Fire Nation. Introduced a "minority" character who was empowered, so if that's your thing. Aang's anger over a sacred space being defiled was justified, and I think that's one of the first time's he's actually gotten angry, rather than just going into the Avatar State. 

The Kyoshi Island episode is a surprisingly busy character development episode. Aang's tendency to show off, Katara's already-blooming jealousy regarding Aang. Sokka's desire to not be shown up, and his treatment of girls, and how it changes. Also his Sokka's first girlfriend. The one who doesn't turn into the moon. 

On a related note, someone mentioned they felt Kataang was a forced relationship, that Aang badgered Katara into loving him. I don't think that's true. I think that, so far, Katara cares about Aang a great deal, but sees him as both younger than herself, and thus in need of protection, and older/wiser/more powerful than herself, and thus beyond her. So she hasn't realized that her affection for him is romantic. The ending of the Kyoshi Island episode solidifies that in my mind. Katara's reaction to Sokka's comment about Aang being a great bender tells me that she never considered him in that light, but that she might in the future. Also, Sokka's fortune is hilarious. Katara's fortune... I'm curious to see if it will carry out in The Legend of Korra. (And the very next episode, Katara kisses Aang with the excuse that it's for Zuko, backing my theory up. I love it when I'm right!)

Once again, I have a few critiques, but my total takeaway is positive. There are a few episodes that I was "meh" about, and one or two I really disliked (cough cough the Earthbender prison ship cough cough) but the larger picture is one with a season of pretty impactful and enjoyable episodes. The time always feels like it's being used with purpose, and not just to pad things out. Even the more "filler" episodes have a point, as compared to some other shows I've seen recently, where there are episodes that are clearly just there to meet a quota. 

There are also some really interesting ideas about morality, particularly of the black-and-white variety; stuff about friendship and relationships; about grief and grieving; about the lengths one should go to in order to reach their goal; about all kinds of cool stuff that a smarter person than I might write an essay about. (Maybe I will!)

In Conclusion

I enjoyed this! Characters I like, writing that's good, episodes that I enjoyed, those are all good things. I'm not saying this season was perfect, but it was good. Some cool ideas, some cool plot threads, some cool bending. This is definitely a thumbs-up from me. 

Krunk Sez: Things I Didn't

Krunk think Fire Nation am interesting depiction of military-industrial complex at its worst, where industry solely for use of military in order for government to maintain hold on populace and expand reach to other nations. It am remind Krunk of worst of history's regimes, as well as of modern day. 

Krunk also like depiction of martial-arts magic. It am like sorcery but without poncy mages. Krunk hate poncy mages. 

Krunk am wish to play board games with Iroh. Krunk am quite good strategist. Am teach his people pincer movement, nuanced use of cavalry, and concept of "high ground." They am call Krunk "Krunk the General" in Krunk home village. Krunk am have six stars on shoulder, same as George Washington.