aka How She-Ra and the Princesses of Power finally got me to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender and see western anime in a new light
The definition of Anime feels like it has changed over the years, I remember having to explain to parents how anime wasn’t just simply cartoons and how you could have adult conversations and stories told through animation (thank you Cowboy Bebop for being the easiest example of this) Now a cursory google states that Anime is now defined as, “a style of Japanese film and television animation, typically aimed at adults as well as children.” If you go to any store and look at the Anime section you will typically see Ghibli films, new Japanese releases and a lot of Dragon Ball Z. As a result I’ve never really thought of western anime as typically following the same tropes or having the same quality. It was typically associated with cartoons, kids shows and Disney. Watching those types of shows or movies would usually be for nostalgia. It’s typically just slapstick humour and comic book episodic stories that rarely pushed the envelope. This all changed with a show called Steven Universe.
I never got around to watching Adventure Time so for me Steven Universe was the first modern western cartoon I saw, It has a lot more under the hood than most typical animated kids entertainment. For anyone who hasn’t seen it before Steven Universe is a lighthearted western animation where Stephen and his friends (made of gems) deal with bizarre occurrences in his small seaside town. What appears at first to simply be a colourful short episodic series about every day sci-fi tropes, eventually builds each season to a world changing reveal with serious twists throughout. It’s structured in such a way that the serious and emotional episodes are treated with the weight they deserve (Maximum Capacity with Amethyst and Greg stands out as a great example of this) This was a huge eye opener to what modern Western animation could achieve. I didn’t really enjoy Hilda that much but when Netflix announced She-Ra was getting a reboot I figured my partner might enjoy watching it. I had a faint memory of He-man back in the day and it was new to her, so why not?
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was not a series I loved from the start but this doesn’t really matter as I am not the target audience. My partner enjoyed it but I found the animation incredibly choppy in quality, with stories that flip flopped between incredible originality and outright copies of other anime series. A mediocre series at best until the Princess Prom episode. From that point on the series started down a road of originality and pure explosive expression that was fantastic to watch. She-Ra became a masterclass in how to end a series with some mind-blowingly fantastic moments. Sure the animation isn’t perfect but I can’t think of any anime that has had a powerful good vs bad struggle and still pulled off such a powerful love story at the same time. Series such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica are similar but there’s no determined confidence in the main character and She-Ra really does stand out. The fact they didn’t shy away from LGBT representation but embraced it was a breath of fresh air.
What does this have to do with Avatar: The Last Airbender? My only experience with Avatar was the easiest 1000 achievement points in a Xbox360 game and a mediocre live action film (that had great CGI) After watching Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and having time to watch something else I figured why not? Maybe I had been wrong about Avatar all this time? Being advertised heavily towards kids by Nickelodeon it had never appealed and watching it now, I doubt I would have enjoyed it much then either. Avatar is a very slow burner of a series. There are some surprisingly dark episodes that deal with some of the horrors a nation has when it has been at war for 100 years. For the most part though it’s just about Aang wanting to be a kid but having an end goal to sort the world. It’s all silly stuff until you start getting these arcs and double episodes about things going on in the world. The team of friends helping Aang nearly die multiple times and when it starts to cover the spirit world you realise that the series has built up the characters to the point where it can take these twists in its stride.
The one thing that continually surprised me about Avatar and why I felt the need to write all of this, is how it evolves. What starts off as a silly western anime about a kid wanting to play with animals and find his lost friends slowly evolves into this complex epic about a number of people trying to fix a broken world on the point of destruction. The episode “Appa’s Lost Days” has won awards for animation and they are well deserved, what could have been a filler episode about a kidnapped flying bison feels like a short Studio Ghibli film about animal cruelty and ends up an emotional roller-coaster. Everything slowly builds to a 4 part episode explosive conclusion that feels as powerful and well produced as any anime epic finale. There are episodes of Avatar that could be put side by side with Full Metal Alchemist in terms of content and quality. It definitely has a few similar nods to the final fight in Naruto and comes out surprisingly well in comparison (especially when you consider the quieter downtime episodes)
What would I want you to take away from this little rant then? I would say, just try watching some western anime. If there’s a series that you’ve avoided or not bothered with, chances are there is a streaming service that has it easily accessible to give it a go. The word Cartoon is defined as, “a film using animation techniques to photograph a sequence of drawings rather than real people or objects.” but this doesn’t mean you should categorise western anime with a typical cartoon. In Japan series such as Naruto were aired at prime time and I feel like shows such as Avatar and the like could have done with the same treatment. I’m looking forward to seeing if The Legend of Korra still holds up but regardless, if there’s a series being recommended for being good sometimes it doesn’t matter what genre it’s in. Sometimes if everyone is saying it’s good, it’s good.
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