The challenges of world-building plague TV and film. For escapist fictional settings, creators turn to source material and their strategy is adaptation. So it might be baffling to learn that Avatar: the Last Airbender, created by Michale DeMartino and Bryan Konietzko and pitched to Nickelodeon, grew from a source material more historical than literary; no, Avatar is not based on a book or graphic novel.
DeMartino and Konietzko wanted to create a world that felt mythological and included diverse peoples and locations (though the sketch art was initially inspired by polar explorations of the Irish explorer, Shackleton).
The pair also wanted the series and its characters, even if they were written for children, to feel consequential and perilous.
Part of what gives the series that more adult tonality are its setting and history. The calendar itself is based on a genocide (!) of the Air Nomads, with 0 being the year of genocide—when the Fire Nation, believing the next Avatar incarnation (and so greatest threat to the empire) was to be born therein, invades and slaughters an entire people. The series begins in 99 AG (“after the genocide”) at at the tail end of a hundred years’ war. The events of the TV show are, therefore, the consequences of invasion and slaughter.
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All of which makes the series feel epic and historical. In fact, each of the Four Nations are based on real nation states, tribes, and kingdoms during various moments in world history—most of which were at war.
The majority of them are Chinese (the series opening credits include Chinese characters for the elements), but the series also depicts architecture, clothing, agriculture, religious practice, and art from many areas, including Japan, Tibet, India, the Americas, and several others.
The pan-asian setting of Avatar is thus one of the most creative amalgamations of culture, history, and religion maybe ever put to screen.
Here are the major inspirations for the Four Nations.
The Air Nomads
The Nomads—taken after Buddhist monastic orders—allude primarily to Tibetan culture. (Though, certain religious beliefs and practices such as the seven chakras and hand motions, called “mudras,” of the meditating characters are inspired by Hinduism.)
The practice of determining the Avatar, as well as the belief in incarnations of the Avatar, are based on Tibetan practices for identifying the Dalai Lama—the Avatar likened to a Bodhisattva, a Buddha that delays Nirvana himself in order to enlighten all sentient beings. (This is also the Avatar’s role, Aang is told: Bring peace to the Four Nations.)
The Water Tribe
The first culture to emerge from DeMartino and Konietzko’s early drawings, the Water Tribe was based on Arctic cultures such as the Inuit. Other features of the Tribes—such as Sokka’s boomerang—resemble indigenous cultures of Australia and the Americas. The Tribe’s ships may also be inspired by Polynesian catamarans.
The canal-navigated city of the Northern Water Tribe resembles the city of Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztec empire (now Mexico City).
The Earth Kingdom
The Earth Kingdom is probably the most complex and historically elaborate of any of the Avatar settings, containing cities inspired by everything from later Chinese dynastic periods to Shogun Japan to the Roman Empire. Most generally, the setting may be considered “Eurasia.”
In particular, the kingdom takes inspiration from the Chinese Ming and Qing dynasties, the last imperial dynasties before the Republic of China. The capital city, Ba Sin Se, resembles Beijing and the royal palace therein is based on the Forbidden City. The emperor and people’s garb appears to be of the Qing dynasty with various Korean influences as well. Ba Sing Se, surrounded by high walls, may also resemble Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire which also saw large numbers of refugees during times of war.
Regions like Kyoshi Island, however, resemble feudal Japan. The Kyoshi warriors wear Japanese armor and paint their faces in designs reminiscence of Kabuki, classical Japanese dance drama. Their cuisine is also Japanese-inspired as are many of the characters’ names who live there.
The Fire Nation
Sartorially and architecturally, the Fire Nation draws from China—particularly the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan and traditional Hanfu clothing. But the Nation’s military also takes after Imperial Japan—such as its fire and sun iconography, its propaganda, and its military incursions. (The Air Nomad genocide might be likened to historical events such as the Nanjing Massacre.)
The Nation’s volcanic islands also resemble Japanese geography, and their warships are likened to those of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
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