Thursday, June 28, 2012

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Martial Arts

The Art of Bending
Avatar: The Last Airbender has the moniker of Nickelodeon's "Last Great Nicktoon" that was produced in the Orlando Studio FL before the studio was taken down. People who knows the show still argues whether it is "anime" or "cartoon". I don't really care because what Avatar: The Last Airbender is. All I know is: It's Excellent! But for the sake of this post I will refer to the show as an "animation." To me "anime" or "cartoon" are two of the many categories/styles/techniques in the "animation" medium of story telling.

The setting of Avatar: The Last Airbender is heavily influenced by Asian culture. The characters of the show practices real world religions and philosophies such as Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism. At first glance Avatar: The Last Airbender seems like a kid's show full of slapstick humor and mindless action used as a platform to sell toys. These are misconceptions. Especially the toys bit. There are yet to be a cool Avatar action figure! Believe me I've looked :( The show introduces four nations in its world. Each nation representing a philosophy, personality, martial arts style and element. The Fire Nation was founded by people who can wield fire by focusing their energy with mental and physical discipline. This nation has a very Northern Chinese feel to it which reflects in their martial arts. On the other hand The Earth Kingdom founded by people who can bend earth, gives off a Southern Chinese vibe in their culture and martial arts. It is not often to have an American produced show to have such a heavy Eastern theme WITH respectable Asian references. The creators of the show definitely did their research with much respect. With that said, Avatar: The Last Airbender is not dominated by Eastern culture. It's well balanced with diversity. Some of the costume designs and buildings gives off an Eastern feel but it's mixed with true to life cultural references from all around the world. The show's creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, did a great job balancing the different cultures represented on the show as well as successfully mixing the kiddy fun with some of the more mature themes. If they lived in the Avatar: TLA I guess their speciality would be "story bending."

One of the resources the creators of Avatar: TLA used is Sifu Kisu. Sifu Kisu is a an Executive Protection Specialist for celebrities. He was brought onto Avatar: TLA as the fighting instructor and consultant. With his extensive knowledge of Martial Arts and the philosophy behind them, Sifu Kisu brought depth into the show's action sequences. The fights are not just mindless action, they are full of conversations, inner conflicts and philosophical debates. A good example is when Aang was able to solve a puzzle with his airbending by pushing a door open. The act was simple but it required the character to develop confidence. As the characters grow in Avatar: TLA, so does their ability and this reflects the hard work and sacrifice one could acquire by committing to a discipline. Avatar: TLA conveys a valuable message of: to be good at something, whether it'd be martial arts, dance, music, painting or writing... patience and dedication are essential values. Being able to represent these values and still being a fun show is what makes Avatar: TLA one of the best shows on television within the last decade. That and lots of cool martial arts! I know, it's a bit long winded to get to this point but, I wanted to praise the show a bit more before talking about the art of element bending.

One more thing before the "JUMP!" here's a compilation of videos of Sifu Kisu talking about the four featured martial arts styles used on the show. The four videos can be found in the special features on the Avatar: TLA DVD's:


More on the Arts of Element Bending (and spoilers) after the JUMP! >>>



Airbending

The martial arts used in Avatar all corresponds with the characters' personalities and the nation they are from. Aang's tribe, the Air Nomads use their air bending skills to live with the freedom of flight. They practice a circular motion type of martial arts known as the Ba Gua Zhang (八卦掌). The power of the Ba Gua Zhang comes from its stances which calls for twisting motions of the body along with the circular movements of the limbs. This generates momentum into power. The motion of the feet and legs mimics the Ba Gua Diagram.(八卦 or Eight Trigrams) which allows the legs to constantly be either on offense for relentless attacks or retreat with uncanny evasive moves. In either mode, if the practitioner has enough strength in their legs he/she can over power anyone with their stances alone. The diagram itself is a Taoist representation... actually, more like a calculator that uses the yin, the yang and the eight trigrams:
  • Sky
  • Lake
  • Fire
  • Lightning
  • Wind
  • Water
  • Mountain
  • Earth
These "elements" on the diagram are believed to balance the physical and the spiritual planes. This plays into Aang's personality as he seems well balanced at first until, we learn that he's missing that one element of impulsive passion, "fire," in order to complete his training. As with his airbending, Aang tends to go with the flow, he's care free but at times stubborn. This is true as well to most of the air nomads' philosophy. Another ability that Aang developed, Energy-bending (Chi-bending), shows up in The Legend of Korra. In the real world, martial arts legends says that a practitioner who is in tune with their energy is able to take away or block pressure points in the opponents' body, taking away years energy training temporarily... and sometimes, forever.




Earthbending

In Avatar: TLA, the practitioners of earthbending tend to have down to earth, strong and pragmatic personalities. They are more comfortable being on solid ground rather than being in the water or in the air. Toph Beifong is an example of these values. Of all the characters on the show, I admire her the most. Born blind, she doesn't see it as a handicap instead she considers it as just another hurdle to jump. Toph's style is the Chu Gar Praying Mantis (朱家螳螂拳). It was developed in Southern Shaolin by Chu Fook-To. He was of Ming Royalty who took refuge in the Northern Shaolin Temple when the Manchu Dynasty (oppositions of the Ming) took over China. Then after the destruction of the Northern Shaolin Temple, he fled to the Southern Temple and this is where he created the Chu Gar Praying Mantis style to fight against the Manchu Dynasty's enforcers. Toph's style of Chu Gar Praying Mantis and earthbending evolves in very interesting ways. Being blind, Toph can sense vibrations through the ground which gives her sonar like vision. Later in the Avatar: TLA series, she's able to bend metal and this evolves into its own style in The Legend of Korra.

With the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Kingdom left standing during Aang's time, the story of Avatar pits The Southern Shaolin Temple against the Northern Shaolin Temple. This is a classic motif in the Shaw Brothers' films from Hong Kong cinema in the 70's and 80's. Some of the modern actors who studied the Southern Shaolin Style are:
  • Bruce Lee (李小龍)
  • Jackie Chan (成龍)
  • Jet Li (李連杰) 
  • Donnie Yen (甄子丹)




Firebending

The Fire Kingdom is built upon a series of islands formed by unstable volcanoes. Was it because of this that the people of the Fire Nation have the need to bend fire? During the time of Aang, the Fire Nation had become a militaristic kingdom bent on conquering the world. They almost succeeded in conquering the other three kingdoms (Air, Water and Earth). The only nation left standing was the Earth Nation and specifically, the impregnable city of Ba Sing Se (永固城). This unconquerable city in the Northern Earth Kingdom stood in the Fire Nation's way of world domination. Through this ambitious passion the firebenders is able wield fire in its most aggressive and destructive essence. Using the sun as their source of energy along with the quickness and leaping abilities of the Northern Shaolin Form (北少林), they are able to bend fire. As the sun fuels firebending, the practitioner's emotions can also be fuel by the element of fire. To keep their emotions under control, they must understand the disciplinary philosophies of The Northern Shaolin Way. Iroh, "The Dragon of the West," older brother of Fire Lord Ozai, was able to mix Zen in his firebending practice. Real world legend has it that all forms of martial arts derived from Northern Shaolin. Having good fundamentals of the Shaolin martial arts can grant you a template for all the other martial arts. Within the Avatar: TLA series, we get to see this in practice as some firebenders were able to assimilate other styles into their firebending. As Fire Lord Ozai and Princess Azula were able to channel lighting. Iroh was able to develop an energy transference technique through the movements and the philosophies of Tai Chi practiced by the waterbenders. On the contrary, there were also those who fail to practice the discipline of their firebending discipline and was consumed by its aggressive nature.

Fire is the element that Aang had a tough time of learning. He was afraid that he might accidentally hurt people because of this aggressively charged and emotionally fueled art. He's especially fearful that he might hurt his friends. In the Legend of Korra, with Korra being a waterbender, it's interesting that her main attacks are firebending. With her abrasive personality, she had trouble with the calm, controlled offense of airbending.




Waterbending

You can be fearless against fire or earth but, water can never be conquered. Sifu Kisu and the creators of Avatar: TLA introduced this philosophy in the first season of the show. They gave the water tribe the use of Tai Chi Chuan (太極拳). Waterbenders are able to push and pull the flow of water. More in the way of focusing the ability and the element to flow with their internal energy rather than controlling it. Tai Chi Chuan existed at first as a Taoist philosophy before it gain physical movement. It promotes harmonizing with nature; basically to go with the flow. Even when Tai Chi practitioners interpreted this philosophy into  physically form, the main idea of being one with nature still remained. Not much strength is used in this martial arts, actually it promotes as little strength as possible. The push and pull of already existing kinetic energy will provide the power that can be redirected to your target. This compounds the original energy with momentum. When the compounded energy is directed towards the target it can do twice the damage. This is ideal for people in the water nation. Water/Ocean/Lakes cannot be controlled so waterbenders figured out a way to move huge waves or droplets of water to their benefit. If they can not conquer the bodies of water they might as well go with the flow. Along with the Taoist philosophy the Water Nation believes in coexisting with nature instead of conquering it.

In the later season of Avatar: TLA Katara met up with a waterbender who was able to bend blood. This terrible technique allows the bender to control any living being or kill them in the most horrible way. In The Legend of Korra, Amon is able to energy-bend through his mastery of blood-bending. He uses this technique to take away bending abilities of anyone who opposes the Equalists.




Other Martial Arts on Avatar: The Last Airbender

Another impressive thing about Avatar: TLA is that within 3 seasons, not only were the characters well developed,  it also showcased a variety of martial arts. Avatar: TLA has some of the best choreographed fight scenes in animation. The Cowboy Bebop Movie: Knocking on Heaven's Door is another one with great animated fight sequences.

The Kyoshi Warriors led by Suki used a metal fan technique known as Tessenjutsu (鉄扇術). Tessenjutsu is a technique that uses metal fans as weapons. There is also a technique in Chinese Kung Fu which uses the unassuming regular wooden and paper fan. I couldn't find information for it but, the technique shows up in Hong Kong movies from time to time. There's also a Tai Chi form that uses the fan. With the energy transference philosophy taught in Tai Chi, a fan can be a very powerful weapon. Avatar Kyoshi was known to use fans to generate powerful winds. Thus, the Kyoshi Warrior's weapon of choice. The Kyoshi Warriors were also known to use the Katana and Shields.

When Princess Azula needed help to fight Aang and his friends, she recruited two friends with very special abilities. The moody Mai is an expert in Shurikenjutsu (手裏剣術), the art of throwing Shuriken, or hidden hand blades. Shurikenjutsu was used by the Shinobi in feudal Japan. This technique is also formidable and feared in Chinese Martial Arts and in that part of the world it's known as the art of Flying Daggers (飛刀). Hidden, fast and precise... you don't know when the practitioner of this art will strike. A super deadly ability. In martial arts legends, thrown weapons, especially needles can be used to strike pressure points. Speaking of attacking the pressure points... this brings us to Azula's other friend.



Ty Lee... don't let her cuteness fool you. She is an expert of one of the most powerful techniques in martial arts, Chi-Blocking. Unlike Aang's Energy-Bending or Amon's permanent(?) Chi-Blocking, Ty Lee's technique only renders her opponents temporarily immobile. Without the use of their arms and legs, Ty Lee's opponents won't be able to throw punches or kicks... this even takes away their ability to bend elements temporarily. Sometimes she can even make her opponents pass out. Chi-Blocking is a real world technique known as the Pressure Point Strike (點穴). It is a very focused striking practice which is used to numb or bring incredible pain to certain parts of the body. Legend has it that if the strikes are focused and powerful enough it can open and close pressure points in the body like doors. This can redirect blood flow and energy flow or even stop them. If misused it can handicap the victim for good or at worst, it can cause death. Pressure Point Striking is not always doom and gloom though, it can also used to heal. When Aang learned to open his Chakra, that is a form of Pressure Point Striking. Instead of being physical it's achieved through meditation. At the end of Season 1 of The Legend of Korra, when Korra gave bending abilities back to Lin Beifong, I believe Korra opened her chakra/pressure point. It's along the same lines of how Amon took it away, by closing/blocking that energy flow.


During the Third Book (Fire) of Avatar: TLA, Sokka learned a Sword Technique from a Fire Nation Sword Master named Piandao. Piandao's character design was based on Sifu Kisu and he is voiced by the T-1000 of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Robert Patrick. Piandao taught Sokka a sword form which is very close to the Wudang (武當) Sword Technique. When I first saw the technique in the show, I wasn't sure if the style was Shaolin or Wudang. I finally deducted that it's closer to Wudang because of Piandao's philosophy of being one with nature and minding the environment. This is a practice of Wudang's Taoist ways. This philosophy heavily influenced Wudang's martial arts development. Especially in the creation of Tai Chi. Wudang is famous for developing Tai Chi and also their many sword forms. Aside from Tai Chi Sword, Wudang also developed fast sword techniques like the Eight Immortals Form. Either slow or fast, with or without a sword, the basis for all of Wudang's martial arts is Taoism.


Avatar: TLA brings in so much conversation through martial arts. I had never seen an animated series do this. Without words, the action sequences tells us who the characters are, their personalities, their philosophies, their emotions... all this carefully animated in their fighting techniques. Actually, what surprised me the most was how deep the show got into martial arts philosophy with the episode "The Guru" (Second book: Earth). This continues into later episodes and makes the episodes that came before worth watching again. During my second viewing, I noticed hints of martial arts philosophy in the early episodes. It builds as the show progresses. Naturally, this transferred over to The Legend of Korra. Bolin criticized Korra for being too rigid in her form. Then he showed Korra what he meant and got into a Jeet Kune Do fighting stance. I almost fell off my chair! Jeet Kune Do (截拳道), the Way of the Intercepting Fist (Form without Form) is a style developed by Bruce Lee when he felt that traditional martial arts is too stiff and a slave to the "proper form." So he took "the good" from the different styles, including Western Boxing and created his own style. Jeet Kune Do later evolved into MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). Even before Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do, similar styles showed in Chinese Martial Arts stories. The philosophy behind this form is "to find your own way." Don't give into traditional form without question. If you will never accept change, you will never grow and learn  (Form without Form). Martial arts is always moving (always evolving) like the ocean. You can't conquer the ocean so move with it. Flow... ride the waves... don't swim upstream... instead, redirect and find your opening. Be as clear as water but as fierce as the waves. Or if you want to look at it differently "be a leaf in the wind..."



Links

Full Episodes of The Legend of Korra:
The Legend of Korra on Nick

My Avatar: The Last Airbender review on Groggy Robot:
Avatar: The Last Airbender Review

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