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branchandroot: Fay with mask (Fay mask)
[personal profile] branchandroot
I was reflecting recently on how much it annoys me when assorted disgruntled fans accuse Embers of turning the right and justified world upside down, one way or another. It made me think about what Vathara really is altering, and what I do and don't like about Avatar itself.

For one, Vathara does indeed reverse some of the canon's polarities. For example, rather than highlighting the dubious morality of Zuko's actions and presenting the choices of Aang et al with a sympathetic gloss, Embers highlights the dubious morality of the Gaang's choices and presents a sympathetic view of Zuko's. I can actually see where this would result in the aforementioned fan grousing, though it does annoy me that the grousers can't be more precise about what they're actually objecting to. (The one about how Embers makes the Gaang into the villains is a good example of such unreflective overstatement.)


From there, though, the train of thought wandered off onto different tracks.

It occurred to me that one of the reasons I most enjoy Embers is because it repairs a tendency that annoys me throughout most US cartoons: the tendency to present young hero/ines as idiots childish, and yet leave them unmolested by any responsible, adult intervention. At least anime generally presents young hero/ines as people who comprehend something of responsibility or maturity, and who work really, really hard for their world-saving; the GWing boys may not make very believable fifteen year olds, but I can, at least, buy that someone, somewhere, would not consider it totally ridiculous to let them take massive weapons off on their own recognizance and wage asymmetrical war with them. At the very least, the children may be removed to a different world, as in Digimon, where adults can't get to them. If adults are in range and the hero is still young and childish, then the "danger" is written as distinctly non-life-threatening, however scary, as in Card Captor Sakura's carefully orchestrated multiplying sheep dolls. The Avatar world does not present Teens Of Unusual Maturity, nor does it remove them from practical intervention range of adults, and the danger is very world-threatening indeed, but somehow our heroes are let to go haring off on their own with very little explanation in canon of why apparently good and sane adults would leave them go without help or guidance.

That got me to another interesting thought, though. Because sometimes, in anime and manga, the hero/ine will be cosmically required to go it alone, s/he will be the only one who can possibly accomplish the necessary world-saving, and anyone without that power would only be in the way and in danger. This tends to happen more with shoujo than with shounen, in my experience, and this led me to an epiphany.

Hands up, everyone who's seen Fushigi Yuugi. Now I want you to envision something. If you jiggered the elemental associations a bit and if Aang and Katara were, at every dramatic juncture or crisis, to passionately call out each other's names, would you or would you not be watching FY? And with this thought comes the inescapable corollary that Aang would be Miaka.

Aang is a shoujo hero(ine). He's the pure heart that will save and redeem the world solely on the strength of that purity. He's a magical girl. He even shows the marker of having power that is undesirable and out of his control, at least until the very last second (and, frankly, his sudden mastery of the Avatar state lacked sufficient build-up to convince me very well).

The shounen hero is Zuko. And Embers is giving him a shounen storyline.

The equivalence is not perfect, but it's pretty darn close, and this realization tickled me immensely. I can't decide if it's delightfully subversive or just plain annoying.

It does help explain another reason I like Embers, though; I'm very partial to the typical shounen trope of the hero growing emotionally and/or spiritually in order to gain greater power, and Embers is giving me this. It may, at this rate, even give me this for the Gaang, which would delight me even more. That was one of the things I missed the most in canon; we got Morals of the Week, but very little sustained development of that sort.


So there are my Avatar thoughts for the week. And if you are ever in an Avatar pick-me-up, just remember: Aang is Miaka.

Date: 2010-10-03 09:27 pm (UTC)
pineapplechild: HELLO!, says the giant squid, wait why are you running away (Default)
From: [personal profile] pineapplechild
You just put your finger on the juncture between Embers and A:TLA. And it totally explains my feelings about both of them, because, yeah, I read FY, and I wanted to slap some sense into Miaka just about as much as I want to do the same to Aang. (And I generally like shounen teen-age series much more then shoujo.) I have to knit or spin or do something while watching A:TLA in order to not wince and hide more often.

*ambles off to reread Embers*

Date: 2010-10-03 11:14 pm (UTC)
fulselden: General Iroh, playing earth-water-fire-air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] fulselden
Aang is a shoujo hero(ine). He's the pure heart that will save and redeem the world solely on the strength of that purity. He's a magical girl. He even shows the marker of having power that is undesirable and out of his control, at least until the very last second (and, frankly, his sudden mastery of the Avatar state lacked sufficient build-up to convince me very well).

Oh wow, this is so true! I wrote a meta a while back trying to pin Aang down as essentially a romance hero (as in sprawling, episodic, genre-mashing, magic-filled quest-story romance), which was essentially an attempt to defend his Lion Turtle ex machina tutorial on spirit-bending as not at all an affront to Avatar’s genre, whatever else you may think about it.

But Aang as shoujo heroine makes such a lot of sense! Though I’m kinda going on cultural osmosis, here, as I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t actually ever seen any shoujo (or much shonen) as such. But he even has a magical girl transformation sequence! (as exploited by Azula, of course).

And I’d expand on your point, I think, by saying that, as was pointed out to me in the comments to my piece, the real problem with the finale wasn’t his deus ex Lion Turtle reward for his preternatural goodness of heart and pacifism, in the shape of the knowledge which allowed him to spare Ozai, but his lump-o-rock induced free ride to the Avatar State. Which, as you say, was vastly annoying, and which is also very much a part of the work-hard-power-up strand of the show, which I’d guess qualifies as the shonen element. And since Aang is, as you say, a magical boy, it does make sense that it was this strand that the show writers kinda took for granted and let fizzle out into something not very satisfying.

So, thank you! I knew there was stuff Avatar was doing (or failing to do) with anime tropes that I just wasn’t catching, because I’m pretty much entirely ignorant when it comes to anime.

But, oh, Embers! First of all I should say that I find it hugely enjoyable and addictive. And I do appreciate its insertion of responsible, active adults into a kiddie-show universe. But, yeah, I think I certainly qualify as one of the grousers.

One reason is that I found Aang, an action-hero who gets rewarded not for being gritty and manly but for being sweet and pacifistic and good-hearted, immensely refreshing. But what you say suggests that perhaps I just need to watch me some shoujo!

Aaand ... ok, I’ve already been massively tl;dr – I’m sorry! So I’ll confine myself to one area (or, um, one-and-a-half) of Embers grousing, in the spirit of providing some vaguely precise objections!

One of my problems, admittedly, is that I find the prose pretty workmanlike. Which I do feel churlish complaining about, considering that this is very much a matter of taste – and that writing clear, forthright prose of the Embers variety is its own speciality, and can be very effective, especially for a plot-driven story like Embers. Plus, well, it’s fic! But it’s fic that’s operating on such a professional level that I feel justified in nitpicking much as I would a published novel.

So, my for-real grouse:

The narrative is just so solicitous of Zuko! There’s always someone there to see how hard done by he is (Shirong, in the latest chapter); he never does anything particularly jerkish or hurtful or even annoying to someone else, despite being raised as a prince, with all the casual entitlement that’s likely to bring and despite undergoing arguably even more trauma here than he does in canon. And despite the fact that, in the Embers-verse, a good portion of him is dragon, and nothing we’ve been led to believe about dragons – even the good ones – suggests that they’re particularly given to niceness. Basically, the narrative heaps punishment on Zuko, but it never punishes him, if that’s a clear enough distinction.

I mean, obviously the Embers-Zuko is much less likely to be immature, occasionally petty, and often wince-inducing in the way canon-Zuko was. And I guess his dragon ancestry does, hilariously enough, give him a completely valid reason to retreat into manly silence when he’s genuinely upset, rather than lashing out. And all that’s fine – I really appreciate Vathara’s charting of Zuko’s growing confidence and his increasing political astuteness. And I love his shonen power-ups! But the story is populated, yes, by responsible adults, but so many of those adults are these (slightly interchangeable, I find) military or guard OCs, who all seem very taken with Zuko and understanding of his inner pain – witness Shirong in this chapter. Now, I absolutely admit to getting a kind of h/c hit to the hindbrain whenever someone realises what Zuko’s been through, that he didn’t, for instance, burn half his face off in a training accident. I’m a sucker for Zuko validation scenes! But, oh man, Embers provides a lot of them.

And, ok, it’s a Zuko-centred story. And Embers!Zuko clearly retains a lot of canon!Zuko’s essential sweetness, with added responsibility and all-round competence. But so far, the only person he’s really had to work to win over is Min, who was clearly set up as his normal-teenager foil. It just feels as though the story takes such care to evoke our sympathy and emotional investment in Zuko’s pain and his flashes of (entirely justified) immaturity (eg, when he shoots out of the window upon finding Iroh and Amaya arguing) – but it doesn’t extend the same courtesy to Aang and co, even when it’s focusing on them? I mean, I can’t really remember the last time we got reminded that Aang’s whole world essentially died a couple of months ago, from his perspective. Perhaps that’s a function of Embers-Aang being vastly messed up by his upbringing, I don’t know. Or perhaps he’s meant to be in denial. But it’s the sort of thing we wouldn’t hear the end of if he was being treated like Embers!Zuko.

And I guess that for me, the squishiness of Zuko h/c scenes (which, let’s face it, was the entirety of this last chapter) kinda rubs up against the narrative’s pleasure in military competence and detailed exculpation (or at least explanation) of the Fire Nation in ways which I find, I don’t know ... vaguely unsavoury? I mean, give me a gritty picture of culture clashing and of a world at war, yes please – but don’t then lard it with too many tugs to the heartstrings? It’s a matter of flavour, really, which is to say its a matter of taste and ymmv, obviously – but it’s a real problem for me personally.


Date: 2010-10-04 12:08 am (UTC)
fulselden: General Iroh, playing earth-water-fire-air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] fulselden
Oh man, thanks for the recs! Yeah, I've been coming across mentions of Utena in an AWESOMENESS context for a while, now - and non-faily gender politics are a huge added incentive, obviously. So I think that's definitely next on my list.

And thanks for being indulgent about my grousing AT LENGTH about Embers (and, woah, I did it with Bleach over here as well, didn't I? I'm sorry - I'm afraid that's twice you've been in the rather unenviable position of being the first person to provide me with an interesting internet place to talk out my issues with a bit of geekiness! I promise I'll pop up over here and be positive someday...).

And, well, as I sorta say above, I too enjoy woobie-cuddling! But Embers does it so much. And then it mixes it in with this valorisation of military efficiency and provides Zuko with this parade of supposedly hard-bitten soldierly types who nevertheless see him for the damaged-yet-heroic boy he is. And, I don't know, I can fanwank it that if men of that kind would be indulgent of anyone, it's of a kid like Zuko whose problems and priorities they can probably recognise, at least in part. But, still, SO MUCH MANPAIN. SO MUCH. Even the awesome cuteness of Zuko's crush on Toph this chapter couldn't (going on present appearances, oh man) dull my ire.

Date: 2010-10-06 03:41 am (UTC)
fulselden: Toph grinning. (Sweeeet.)
From: [personal profile] fulselden
Heh, thanks: teal deer are creatures I can always provide, oh man. Oh, and incidentally, word on the US-cartoony humour of Avatar getting a bit wearing after a while, sigh.

And shoujo:shounen (which I apologise for romanising inconsistently earlier) as romance:epic is fascinating: I'll have to keep an eye out as I, well, watch some non-Miyazaki anime.

Speaking of which, thank you so much for giving me the final push to watch Utena. I've just seen the first episode, and I can already tell IT IS FANTASTIC, OMG, EYEHEARTS. And obviously, ahahaha, ripe for analysis! I presume it's a subversion of or, well, sly and epically awesome look at all kinds of conventional shoujo tropes, so I'll keep your other recs in mind, but for now I don't really care that I don't know quite what it's doing genre-wise, because what it is doing is fabulous!
Edited (spelling ) Date: 2010-10-06 03:42 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-10-06 04:10 am (UTC)
fulselden: General Iroh, playing earth-water-fire-air. (Default)
From: [personal profile] fulselden
I had no idea there was a manga - good to know: thanks! And, yes, it is so good. Intricate symbolism ftw!

Date: 2010-10-06 03:00 pm (UTC)
esmenet: A duel scene from Revolutionary Girl Utena (wakaba+utena)
From: [personal profile] esmenet
*finds comment thread* UTENA. ♥

And now I have one more thing I can epically geek out about with you. Awesome!

Date: 2010-10-04 08:27 am (UTC)
stormyseasons: (Default)
From: [personal profile] stormyseasons
..Yes. You just pinned down for me why I like Embers over original flavour AtLA so much. That and I just find Zuko somewhat easier to empathise with. Aang.. not so much.

Date: 2010-10-04 03:23 pm (UTC)
maat_seshat: Shuurei seated at a desk, studying, with Kouyuu leaning in behind her. (Shuurei studying)
From: [personal profile] maat_seshat
Interesting... I haven't read Embers, because I'm wary of WIPs (and have had no time). But what I've been been enjoying about her Bleach and FFVII fics is that they're not shounen structure. They're in fact taking the shounen out of those stories, by being often team-narratives (esp. the sff Hollow alien AUs), and also by often going with the trope of getting great power dumped on them and having to cope, rather than straight power-up (both FFVII stories, Stardust, alien AUs, etc). Which makes it interesting that Embers is rewriting to a shounen storyline.

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