Retrospective: Chapter Four: “The Warriors of Kyoshi”
I’ll bet that the more “progressive” viewers for Avatar: the Last Airbender—the ones who might have feared that the careless sexism of Sokka, one of the two leading men (boys?), would ruin an otherwise promising children’s program—were shitting their pants with joy when “The Warriors of Kyoshi” aired. This episode introduces us to Suki, the second prominent female character we meet in the entire series (aside from Gran-Gran) and a strong and capable fighter and the leader of the all-female Kyoshi Warriors, a group created in honor of Avatar Kyoshi, who was a woman! Can someone say “Girl Power!”? (Please don’t.)
If you ask me, though, the real revelation here is not that there are so many Strong Female Characters™ like Katara and Suki; it’s the way in which their male counterparts handle them. Sokka voices his sexist opinions at the beginning of the episode, and the moment we see the Kyoshi Warriors, we just know he’s been set up for humiliation. And we’re right: unable to accept that these girls could take down a man like him, he tries to fight Suki one-on-one and promptly loses. DiMartino, Konietzko, and company could have left it at that and Avatar would still be praised as a step in the right direction.
The real praise should start with what happens next: Sokka goes back to the Warriors and apologizes for his sexist remarks and asks to learn from them so that he can become as good as them! Say what you will about Sokka—and trust me, I’ll have plenty to say about him as this goes on—this is a pretty impressive display of personal growth. Sure, we’ve seen sexist men get their royal asses handed to them by Strong Female Characters™ plenty of times before to varying degrees of catharsis, but how many of those defeated men actually become wiser and more humble because of it? This is great stuff, especially for a children’s program, and DiMartino, Konietzko, and company could have easily left it at that.
But it gets better: after learning some moves from Suki and before leaving Kyoshi Island to escape Zuko and his soldiers, Sokka and Suki have the following exchange:
Suki: There’s no time to say goodbye.
Sokka: What about, “I’m sorry”?
Suki: For what?
Sokka: I treated you like a girl when I should have treated you like a warrior.
Suki: I am a warrior. But I’m a girl, too.
Turns out Sokka’s growth wasn’t quite complete. Only after losing to Suki did he show her respect as a fellow warrior when he should have simply respected her as a girl. More to the point, he should have treated her as a human being deserving of kindness and respect regardless of whether she was a warrior, a girl, a princess, a peasant, whatever. (It’ll be some time before Sokka can extend that compassion to people from the Fire Nation, but there’s still so much more growth to be had.) This little bit of character development is easily the best aspect of the episode, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this convinced people to stick with the rest of the series.
The rest of the episode, on the other hand, is pretty boring. It mostly involves Aang showing off his Avatar status and abilities to an admiring group of little girls on Kyoshi Island, much to Katara’s (and the audience’s) annoyance. The moral here is so obvious and so typical of children’s programming that it’s devoid of any real interest. It’s difficult to tell whether DiMartino, Konietzko, and company actually believe this crap, or whether it was simply mandated by the Nickelodeon executives who wanted easy messages for the kids. In any case, this adherence to kiddie show formula really drags the series down whenever it pops up, and it’s very likely that it only shows up so much in Book One because the team hadn’t figured out the Avatar formula yet. (They’d abandon such banalities by Book Two.)
The only point of interest with this plotline is that word gets around pretty fast that the Avatar is on Kyoshi Island, which inadvertently sets Zuko back on Aang’s trail. After staying out of the war for a hundred years, Kyoshi Island is nearly burnt to the ground simply because Aang showed up and blew their cover. The subsequent guilt that should have played into Aang’s character development is swiftly alleviated when Aang extinguishes the village fire in a manner that feels unearned and underexplained. (Having never rode or figured out how to ride the giant sea monster that nearly ate him mere minutes ago, how would Aang know exactly how to control it so that it sprays water on the burning village? How would he know except for plot convenience?)
If the writing is still suspect at this point, so is the animation*. “The Warriors of Kyoshi” is the only episode I can recall that features the kind of cartoony and outlandish animation as when Aang first goes into the water to ride the giant fish and escape the sea monster. Who ever made the call to never ever use this style of animation again better have gotten a raise, because this style of animation is not only inappropriate for the tone and reality of the series (how am I supposed to believe Aang is in any real danger when he can just run away like a Looney Tunes character?), it’s not even good enough to justify its own existence. Certainly DiMartino and Konietzko were taking a page out of FLCL—one of their favorite anime—when they allowed this to happen, but if this episode teaches us anything (and The Legend of Korra proves again), it’s that your influences are only as good as they are appropriate to the work you’re creating.
For a good example, it’s pretty clear that one of the biggest influences on Avatar are the works of Hayao Miyazaki, whose stories are not only well-drawn and imaginative, but are almost always headed by capable and intelligent women. If Miyazaki proved anything to us aspiring American animators, it’s that a woman doesn’t have to be scantily clad or have to kick a lot of ass to carry a story; she just needs a worthy goal and well-defined personality like all the best characters. What better way to pay homage to a master and progress American animation a little further than by creating a whole universe full of autonomous and memorable female characters? It would be interesting to imagine how Avatar would have turned out if DiMartino and Konietzko hadn’t seen a single Miyazaki film. I mean, I’m sure DiMartino and Konietzko were socially aware before Miyazaki came along, but Miyazaki must taught them how to implement that awareness within an animated story without turning it into a PSA on equality. In that regard, the Miyazaki influence is appropriate and well-adapted to their own ambitions with Avatar, even within the confines of television animation.
“The Warriors of Kyoshi” is not a good episode, but it’s a solid step in the right direction. Little-by-little, as its characters and universe develop, as its storytelling improves, and as its themes become more sophisticated, Avatar seems to be rewarding the faith and good will of those viewers who saw promise in it from episode one. Who would suspect that all that faith and good will would nearly be broken in the next episode?!
*Speaking of suspect writing and animation, I have never understood the appeal of the Foaming Mouth Guy, the fan nickname for the man who has a seizure upon seeing Aang Airbend. Is this supposed to be funny? Considering it was animated by future Korra co-director Ki-Hyun Ryu (the man responsible for Fartbending, among other things), it’s hard to say. Why did DiMartino, Konietzko, and company let it stay in the show? Surely what’s funny during production isn’t necessarily funny in the finished product, right?