Introducing Avatar: East Meets West

On the 15-Year-Old Gospel-Saturated Anime Taking Netflix by Storm

Bryan J. / 9.30.20

Here’s an underrated piece of pop culture news worth your consideration. In mid-July of 2020, an anime kid’s show that premiered in 2005 beat the Netflix drama Ozark for the longest tenure on the streaming provider’s Top 10 list. By that same metric, this anime show on Netflix is more popular than the meme-worthy Tiger King and the reality dystopia Love is Blind. This ratings quirk is worth, perhaps, a bit of exploration. Are legions of nerds trolling the algorithms, messing up the Netflix numbers and obscuring the quality of shows that are available on the platform? Are the Millennials giving in to nostalgia during the pandemic and enjoying a blast from their past? Could a kid’s anime show really be so good that viewers are giving it The Office treatment long after the series ended? 

If you’re a fan of Japanese animation, you’ve likely discovered that anime programs or manga collections don’t hit the “thoughtful Christian cultural commentary” circuits very often. Anime is certainly my guilty pleasure, the low-investment TV genre that powers down my brain in the evenings. I imagine your home renovation show or your NCIS reruns function in the same manner. When we talk about anime, we’re talking about the unique Japanese style of animation that gave the world Pokémon, Hello Kitty, and Sailor Moon. Beyond the universally popular childhood franchises, there’s an extensive anime library available for any age range and maturity level. But after working through dozens and dozens of anime franchises, I’m struck by how the genre as a whole has proven to be, er, Mockingbird resistant.*

Here’s what I mean: I just can’t find many of the themes that we here at Mockingbird enjoy in the anime genre. If you want a medieval fantasy dystopia that serves as an allegory about class warfare, there’s an anime for that. If you’re into giant fighting robots and also deep philosophical conversations about just war theory, we can do that, too. Coming of age stories where a young ninja or pokémon trainer takes the hero’s journey to become the best in the world? The anime world is your oyster. I can even get you anime where the villains are the seven deadly sins, or the protagonists are Catholic priests who traverse the world fighting demons. But if you’re looking for well composed themes of powerful weakness, redemptive suffering, guilt and grace, law and gospel, or death and resurrection, I’m mostly at a loss. These themes don’t mix well with the anime genre.

Some of this, I think, has to do with the target audience. Anime is mostly made for nerds, adolescent boys, and gamer types. That’s even the case in Japan, where the world otaku has become a semi-pejorative catch-all word for the subculture. I think the East/West divide is another reason for the lack of cruciform thought in the genre. As comfortably “Western” as Japan has become in the last century, it would be wrong to expect Christian themes in their cultural artifacts. The history simply isn’t there. If Tom Holland is right in his book Dominion, the reason we can riff on Christian themes in American culture, high and low, is because of a history of Christian thought and practice that lingers in the cultural air. Famed Catholic Japanese author Shusaku Endo once said that the Christian faith would find no quarter in Japan. In his novel Silence, both protagonist and antagonist call the island nation a spiritual “swamp,” where the roots of Christianity would not be able to grow.

So, if you want a solid sci-fi, fantasy, or action TV show with some philosophical depth, and you don’t mind dubbed voices and j-rock soundtracks, anime gets the job done. Just recognize that you’re probably not going to find good sermon illustrations for your nerdy youth groups.

But let me tell you about a diamond in the rough, a gospel-saturated anime that deals with the themes we at Mockingbird love and appreciate. It’s the same show that took Netflix by storm. In 2005, the kid’s network Nickelodeon premiered an anime series that was directed by an American team of writers in partnership with consultants versed in Asian history and culture. The show, Avatar: The Last Airbender, kept the animation style and cultural context of most anime, but the show’s Western writers gave the show’s plot and dialogue the extra care and attention most anime lacks. The result was a critically acclaimed kid’s show that expanded beyond the anime subculture into the greater pop consciousness. It introduced children to mature concepts like forgiveness, determinism, consent, genocide, fascism, and redemption. It was quietly progressive in the sense that it featured strong female characters and characters with disabilities. The show kept everything about the anime style but ditched the genre’s fascination with pulp violence and low-brow sexuality. It was such a cultural achievement that it won a Peabody Award in 2008 alongside fellow winners Breaking Bad and the HBO John Adams documentary. 

In this new Mbird series, I want to make the case that Avatar, the Last Airbender is, uniquely, an anime show for Mockingbirds — for Christians and really anyone with a beating heart. It’s going to be a multi-part serial on the site for the weeks to come, with essays highlighting the TV show’s remarkable character development and storytelling. Even if you’re not an anime fan, I hope you’ll take a chance on this fantasy world of moral conflict, courage, mercy, and forgiveness in line with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Narnia.

You read that right. An anime show on the same tier as Breaking Bad, being compared to The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Does this otaku have your attention now? 

Here’s an introduction to the semi-feudal fantasy world of Avatar. In the show, a number of humans are gifted with the ability to “bend” one of the world’s four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. It’s a telekinetic martial art of sorts, where earthbenders can cleave and manipulate large boulders with their minds and firebenders can shoot flames from their hands. Whole societies are built around these miraculous bending gifts. Waterbenders build massive cities out of ice and airbenders can fly using gliders. Each element has its own geography and nation — the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, the Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation, and each nation was meant to live in harmony with the others.

In this fantasy world, a supreme peacekeeper would be born and reincarnated every generation, one person who could bend all four of the elements. This “Avatar” would be an all-powerful arbiter of the world’s problems, an extra-political figure whose power was meant to keep the nations of the world at balance. With the Avatar serving as a judge and check, the world had existed in relative harmony for a millennia.

But when the show begins, we find that the Avatar has gone missing. The Fire Nation has taken advantage of the Avatar’s absence to march against the three remaining nations, and a century-long war breaks out across the world, claiming countless lives. One of the world’s four great peoples, the airbenders, have been massacred in the conflict and are thought to be extinct. With the Avatar missing, who will stop the Fire Nation and restore balance to the world?

In the shadow of this great geopolitical nightmare, two young water tribe teens, Sokka and Katara, are out fishing by the South Pole. They discover a young boy trapped in an iceberg, and when they free him, they notice he bears the unique tattoos of the extinct airbender nation. This young airbender named Aang is the last airbender, and providentially, he is the lost Avatar, trapped in the ice for a century while the war around him has waged on. Now, the trio must travel the world so the young Aang can learn to bend all four elements and stop the Fire Nation from world domination, a challenge made harder as they are pursued by the Fire Nation’s disgraced Prince Zuko.

If you embrace the Eastern fantasy elements of this fictional world, you’ll find across the show’s three seasons tales of law, forgiveness, love, friendship, mercy, and grace. Next week, we’ll dive into our first character study and see how the power of a mother’s love can truly transform a world at war.

* I might be slightly exaggerating here. Occasionally, I’ve watched an anime show and thought it featured remarkable storytelling worth featuring on the site. If someone was inclined to write a series of posts on the anime show Trigun, I think that would work. Yasuhiro Nightow, the creator of that series, is rumored to be a practicing Catholic, and the whole series is infused with themes of grace, non-violence, and unconditional love. I think another post on the role of mental illness and performance anxiety in Neo Genesis Evangelion could fly on the site, too. Do you have any recommendations for anime that Mbird readers would enjoy? I would love to hear about them in the comments below.