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Monday, April 5, 2010

The History Of Appearance Avatar, The Legend Of Aang

Long ago, the Four Nations lived together in harmony? then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked."

In my house, those words fill up our couch in seconds.

Every once in a while, a show comes along that my family enjoys with such intensity that we become obsessed with it. The first time this happened in recent memory was with the Japanese anime show, Inu Yasha. We had Inu Yasha CDs, DVDs? Heck, we even carved our favorite half-demon onto a pumpkin at Halloween!

That was about three years ago, and our family has grown up a lot since then. We had, I thought, matured beyond the obsession phase.

Then along came Aang.

"Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar: an Airbender named Aang. And although his Airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he's ready to save anyone." - Katara

Aang lives in an incredibly fascinating world on Nickelodeon, and was created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. There, you can find people of four different nations with some of its members able to "bend" their respective element.

Konietzko says he and DiMartino wanted to create a show in the similar "legends and lore" theme of such epics as HARRY POTTER and LORD OF THE RINGS. Using that general idea as a basis, they slowly built the foundation for the world of the Avatar.

"Our love for Japanese Anime, Hong Kong action and kung fu cinema, yoga, and Eastern philosophies led us to the initial inspiration for AVATAR. We knew we wanted the 'magic' in our show to be different than the typical wand-wielding spell-casting fare. For us, it had to be natural and physical, with a source and rules and limitations ? and most importantly it had to be a skill rather than just a power, something that a practitioner had to learn and strive for."

Konietzko says the elemental "bending" was based on authentic Chinese traditional martial arts, something they felt would lend a "beauty and resonance to the animation and the fictitious disciplines."

And, boy! Does it! The moves and techniques put forth in any given episode are familiar to anyone who's seen a martial arts show or demonstration. The lessons are familiar, too. In a recent show, Uncle Iroh taught his potential robber the importance of having a good, solid horse stance. And if you're a practitioner or fan of taiji quan, bagua, Hung Gar, or the Northern Shaolin fighting style, you'll recognize even more moves.

"Fire is the element of power. The people of the Fire Nation have desire and will, and the energy and drive to achieve what they want. Earth is the element of substance. The people of the Earth Kingdom are diverse and strong. They are persistent and enduring. Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads detached themselves from worldly concerns and found peace and freedom. ?Water is the element of change. The people of the Water Tribe are capable of adapting to many things. They have a deep sense of community and love that holds them together through anything." ? Uncle Iroh

Avatar animators Michael DiMartino, Sifu Kisu & Bryan Konietzko

Konietzko says after he and DiMartino came up with the show's concept, they first thought they'd base the elemental benders' movements on one fighting style. They asked their martial arts trainer, Sifu Kisu, to be their fighting consultant on the show, and it was Sifu Kisu who first suggested that each bender nation be skilled in a different kung fu discipline. Konietzko says their Sifu's matches of fighting style to the elements were inspired and inspiring:

"Early on, he decided that the explosive nature of Northern Shaolin would suit the Firebenders the best. Conversely, he matched the fluid taiji quan to Waterbending. For the solid, grounded style of Earthbending, Sifu Kisu picked Hung Gar. And for the elusive Airbenders, he picked ever-changing bagua zhang. These were great pairings, and they have provided endless inspiration for the kung fu scenes and the 'bending' ideas in the show."

Fortunately, Team Avatar has viewed these disciplines as a guideline, and there have been some exceptions to the rule. As the show has progressed, new characters have been introduced to the audience, and with those new characters sometimes have also come new kung fu disciplines. Aang's Earthbending Master, Toph, is a good example, according to Konietzko.

Animation special effects used in Avatar "We all knew that her Earthbending had to have a unique flavor. Sifu Kisu enlisted his friend and colleague Sifu Manuel Rodriguez to share the rare Southern Praying Mantis style with us."

Konietzko adds that they sometimes take creative liberties with the disciplines due to the fantastical nature of the show, but notes that Sifu Kisu is adamant about the stance work and the concept that the energy is "coming from one place and going somewhere else." As someone who's been told more than one time during my training that I hold my qi too high, seeing this energy manifested into a form that I can relate to has been very helpful.

Watching the characters fight, protect, and teach each other while bending the elements draws you in with its action. What happens in between, well, that's where the show draws you in with its heart. You genuinely start to care for this cast of characters ? examples include: the song Uncle Iroh sings at a makeshift altar on his late son's birthday; Aang's seemingly uncontrolled fury while in the Avatar state when he found out the Fire Nation attacked the Southern Air Temple; Prince Zuko's betrayal of his Uncle (and himself?) in the second season's finale ? there are some episodes where, by the end of the show, I am emotionally exhausted.

The reason for this, according to Konietzko, is because they like to treat the characters with a lot of respect and integrity, like "fleshed-out humans complete with good and bad attributes and capable of moments of greatness and weakness." And they do so while carefully straddling the line of lesson versus lecture.

"We try to avoid making the show 'preachy,' but at the same time we take the lessons very seriously. They aren't there merely to satisfy some sitcom formula, but rather as a reflection of the kinds of things real life can teach you along your own journey."

The Uncle Iroh character is a great example of this ? Prince Zuko's uncle is sometimes a comedic foil who throws out such pearls of wisdom as, "Life happens wherever you are, whether you make it or not," and, "While it is always best to believe in one's self, a little help from others can be a great blessing." Uncle Iroh was previously voiced by the late Japanese actor Mako, and the selection of a new voice actor for the character is reportedly underway (see one of several tributes to Mako's Uncle Iroh on YouTube - below). The show itself dedicated the short story, "The Tale of Iroh," in the episode titled, "The Tales of Ba Sing Se," to Mako.

It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. Understanding others, the other elements, and the other nations, will help you become whole. ? Uncle Iroh

If there's one thing the Avatar creative team understands, it's the elements and the nations in this world. Konietzko says though the overall arc of the main story has been in place since the early development period between him and DiMartino, other team members have put their thumbprints onto the show.

"There are many stories, characters and elements along the way that are contributed by our talented writers, led by Aaron Ehasz, our head writer. Additional creative contributions come from our great directors, storyboard artists, designers and animators. The fan favorite "Foaming Mouth Guy" was the result of an animator named Ryu Gi Hyun going crazy on a scene. Originally, the storyboard just called for a guy in the crowd to faint, but he was inspired to take it to the next level. Luckily, Avatar is set up in a way that allows for a lot of creative input."

Overall, explains Konietzko, their philosophy is that the show should get better and enriched at each stage, so that in itself keeps them on their toes.

"But I believe Aang can save the world." ? Katara

So what's so special about this Aang character, anyway? Well, in a nutshell, he is, as the title suggests, the Avatar ? a reincarnated spirit who is the Master of all four elements. As a 12-year-old boy and the world's last Airbender, Aang faces the challenges of not only finding elemental Masters to train him in the bending arts, but some of the usual bumps in the road that come with growing up. Still a child but very aware of his responsibility as the world's protector, Aang finds himself in very real situations, calling his maturity and control into question. Fortunately for us, the creators don't dumb him down or make him too precocious to like.

The variety of colorful characters in Avatar the last air bender

He learns his lessons alongside a motley crew of sidekicks: there's Appa, the 6-legged flying bison (a pet he's had since living in the Southern Air Temple 100 years ago); Katara, his Waterbending Master who also has healing powers; Sokka, Katara's brother, who is a warrior from the Southern Water Tribe (and my son Christopher adds, "he's sometimes a big jerk"); Momo, a flying lemur; and Toph, his blind Earthbending Master who chose to find adventure with Aang and his friends rather than stay with her overprotective, wealthy parents. At the end of the second season, the group had successfully escaped a powerful Zuko/Azula attack in Ba Sing Se, an Earth Kingdom city that had previously been impenetrable by the Fire Nation's attacks.

What happens next? I don't know, and it's killing us to wait. In the meantime, the episodes are available everywhere (you can download old episodes for free on Comcast's OnDemand or for a price on iTunes, or you can buy the DVDs). It's definitely a must-watch, if only to know what the kids are talking about around the water fountain.

Enjoy the great fighting scenes, the weave of the tale, the heart of the characters, and the flow of the stories. Enjoy it all, and welcome to my latest obsession.

Source: http://www.kungfumagazine.com/ezine/article.php?article=692
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