Sunday, July 31, 2011

Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Complete Book 2 Collection (non-Japanese animation, TV series)

Synopsis:

Early on in the season, Aang learns that he cannot fight the Fire Nation solely in the Avatar state - as powerful as the Avatar state is, if he dies while he's in it, the Avatar reincarnation cycle will be broken. So, Aang, Katara, Sokka, Momo, and Appa continue to travel, searching for an Earthbending master willing and able to teach Aang Earthbending.

Aang finds this new mentor in Toph. Toph is such an incredible Earthbender that, although she is blind, she is able to see via her Earthbending (she has to have her bare feet on earth, and she can only actually "see" things that are touching the ground).

Aang and the rest of his group learn that a solar eclipse will occur soon. Just as a lunar eclipse weakened Waterbenders in the first season, a solar eclipse will weaken Firebenders. With help, Aang stands a good chance at beating Firelord Ozai and the Fire Nation. Unfortunately, help turns out to be hard to get. First Appa is stolen, forcing the group to try and find him on foot. Then, when the group tries to get an audience with the Earth King at Ba Sing Se, they find themselves blocked by bureaucracy and corruption.

Meanwhile, Princess Azula, Prince Zuko's ruthless sister, is trying to capture (or maybe just kill) Aang. Zuko is also still on Aang's trail, but his Uncle Iroh has started rubbing off on him, and while in Ba Sing Se he begins to reevaluate his life and the kind of future he wants for himself.

Review:

It's been a while since I last saw season 1, so there are details I've forgotten and I can't really say for sure whether season 2 is better than season 1...but I suspect it is. Things become less black-and-white in this season. The Fire Nation may still be the primary enemy (although I'm sure that in the final season Aang and his group will remember that the Fire Nation is just one of the four nations and not actually an enemy, they're not quite to that point yet), but the Earth Kingdom is shown to have its own issues.

This season starts off a little slow, in my opinion, but the episode in which everyone first meets Toph reminded me of one of the many reasons why I really like this show: the incredible fight scenes. Toph's big Earthbending battle in this episode is absolutely awesome. Sure, her opponents aren't all that tough, but there are a lot of them, and Toph beats them all by herself. She's immediately established as someone not to mess with, despite (and possibly because of) her blindness.

Other fight scenes in this season that I enjoyed: Prince Zuko fighting that group of Earthbender soldiers, and the big fight scene between Zuko, Aang, Katara, and Azula in the final episode. Zuko's fight with the Earthbender soldiers takes place in a fairly minor episode – if I remember right, the episode mostly just underscores the fact that Zuko is still an outcast, rejected by everyone but Uncle Iroh. However, I love that particular fight scene because it is, I think, the only time Zuko has to fight Bending with plain old physical weapons and skill (in this case, his swords). Zuko may still be a bit rash and ruled by his anger, and his father and Azula may not think much of him, but that doesn't mean he's not a fantastic fighter.

As for the fight between Zuko, Aang, Katara, and Azula, well, it was the last episode of the season and I think the writers were pulling out all the stops. Katara has gone from barely being able to Waterbend in the first season to being fairly well-matched against Azula. Aang could only Airbend in the first season, and by the end of the second he has pretty much mastered three different elements. The final fight is fast-paced and gorgeous, with a beautiful, kind of eerie setting (underground, with glowing green crystals everywhere) and some nicely choreographed moments.

This season isn't just good because of its fight scenes, however. Just like in the first season, viewers are treated to interesting characters and storylines.

Toph has a lot of emotional baggage, due to essentially having to be two people throughout her life. The Toph her parents knew and wanted to see was a fragile, helpless blind girl. They were so overprotective that the didn't even tell anyone they had a daughter, which of course also meant she had no friends. The Toph Aang's group met was a tough, rule-breaking, street-smart Earthbender. Leaving her parents meant that Toph could be the person she felt she was, but her parents' way of seeing her had a more lasting effect on her than she maybe realized.

I have to say, I'm most fond of Avatar: The Last Airbender's damaged characters. I consider Toph to be one of those, but Zuko is another one, and his problems and growing pains get plenty of screentime in this season as well. He is, as usual, still trying to capture Aang, convinced that by doing so he can make his father accept him. However, Uncle Iroh has started to rub off on him, and he begins to see the appeal of living a quiet, normal life. Unfortunately, he's still not quite past the inner turmoil caused by wanting to fit in with his largely horrible family. I can't wait to see how things turn out for him in the final season.

In one of the episode commentaries, someone, I think one of the creators, says that they enjoyed being able to write what is essentially a political thriller for children. That's another thing I loved about this season – the writers didn't shy away from darker and/or serious storylines. While there was still plenty of humor to be found in this season, certain story arcs tended more towards darker themes. A good example is the entire Ba Sing Se story arc. Aang's group deals with incredibly corrupt officials, censorship (no one in Ba Sing Se is allowed to say anything about the war with the Fire Nation), and brainwashing (the very creepy Joo Dee(s)), and Aang spends multiple episodes separated from Appa, trying to balance his need to find his friend vs. his duty to keep the Fire Nation from taking over all the other nations.

It's a fantastic season, and I'm looking forward to what the final season will bring. I know I've seen a few episodes from the third season, but I have no idea how it will end. Hopefully the spinoff series (The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra) will be available on DVD soon (yes, I know, it's still in development - that doesn't mean I can't look forward to the DVDs yet).

Some possible goofs in this season:
  • According to the guy who was trying to help Aang master the Avatar state, Aang should have lost his ability to enter the Avatar state when he gave up on mastering it to go help Katara. Instead, Aang is able to try mastering the Avatar state again during the final battle of the season.
  • In the first season, I remember the Fire Nation's goal as being to simply capture Aang. Killing him would only have caused him to be reborn. In this season, Azula flat-out tries to kill Aang. True, by trying to kill him when he was in the Avatar state she would have interrupted the Avatar cycle of rebirth, but she didn't know that.
Random stuff I didn't get a chance to mention:
  • Wow, Sokka is a lady's man in this season. Zuko gets a little romance of his own, but Sokka seemed to have girls blushing over him every few episodes.
  • Iroh is awesome. My favorite Uncle Iroh moment:
    Zuko: "I know what you're going to say. She's my sister and I need to learn to get along with her."
    Uncle Iroh: "No, she's crazy and she needs to go down."
    YES.
Extras:

There are lots of extras in this boxed set: the original uncut animatic for the first episode of the season, several audio commentaries featuring the series creators and others, an interview with the creators and M. Night Shyamalan, a short video about the real-life martial arts that inspired the various Bending moves and how those are incorporated into the episode creation process, several Avatar super-deformed shorts, and something the extras disc refers to as an "animated graphic novel."

I really enjoyed the commentaries, even though they were a tad repetitive (the green fire was mentioned in two different commentaries), and I always like learning more about the martial arts that the various Bending styles were based on. The super-deformed shorts were okay. The "animated graphic novel" felt like something the creators had maybe wanted to have in the show but couldn't find the time for - I enjoyed seeing more of Aang's past four reincarnations (Avatar Kyoshi is my favorite), but I wish it had at least had a voice track. The interview with the creators and M. Night Shyamalan was a bit painful to watch, knowing how the live action movie turned out.

The list below is almost completely a copy-and-paste from my post about season 1. Granted, I haven't watched many non-Japanese cartoons in the past few years, but I think shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender are still a rarity.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Naruto (manga) by Masashi Kishimoto; Naruto (anime TV series) - Another series with a hero who's a bit of a goofball (some may be put off by his tendency to act and speak before thinking). Naruto turns out to be incredibly powerful and does grow somewhat as the series progresses (the anime, by the way, is continued by the anime Naruto: Shippuden - both the anime and manga versions of this series are long). Those who'd like another series that mixes humor, action, and some occasional heavy drama might want to try this. If you can afford it, or if your local public library carries it, I highly recommend reading the manga over watching the anime. The manga starts off rough, but it ends up being much better than the anime, which suffers from Too Much Filler syndrome and (during Naruto: Shippuden in particular) severe pacing problems.
  • Teen Titans (non-Japanese animation) - This is the only U.S. animated TV series I can think of that is in any way like Avatar. As far as I know, it doesn't have an overarching plot like Avatar, and character development tends to be more minimal. However, like Avatar its animation has Japanese influences, and it combines humor (to a greater degree than Avatar), action, and more serious developments (to a lesser degree than Avatar). The series focuses on a group of young superheroes. The one most likely to be familiar to people is Robin (once Batman's sidekick).
  • Soul Eater (anime TV series) - This has absolutely nothing in common with Avatar in terms of its story and characters, but it might still appeal to fans of Avatar because of its mix of humor, action, and drama, its "save the world" storyline, and the importance that friendships and learning to work together plays in the series. The series focuses on Meisters and their weapons, particularly ones that are still in training. Meisters are capable of wielding weapons, while weapons (which, like Meisters, are people) have a great deal of power they generally can't make use of without their Meisters. Meisters and weapons in training work together to capture 99 evil souls and 1 witch soul, after which the weapon becomes a Deathscythe, a particularly powerful weapon.
  • Bleach (manga) by Tite Kubo; Bleach (anime TV series) - I think this is aimed at a slightly older audience than Avatar: The Last Airbender, so keep that in mind. It's about a high school student who can see spirits. He accidentally gains the power of a Shinigami (god of death). In a later story arc, he has to rescue a friend who is awaiting her execution in a place called the Soul Society. Corrupt forces within the Soul Society start to reveal themselves while the rescue mission is going on. So, those who liked the Ba Sing Se arc and who'd like another action-filled series with great battle scenes and interesting characters might want to try this.

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