5 Reasons Why Avatar Is An Anime


We’re right in the middle of Too Much Avatar Week here at Toy-TMA, and while Gus started the week with a look at the 5 darkest episode of the cartoon and I took an advance look at The Promise Part 2, today I’m ready to really stir up some ire. One of the biggest complaints Avatar fans have is anyone calling their show an anime. Why is that? I never quite understood the frustration over this, particularly because I’m a fan of the show and I believe it’s an anime. So then, why not take this chance to clear some things up and explore my rationale? There’s no point in talking big and then failing to deliver, so I’m taking that challenge to express why I feel the show is actually an anime. But before you get mad at me, let me remind you that we have another writer on the site who is a fan through and through, so you can skip my article altogether here and just let him remind you why you love the series in the first place. Otherwise, here are 5 reasons why Avatar is an anime.


5. Unreasonably Young Protagonists


Avatar Kids

I wonder if these might be the destined heroes to save us all...?

If there’s one thing that anime doesn’t mind doing, it’s making the protagonists ambiguously young. Half the time they’ll be in high school or even younger, which is a trope that seems to be encouraged in JRPGs quite frequently. This seems to hold up pretty well here in Avatar as the main four (five if you count Zuko) protagonists are all under 18-years-old.

Why this says “anime” to me is that the villains are, for the most part, adults. Well, let me qualify that: The main villain is an adult. The Big Bad of the show, Firelord Ozai, happens to be a manly dude with a beard, yet it’s this band of kids that’re going to be the serious contenders for “greatest at everything,” no matter what that may be. Can Aang master all four styles of bending and fight a super-powered Firelord? Oh yes. Can Toph master a new form of bending involving metal? Yes as well. Can Katara master a relatively unknown form of Waterbending that involves blood? Absolutely. Can Zuko master the ability to channel lightning out of his body? That’s a check!

Now, why this isn’t a bad thing is that young protagonists are meant to be relatable to the younger audience, which the show was intended for (despite being rightfully enjoyed by everyone). But it does call to mind more anime than it does Western shows (Gohan, Naruto, Simon, Ash, Luffy, Digimon’s protagonists, etc. vs Batman, Superman, X-Men, etc). Essentially, when it comes to action cartoons, when kids are involved it sways much more toward anime than anything else.


4. It’s a Small World


Avatar Last Airbender World Map

Hey look at that, a nice compact world that fits easily into a single rectangle...

One of the greatest parts of a sweeping epic is how many locales the main characters will visit over the course of the story. In one chapter they could be in a deep valley, and the next they find themselves on top of a great mountain, and then in another two episodes they’re over in a desert before finding a huge civilization by the beach. And then in the very next scene they find they’re needed back in the valley and whoosh, they’re already there.

No fleshed-out world is every truly massive, otherwise there’d be no way to create a connection to some of the bigger landmarks. You either have to spend a lot of time in one place all at once, or you have to be able to quickly get back to it almost instantly. This is another trope that seems to carry over from JRPGs seeing as how you’re capable of traversing the entire map, only to be called to the other side of the world with little notice. Avatar actually seems to do this pretty regularly as well.

Again, this isn’t a bad thing since sure, I want to get to see all these different places when they’re walking on foot, but then I also want to go back whenever a big crisis occurs. Building a grand world and then shrinking it, especially when you have the power of flight and deadlines are set across the globe that need be traveled in a day, feels like an anime to me.


3. Martial Arts Solves Everything


Zuko vs Azula

Oh kids today. I suppose that's just how they deal with unresolved family strife.

Very few times in the real world can you stop and decide without a doubt in your mind, “Yes, this problem can probably be resolved with the use of martial arts.” Avatar loves to find solutions to every problem with the ancient art of Bending, a form of martial arts that happens to create pew-pew special effects in addition to kicking butts.

You’re smart enough to see where I’m going with this, but again we see that in anime, the plot is usually resolved by finding someone who can hit harderiest with any plot point moving toward teaching someone how to hit even harderiester. Dragon Ball Z made a living off of this, and Naruto, as far as I can tell, likes to pull the “My wushu is stronger than your wushu” stunt pretty regularly. Avatar most certainly relies on the “I must find inner peace/learn a new power/hone my strength” tactic over the “We need to use clever reasoning to find a solution” that a lot of Western shows look for. So in this case, anime pays respects to Bruce Lee while Western shows tend to pay respects to Sherlock Holmes.

I wouldn’t for the life of me say this is a bad thing as sometimes you just wanna see a guy punch a dude, and sometimes you want it to look really freaking cool when he does it. The action in Avatar reeks of anime, but in a good way. Action junkies are people, too!


2. Destiny!


Serious Aang

Hmm, this guy looks important... Nah, probably just my imagination.

How often do you find an anime that follows a central protagonist that learns “They are the one chosen to solve the world’s problems?” And now look at Western cartoons and tell me the difference. Yes, Western shows tend to have characters that choose to be The One, like Batman, while anime rely on someone who already is The One and just didn’t know it until someone told them.

See what I’m about to do? Aang is a great character, but he’s a character thrust into the spotlight. We know that he has to fight the Big Bad because no one else can. This forces an importance on him that seems fairly regular in the anime style, and just like the anime style, there’s absolutely zero chance that a different character will ever be the most important and save the day.

Could I just be frank for a moment? I love The Chosen One tropes. I have absolutely no problem with them at all, but it’s hard to deny that they’re inherently anime in tone. So very many Western shows are about group dynamics, even shows that aren’t action-oriented like Hey Arnold, Rugrats, or Duck Tales. Doesn’t mean it isn’t awesome; it just occurs more in anime.


1. Because Everyone Already Thinks So


Aang and Appa

"Are you watching that Pokemon show again?!" -Your Grandma

I made an analogy a while ago where I asked what you would call a food item that’s made with dough, cheese, pepperoni, and tomato sauce, except it isn’t made in Italy. The joke is that I’m describing a pizza, so if you put all those things together and then someone told you it looked like a delicious pizza and you reacted with distain because you didn’t make it in Italy so it couldn’t be a pizza, then you’d just look silly.

The truth at the heart of this is in the eye of the uninitiated. If I were to show Avatar to my grandma, she would probably tell me it looks like some Japanese cartoon or something. The general public takes one look at Avatar and all they see is: “Hey, that looks like a pizza.” There’s just no way around that. Watchmen is a comic book. The Matrix is a kung-fu movie. Avatar is an anime. You aren’t able to stop every person and explain to them with the amount of knowledge that you definitively have why it most certainly is not and how dare they for believing something so foolish?! They haven’t seen it. They have no choice but to group it with what they can comprehend, and that so happens to be anime.

What’s really troubling to me is this notion that having Avatar called an anime is a bad thing, from some of the same people who seem to love anime so very much. Break away from conventions for a moment and the need to be right, and what does it hurt when something is falsely called “anime?” Does that suddenly make Avatar lesser? No, the show is still strong. I just don’t understand the insistence that it’s not an anime when the creators were clearly influenced by the anime style of a mystic martial arts serialized epic.

There, I’m done, I’ve said my little argument about why Avatar is an anime. But now I want to know what you think about it. Do you generally agree with my statements? Or are you vehemently opposed to any and everything I said here? Or could you just not care either way? I think I’m in that third camp at this point, but you might as well leave a comment and get this discussion going.


About Author

Chris was the former Head Writer/Editor of Toy-TMA. He did a great job overseeing the site and getting new content published regularly. Always more than willing to respond to a comment or two, but pitiless with trolls! He has since moved on from TMA, and we wish him the best.


  1. Pohatueudyptulaminor on

    3. I absolutely agree with Gus. It really sounds like you’re being quite biased towards American animation. The anime which you were referring to (the one about martial arts and how fighting solves everything) is only a small portion of anime classified as shounen. However, there are many more genres out there, and you seem to forget American animation has many downfalls as well as Japanese animation. Look at some of the kids shows nowadays – let’s face it, they’re pretty crap.

    No matter what, any style of animation has its series which have their own faults, and you shouldn’t categorize them like that.

    But I digress.

    Avatar doesn’t necessarily solve everything with martial arts. There are quite a few episodes with emotional/intelligent/non-martial arts resolution, like The Storm, The Southern Air Temple, The Deserter, The Northern Air Temple (Season 1); The Cave of Two Lovers, Appa’s Lost Days(Season 2); The Awakening, The Avatar and the Firelord, The Boiling Rock (Parts 1 and 2), The Southern Raiders (Season 3). And there are more.

    4. You are confusing games with television shows. In games, you have all the time in the world to revisit everywhere to your heart’s content. But in TV shows, you don’t. You cannot keep revisiting the same place over and over again due to the fact that it will get repetitive. (Unless you come up with a different crisis every time). If it gets repetitive, you won’t watch it, will you?

    However, the show does revisit places from time to time. In Return to Omashu, they return to Omashu. In one of the episodes in season 3 (I forget which) they return to Serpent’s Pass. They also stayed for some time in Ba Sing Se, as well as the Northern Water Tribe.

    The main point of Avatar, though, was the sense of exploration, that there was a huge world that they would explore, in which pretty much every episode was a different setting, which helped keep the show fresh and appealing. (The operative word being “helped” here, since there are many more aspects that contribute to this)

    So would you consider Adventure Time an anime? Because it clearly solves many things with action, covers a huge world and has unreasonably young protagonists? No. Because it doesn’t LOOK like anime.

    Anime is an art style. It is basically what is defined as Japanese animation. Nothing more. Of course Avatar has anime influences, but that doesn’t make it an anime, does it?

  2. I take issue with the idea that all Avatar fans are also anime fans. Personally, I like ATLA because it’s so different from the garbage that Japan produces for its cash-flush manchildren.

  3. 5. I suppose by that logic, you would consider Teen Titans an anime. Or Kim Possible. Young Justice. Ben 10. Zevo 3. Spectacular Spider-man.

    4. Funny seeing as how one of the most prominent anime series right now, One Piece, has a world so freakishly huge, they have not backtracked once in the 15 years of the series run, nor has anyone in the world mapped out the entire globe. Honestly, I felt avatar was was very consistent with now they moved across the world. In Book One, they moved in a strait line, and each episode they were slightly more north of the Earth kingdom from where they were just before it. The only time where characters broke the rules and traveled half way across the world in a single episode were Appa’s Lost Days, The Southern Raiders, and Sozen’s Comet. Three times. I’ll let it slide, especially considering the first one had a time span of four week.

    3…I’m not even going to bother with this one, it’s stupid. Not all western shows solve their conflicts with clever reasoning (Star Wars Clone Wars, Samurai Jack), and not all anime solve their conflicts with violence (Death Note, Full Metal Alchemist)

    2.[Cough]-Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Super Man, the rebooted Spider-Man, Aladdin, Lion King. How is this an inherently anime trait?

    1. Really? The pizza analogy again? Answer me, have you ever seen or eaten a pizza that was actually from Italy? If not, how do you know how much different they are?
    But that’s beside the point. By technicality, pizza is NOT defined as a product specifically created in Italy. Anime IS however, defined as an animated series created in Japan.

    I’m so tired of debating this. I’m at the point where I really don’t care anymore. Fine. Avatar’s an anime. I guess I’m just going stop trying to inform people, and let them just assume that it’s just another anime licenced by Funimation, and that Aang is voiced by an adult woman with a raspy tone or some “teenage” guy who uses some frail voice to make him sound like a wus, and that Chris Sabat will show up as the voice of Long Feng, and The Bolder, and Koh, and Tyro, and the women are all scantly clad or underdeveloped or never fight, or any combination of the three.

  4. I’m in the last group. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. “Anime” is such a pop term now that it means any cartoon that looks not-American…so if it doesn’t look like Disney or Looney Tunes, it’s anime. Basically, anything with some distinct style becomes anime. I find that kind of funny considering it’s hard to point to a cartoon on TV that *doesn’t* look anime, which means it’s the norm yet people still seem to point to it like it’s weird and foreign.

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