In the 1970s, Italian director Sergio Leone created the Spaghetti Western subgenre; and in the 2000s, with Avatar: The Last Airbender, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko pioneered what could be called hamburger anime, translating Japanese tropes to an American context. The American series wears its anime influences on its brightly colored sleeve, from the expressive animation style to the serial narrative structure. But there’s more to Avatar’s anime roots than slo-mo battles and baroque speeches. In anime, there’s a long tradition of using the form to process the traumas of postwar Japan — an influence that Avatar draws upon to depict, in a cartoon meant for children, the traumas of the post-9/11 United States.
Anime classics like Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion looked to the cataclysms of Hiroshima and a defeated empire to create their visions of a futuristic Japan. In both cases, this trauma is embodied in the form of a young, gifted boy. The titular Akira destroys Tokyo with his psionic powers, while Shinji Ikari, the profoundly depressed hero of Evangelion, pilots a giant robot to fight the monsters attacking Japan. Destruction, invasion — the traumas of Japan in the 20th century weigh on the shoulders of these pubescent males. And in Avatar: The Last Airbender, two special boys inherit the traumas of the 21st-century United States, a fading empire waging a forever war.
When Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered in 2005 on Nickelodeon, the U.S., reeling and vengeful after 9/11, had careened into the buy-one-get-one-free wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the fantastic world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a war has been raging for 100 years as the Fire Nation attempts to conquer the world. As victory in the Middle East grew ever more distant, a century-long war seemed less like a joke and more like a prophecy.
Magic is real in Avatar: The Last Airbender, as befits a fantasy story, but it’s a specific kind of magic connected to the natural world. Certain people can “bend” one of the four elements — water benders can fold and twist water like it’s rope; earth benders toss boulders like softballs. The avatar can control all four elements, serving to balance the world and prevent any one nation from becoming too powerful. But balance was thrown off 100 years ago when the current avatar, a boy named Aang, disappeared. The Fire Nation took advantage of the Avatar’s absence and attacked the other nations, plunging the world into war. The story begins when a brother and sister from the Water Tribe discover Aang frozen in arctic ice. They travel the world so Aang can learn to bend all four elements and prepare to confront the Fire Lord, leader of the Fire Nation.
Anime 101, right? The special boy who bears the weight of the world? But Aang quickly proves his differences from the likes of Akira and Shinji. He is a deeply goofy kid, as if the child star of a TGIF sitcom were given superpowers. If Aang were the sole focus of the story, it could seem almost like satire, the happy-go-lucky American show making fun of its more serious Japanese precedents. But Avatar: The Last Airbender complements Aang in the form of Prince Zuko, son of the Fire Lord and heir to the Fire Nation throne. If Aang’s destiny is to save the world, then Zuko’s destiny is to save himself, and his salvation will involve renouncing war and imperial ambition.
As Aang makes his way across the world, he’s pursued by Zuko, who was banished by his father after going against his wishes during a war meeting. Capturing the Avatar is the only way Zuko can return home and regain his honor. Torn between his own conscience and the expectations of his father, Zuko is moody, depressive, self-doubting, insecure — all the hallmarks of the classic anime protagonist. Eventually, Zuko turns his back on his father and joins Aang’s rebellion.
Television during the so-called War on Terror was chock-full of stories about two sides locked in existential battle. Some were insightful, such as Battlestar Galactica; others were tumescently jingoistic, like 24. But Avatar: The Last Airbender was unique in the way it presented Aang and Zuko less as opponents in a contest and more as threads of a single story. Good and evil was not a matter of which flag you saluted, but of the friends you made. At a time when so much media depicted the wars in the Middle East as the very clash of civilizations that Donald Rumsfeld and his ilk sold them as, Avatar was telling a story about the children of warring nations coming together to save the world.
It’s a story that remains relevant today, and also acquires new resonance. When it originally aired, one could see Aang and Zuko as proxies for the two sides of the Iraq War, setting aside the animosities handed down to them by their elders. Today, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, Aang resembles the downwardly mobile masses while Zuko looks an awful lot like the one percent: rich, privileged, and miserable, forever failing to live up to the demands of his billionaire dad. By refusing his father to join Aang’s cause, Zuko lives out a role that, in the age of income inequality, is all too rare: the class traitor. Rather than go to Harvard and get a job at a hedge fund, Zuko drops out and takes to the streets.
For that matter, the Fire Nation looks even more like the U.S. than when it first aired. If the Empire of Star Wars was George Lucas’s analog for the U.S. invading Vietnam, then the Fire Nation is DiMartino and Konietzko’s means of depicting the country’s penchant for expanding its empire across the globe. Rather than stay in harmony with the other elements, the Fire Nation uses fire-bending to overrun and destroy every other way of life. The cost of endless war and ruthless expansion, Avatar: The Last Airbender says, are children like Zuko: unloved by demanding fathers, forever seeking their acceptance. The way out of this bind comes from realizing that those who call themselves family are sometimes the enemy, while those who have been branded your enemy are, in fact, your friends.
It is deeply meaningful that Avatar: The Last Airbender, an American show, makes this point by drawing on a Japanese art form. The atomic bomb, that traumatic event that inspired so much anime, was dropped by the U.S. after all. Fifty-six years after Hiroshima, New York City was attacked by Al Qaeda, an event the U.S. neither anticipated nor understood. But by looking to anime, a genre created by a country that was once the U.S.’s enemy, Avatar was able to speak to that trauma with a level of honesty and moral clarity unmatched by other stories of the time. Today, thanks to the global reach of Netflix, there are children watching the show for the first time. Some of them may live in countries that the U.S. government considers its enemies. For them, the story of Aang and Zuko, of enemies becoming friends, may acquire a new resonance that boring old adults, the ones who hand war down like a family heirloom, can’t even imagine.