30 Day Television Challenge: Day Nine

Best scene ever: Avatar: The Last Airbender, 3.20, “Sozin’s Comet pt.3: Into the Inferno” (Zuko vs. Azula)

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of my all-time favorite shows. Moreover, the fight between Zuko and Azula during the four-part series finale, “Sozin’s Comet”, ranks as the greatest scene ever.

First, about the series.

Avatar is a three-season series that aired on Nickelodean between 2005-08. It’s set in an Asianesque world where certain people can “bend” one of the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. However, every generation there’s one who can bend all four elements, known as the Avatar. To build its mythology, the show draws on various forms of martial arts, as well as symbols and imagery from Indian, South American, Inuit, and Asian cultures.

Aesthetically, it’s an eclectic mix between American-style animation and anime. Content-wise, the show’s target audience is similar to Pixar’s. It’s a family-orientated program that is jubilant enough for kids of most ages, but is also sophisticated enough to satisfy parents and older audiences.

The world of Avatar is split up into four kingdoms, each according to its own respective element. Each generation an Avatar is born into a different kingdom, it’s the Avatar’s job to keep the peace. However, an ambitious Fire Lord takes advantage of the transitional phase between the two Avatars. While the new Avatar, Ang, is still just a young Airbender, the Fire Lord wipes out the nomadic Airbending kingdom, effectively committing genocide. Luckily, the Avatar escapes, as there wasn’t a new one born into the Water kingdom. However, it is now 100 years after the massacre and the Avatar has yet to surface.

(from left to right: Sokka, Katara, and Ang)

Enter our main characters.

It turns out, Ang was caught in a storm and sealed himself in a ball of ice high up in the north. He was preserved for 100 years until a brother and sister from the northern Water Tribe, Sokka and Katara, find him and release him. They team up and travel the world so Ang can find Masters who will teach him the other three elements so he can defeat the Fire Lord, restoring peace to the world. However, they are pursued by Zuko, a disgraced Prince from the Fire Nation who has been exiled until he finds the Avatar.

Across the three seasons, various characters are introduced, killed off, and change. Zuko’s arc is the most developed and complex. Zuko begins the series as the principle antagonist but by the third season he is one of the protagonists, helping Ang to master Firebending. Unfortunately for our characters, Zuko’s sister, Azula, does not experience such a change of heart. Azula and Fire Lord Ozai, her and Zuko’s father, are the principle antagonists by the series finale.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to focus on Zuko’s and Azula’s arcs.

(Zuko and Ang battling in the first season)

The battle between Zuko and Azula is effective because the audience has been looking forward to it the whole series.

What makes Avatar so strong is that the plot has been established from the beginning. That means we have a clear trajectory in terms of plot and character arcs. From the start, we know that it is Ang’s fate to confront the Fire Lord. However, Ang isn’t the only character with a debt to pay. The fight between Azula and Zuko represents Zuko’s final moment of redemption. Once he has defeated Azula, he can finally take his rightful place on top of the throne of the Fire Nation.

Unfortunately for Zuko, Azula is no slouch. Through out the series, Azula has been characterized as Zuko’s superior. Indeed, a crucial element of Zuko’s characterization is his inferiority complex brought on by his prodigious sister. Everything comes easy to Azula, whereas Zuko has had to fight every inch for what he has, only to be cast out by his father.

Nonetheless, while Zuko has experienced a manic character development, and is finally on his way up, Azula has been heading straight for a nervous breakdown.

A megalomaniac and sociopath like her father, Azula alienates everyone around her. Just before her confrontation with Zuko, Azula is preparing for her coronation as Fire Lord. However, she isn’t mentally prepared for it and the power goes to her head. Like Joseph Stalin, Azula suspects treachery at every corner. Having already thrown her two best friends in jail in a previous episode, Azula begins to dismantle her entourage, banshing them from the kingdom. By the time she’s ready to take the throne, Azula is completely alone.

(Azula preparing a lightning strike)

Enter Zuko.

Zuko arrives and sees that his sister is vulnerable. He accepts her challenge to an Agni Kai, a traditional Fire Nation duel. The emotional relevance of the battle is thus significant. Azula and Zuko are both on the precipice of their fates.

This a great moment story-wise, and its aesthetic execution really knocks it out of the park. In a series finale full of incredible cathartic moments, this scene steals the show.

In order to emphasize the emotional quality of the battle, the producers dialed down the sound design and punched up the music. What we hear is a melancholy string section playing over the faint emanations of fighting. The scene is also stunning visually, Azula’s blue lightnight clashing with Zuko’s red flames. In total, with the music, the sounds, the animation, and the kung fu movements, the scene feels more like a dance than an action sequence.

And not only does the scene succeed in its singularity; it also works in the context of the episode. Zuko’s battle with Azula contrasts Ang’s battle with Ozai. We have a fluid ballet cutting back and forth between another battle that is more theatrical and physical. This helps give each sequence its own character, so to speak.

The elements all resonate with each other masterfully and hits you right in the gut. I get goosebumps on the back of my neck and a lump in my throat just thinking about it.

Here are the highlights:

If it seems like I was trying to sell you on Avatar: The Last Airbender, you’re probably right. More than The Wire, Sopranos, Arrested Development, or Seinfeld, I vet Avatar the most. I feel like not enough of my peers have watched it. Sure, anime enthusiasts have checked it out, but for the most part, twentysomethings rarely give animated shows a chance. We’re willing to watch animated movies to a certain extent, but not a series like Avatar.

Also, I’m afraid its reputation has been somewhat tarnished by the disastrous live action adaptation by He Who Shall Not Be Named. It’s such a brilliant show with sophisticated character arcs and plot lines. Of all the shows I talk about over the challenges I would recommend Avatar above all. At least check out the pilot.

cheers,

-B

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~ by braddunne on September 18, 2012.

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