Why Avatar: The Last Airbender is an anime

Avatar: The Last Airbender promotional posterNetflix

It’s time to address the sky bison in the room once-and-for-all: here’s why Avatar: The Last Airbender is an anime.

With a new live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender coming to Netflix in 2024, a not-so age-old debate has resurfaced: should the series be considered the first American-made anime?

It’s a contentious issue that has divided Western anime fans since the series was first released on Nickelodeon back in 2005. The answer also used to be simple: of course it’s not an anime, there’s no such thing as American-made anime.

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But with definitions changing and anime transforming from a niche industry to a global phenomenon, it’s time to back-track on former gatekeeping, because Avatar: The Last Airbender fits the anime definition like a glove. Here’s why.

Avatar: The Last Airbender plot

If you haven’t seen Avatar: The Last Airbender yet, then you’re missing out. It’s a timeless classic that’s won fans over for almost two decades. Although you can skip the 2010 film and wait for the new live-action series instead.

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The story centers around four distinct elemental nations: fire, water, earth, and air. Most of the people who live in these nations are regular people, but there are also benders, who are capable of telekinetically controlling the element of their nation through movements based on Chinese martial arts.

One person, known as the “avatar” stands out from everyone else in this world as he’s the only one who can bend all four elements and “return balance” to the universe. However, he ended up frozen for 100 years as the world descended into chaos.

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But now the avatar, a 12-year-old boy named Aang, is back and ready to finish what he started, with the help of his friends Katara, Sokka, Toph and of course his loveable sky bison, Appa.

Avatar: The Last Airbender’s influences

One of the reasons why Avatar: The Last Airbender is considered an anime is due to its artistic and animation style.

According to the series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, they are not sure whether to classify it as an anime. However, in a 2021 interview on Nickelodeon’s Avatar: Braving the Elements podcast, DiMartino did liken the series to “a love letter to anime”.

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The series draws heavy inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki’s films at Studio Ghibli, intertwining elements of Asian cultures, primarily Chinese with other East Asian, South Asian, and Arctic, to create a dynamic and multicultural world.

Avatar’s chosen style also includes realistic human designs that stands out from typical Western animation (think SpongeBob Square Pants, Family Guy and Phineas and Ferb) and align more clearly with anime.

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As well as this, since South Korean studio JM Animation, which also worked on popular series like Pokémon, mostly handled the animation. There’s now further credence to the argument that Avatar: The Last Airbender should be considered an anime after all.

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Avatar’s characters

Aang and KataraNetflix

Another reason why Avatar is more similar to anime than other Western animations is because of how it uses shonen character tropes.

Think about it. Aang is our optimistic, naive hero with a heart of gold. Sokka is the insecure sidekick. Zuko is the ultimate villain we can’t wait to see our hero defeat. And finally is Katara, a powerful water-bender who is capable of defeating the universe’s villains on her own – or with the help from Aang.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender’s soundtrack

Composed by the Emmy Award-winning Jeremy Zuckerman and Benjamin Wynn, the soundtrack draws heavily on traditional East Asian music to enhance the audience’s experience and emphasise the Studio Ghibli feel of the series.

Just like a typical anime soundtrack, the music plays an important part in creating the atmosphere of each episode. And, a live ensemble performed some of the musical compositions, a practice previously unheard of in Western animation.

Avatar and the changing definition of anime

Finally, one of the main reasons people didn’t consider Avatar to be an anime is that, by definition, anime refers to hand-drawn or computer-generated animation produced in Japan.

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However, in recent years, Netflix decided to challenge this conventional understanding by producing their own original anime, including the recent Pluto and Castlevania: Nocturne series.

Therefore, with this in mind, it seem almost unfair to exclude Avatar from the anime category just because of the industry’s history.

The largest defining factor in the world of anime is the area of origin. But, with anime becoming a global phenomenon outside of Japan and large platforms like Netflix jumping on the anime train, the defining lines are becoming blurred. And since Avatar has always somewhat straddled them, its safe to conclude now that Avatar: The Last Airbender can not only been considered an anime, but one of the greatest anime of all time.

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Check out our other anime coverage here.