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branchandroot: Fay with mask (Fay mask)
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. )

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.
branchandroot: a lotus (lotus)
So I was reading around lately about Egyptian concepts of the soul, and it made a few things make, possibly, more sense.

First the cosmology and speculation. )

And now we get to the fandom applications of this.

The cosmology of Egypt did not go in for reincarnation.2 Literary adoptions, eg Yuugi-ou, tend to ignore this. But consider the concept of ka and ib and ba in comparison with the Buddhist concept of five skandha, aspects or modes of existence, which, translating loosely here, make up a particular instance of being which is neither divorced from nor identical to the previous instance. Using the former to shed light on the latter, we may have a helpful way to think about how reincarnation or rebirth are sometimes presented in anime and manga.

One of the most recent and notable examples isn't, strictly speaking, anime at all, but Avatar: The Last Airbender takes a lot of sources from Asian cosmology as well as art, and can be folded in. So consider the way different incarnations of the Avatar are presented. They do not form a single existence--each life/individuality is distinct from the next, to the point that different incarnations can meet and talk as individuals. If we discard the unitary notion of soul/self and instead look at this through the lens of multiple soul-parts, such as ib and ba, this actually makes plenty of sense.3 The "incarnations" are, as it were, ba, and remain after death/dissolution as something remarkably similar to akh (the re-unification of ba and ka after death).

I have, as yet, found no references in Buddhist (or Taoist, or Shinto) cosmology to such lingering instances; in fact, what I have found would appear rather to militate against such a thing. But clearly the idea is entrenched in popular consciousness.

Some other examples of this basic premise: Pandora hearts, Card Captor Sakura, Fullmetal Alchemist depending on how you interpret the homunculi, Inu Yasha.


1. That is to say, it was builders "really" doing the building, but they acted in the role of the king/priests, took on that iru or ba, and therefore were considered to be the king/priests for that time. This is, necessarily, speculative, but personally I agree that it makes all kinds of sense, considering the mythology.

2. No, really, they didn't. Please don't link me to crystalinks or theosophy et al. If you read reputable sources, you will find that reincarnation was attributed to Egyptians by Greek thinkers who didn't quite get the whole deal with the divergent aspects and evolution of the soul.

3. Note that I am not suggesting Egyptian and Buddhist cosmology are identical, or even that they have a direct philosophical connection. I would not be surprised if this were the case, but I do not, personally, know of any evidence of this. I'm just saying the basic notion of the soul is similar and obviously pops up in a lot of places.
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)

It seems to me that Avatar is actually two totally separate shows that just happen to be about the same characters.

On the one hand there is the Kiddie Show, consisting of episodic encounters with villains of the day, or possibly misguided-people-of-the-day, which teaches simple moral lessons. These episodes have a lot of slapstick humor and situational comedy.

On the other hand, there is the Young Adult Show, full of functional and dysfunctional families, feuding nations and siblings, knotty questions of spiritual and emotional maturity and actual plot. It’s very Greek-drama, really.

This double threading is not terribly unusual for US animation. Unfortunately, Avatar’s two shows are very distinct from each other all through the first two seasons. Any given episode is either one or the other, with very few exceptions. It’s only in the third season that they merge into each other. This means that the character development necessary to serve the Young Adult Show is frequently either very rushed or else completely invisible, motivations and histories left entirely up to the viewer to imagine because the time they would have needed is taken up with Kiddie Show episodes that do not generally advance either plot or characterization.

I like the show a lot, mind you. I’m eagerly waiting for the last handful of episodes, especially since season three has managed to combine the two threads fairly gracefully. But this particular narrative flaw places Avatar firmly in the mid-range, for me. If the writers had made up their minds to present either one or the other, or if they had understood their own agenda sooner and combined the threads early on, as it’s clear they are capable of doing, then I would probably have been willing to put Avatar up there with Card Captor Sakura or Saiunkoku Monogatari. As is, I’d have to say it’s a handful of pegs below Batman Beyond, around, say, King of Bandit Jing. Fun to watch, probably a benchmark in production terms, but not something I’ll put on the frequently-rewatch list.

branchandroot: Ed giving a thumbs up (Ed thumbs up)

So I’m watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, now that there’s only one agonizing wait for the next part left. I just finished the first season and have some thoughts running around.

General reactions: Good show, lots of fun, excellent story and animation and music, interesting characters, going to watch this again.

I find my specific responses a bit more conflicted. Part of this is undoubtedly because I’ve gotten used to the way anime does it. According to that tradition, something with characters this old should be taking more time to work out the knotty emotional and social issues that come up. Avatar has a tendency to present Large Sociocultural Issue and resolve it prettily in twenty-two minutes. It reminds me a lot of Digimon or Pokemon, that way, which are directed at much younger children overall.

Remembering back to my Jem and She-ra days, however, I recall that, yes, this is how US cartoons do it, so I generally just ride with the occasional moments of “wait… that was an awfully quick life-altering epiphany”.

The other thing that trips me up, unfortunately, seems to be endemic to US cartoons, and that’s the voice acting. A few of the characters have VAs that hit their marks excellently from the start: Zuko (Basco) and Sokka (DeSena) are two of those. Katara (Whitman) improves significantly as the season goes on and her character picks up steam. Alas almost all the other characters suffer from That Problem.

You know. That problem. The one where you listen and think “s/he’s not acting; s/he’s just reading”.

This has, to the best of my recollection, always been a problem in US animation, sometimes even at the big budget feature film level. It doesn’t entirely surprise me; cartoon VA has far less cachet and visibility in this country than almost any other form of acting. And, of course, without concentrated practice it’s really hard to get any kind of expression into voice alone without the somatic feedback of motion and blocking. US actors don’t generally specialize in voice acting primarily. The result, alas, is that a whole lot of VAs sound exactly like stage actors transplanted to TV minus the cameras.  They’ve got beautiful diction and enunciation which, um, on a cartoon? Sounds like a kindergarten teacher reading aloud for story hour.

I know that I’ve been spoiled by anime. Animation has a broader viewer base in Japan, filling in both children’s programming and some of the soap-opera slot, with historical drama tossed in around the edges. On top of that, seiyuu are corporately groomed to be visible, to be idol-like. Accordingly, voice acting is a viable primary career, there, and a demanding one at that. I’m now used to actors who have been trained to get convincing expression into voice alone, to dramatize freely, to grunt and groan with absolute conviction. Wherefore I tend to wince when a lot of the Avatar characters open their mouths, especially the adult characters.

This is not to say Avatar isn’t excellent. It is. Nothing less could get me to keep watching, despite the background wincing. I especially like the way the writers open up the romantic field wide, offering lots of possibilities but no sureties. I love that kind of thing, even if it does tend to bring the rabid shippers out to each defend their personal preferred subtext.

So onward to Season Two!

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