by Theodora Charalambous
Avatar: The Last Airbender (also referred to as ATLA, Avatar and Avatar: The Legend of Aang), is an animated television series produced by the Nickelodeon Animation Studio and first aired in 2005. The series is set in a fantasy world, heavily inspired by Asia cultures, in which “benders” can manipulate the four elements; air, fire, water and earth. The avatar, whose role is to maintain harmony among the four nations, is the only one capable of bending all four elements. The story follows Aang, the current avatar and last surviving air bender, together with his friends Katara, Sokka and Toph, in their quest to defeat Fire Lord Ozai and end the Fire Nation’s war, while avoiding capture from the exiled Fire Nation’s prince Zuko as he seeks to restore his lost honour.
Despite ATLA being a children’s show, it has cultivated a fanbase of all ages and is described by many to be one of the greatest animated television series of all time. Blurring the lines between adult and youth entertainment by including adult themes, such as genocide, imperialism and war, contributed to the series wild success.
In my blog post I will discuss how migration is portrayed in ATLA throughout the four Nations.
The Air Nomads
The Air Nomads had no permanent home but rather they moved between the four air temples, that were located in each corner of the globe. Those who defied the pacifist and peaceful way of life of the Air Nomads were forced in exile and would often permanently settle in another nation. Such are the cases of the monk Kelsang and nun Jesa (The Rise of Kyoshi, 2019).
After the Air Nomad Genocide caused by the Fire Nation, most air temples remained abandoned, while the Northern Air Temple became occupied by Earth Kingdom refugees. (ATLA S1, E17)
Aang lived most of his adult life traveling in order to fulfil his air Nomad duties. The Air Temple Island, which is located off the coast of Republic City in Yue Bay in Western Earth Kingdom, became the permanent home of his family and the place where his three children were raised. (The Legend of Korra S1, E1)
The Fire Nation
Fire Nation colonies were established in the Earth Kingdom far before the Air Nomad genocide, under the rule of Fire Lord Sozin. His plans were temporarily paused, after he was confronted by Avatar Roku, however the piece didn’t last long as the Fire Nation started expanding its colonies soon after the Air Nomad genocide took place.(ATLA S3, E6)
During the Hundred Year War, Fire Nation citizens were permitted to travel between the homeland and the colonies. Consequentially, many Fire Nationals decided to leave the Fire Nation and settled in the colonised territories in the Earth Kingdom. As seen in Season 3: Episode 2, “The Headband” the returnees were looked down upon by the homeland inhabitants and were considered to lack proper etiquette and education.
The Water Tribes
The Water Tribe consists of the Northern and Southern Water Tribes, which reside near both poles. As migration between the two regions is very common, many tribe members have friends and family on the other side of the globe and the two tribes reunite during the New Moon Celebration. Additionally, Northern tribe women would often migrate to the Southern regions, in order to escape their tribe’s patriarchal social traditions, which prohibited women from learning water bending (ATLA S1,E18). During the Hundred Year War outbreak many Southern Water Tribe water benders were taken as prisoners and were forcibly moved to the Fire Nation to be used as slaves.
Alongside the Northern and Southern Water Tribes exists the less known Froggy Swamp Tribe. This tribe consists of descendants of Southern Water Tribe members who migrated to the Froggy Swamp, a wetland in the southwestern Earth Kingdom, prior to the Hundred Year War. Due to the harsh environment of the swamp, the Froggy Water Tribe developed a new water bending style, swamp bending. Moreover, they are culturally distinct from the two other water tribes and their speech is often described as less sophisticated (ATLA S2, E4).
The Earth Kingdom
The most prominent example of immigration in ATLA finds itself in Book Two: Earth, the second season of the show. As previously mentioned, the Earth Kingdom was heavily colonised by the Fire Nation years before the Air Nomad genocide. A new wave of refugees seeking sanctuaries in other regions of the Earth Kingdom, predominantly the city of Ba Sing Se, ensued from the outbreak of the Hundred Year War. In order to provide transportation to safety for the refugees, hidden stations and transportation hubs such as the Full Moon Bay were established throughout the Nation. However, escaping the colonies was not an easy task for everyone, as the immigrant relief system had its own biases as to who is worthy enough to be saved. The national immigration officials would only allow those with official documents to board the ferries. Those of elite status were able to surpass the regulations and were immediately granted access on the ferries. The show illustrates this in episode 12 of season 2, when Toph was provided with not one but four tickets due to her elite status as a member of the Beifong family, one of the wealthiest families in the East Kingdom. Contrary to Toph’s special treatment Aang, who didn’t own a passport, was immediately refused a ticket. The officer proclaimed “If I gave away all the tickets there would be no more order, no more civilisation.”, once again revealing the systematic classism which the refugee transportation hubs and the city of Ba Sing Se operated under. Less fortunate refugees with no official documentation were neglected by the state and forced to travel through a dangerous route known as the Serpent’s Pass. The lucky few who survived this alternate route were granted asylum upon their arrival at Ba Sing Se. Refugees traveling by ferry had to undergo less than ideal circumstances themselves, having to sleep on dirt and provided with meals consisting of expired and rotten ingredients, while the captain was having lavish meals. Amongst those aboard the ferries, Zuko and his uncle Iroh were forced to flee in the Earth Kingdom disguised as refugees, after being labeled as traitors to the Fire Nation.
Despite the impenetrable walls of Ba Sing Se signifying hope for the refugees, the life they were offered was one of poor quality and discrimination. The inhabitants of Ba Sing Se were divided into three walled ring districts, based on their social and economical status. The Lower Ring consisted of the majority of the city’s population, those are mainly the poor classes, newcomers and the refugees. Due to the Lower Ring being the most dense populated the housings were very small and the crime rates significantly higher then the other two Rings. The Middle Ring housed the middle class population as well as contained the city’s shopping district, whereas the Upper Ring is the place of residence of the upper class including government and military officials. If granted permission citizens of the Lower Ring were allowed to travel to the Middle Ring, however lower class citizens had no access to the Upper Ring and therefore the poor were completely separated from the rich. In his attempt to conceal the war from Ba Sing Se, the Earth King employed Dai Li, an elite secret police force, to micro-surveillance all refugees and punish anyone who goes against the code of silence (ATLA S2, E14).
At a first glance migration may not seem to be a major theme in ATLA, nevertheless the series has done an excellent job at exploring the different reasons as to why people choose or are forced to migrate. ATLA reveals the very true and dark reality that many had and still have to experience due to war.
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Nickelodeon Animation Studio. (February 21, 2005 – July 19, 2008)
Yee, F. C. (author), DiMartino, Michael Dante (author). (July 16, 2019). The Rise of Kyoshi. Amulet Books.
Hughes, Kiku (writer), Beck, Sam (artist), Ng, Killian (colorist), Betancourt, Jimmy; Starkings, Richard (letterer). “Clearing the Air” (August 14, 2021), Dark Horse Comics.
“Welcome to Republic City”. The Legend of Korra. Book One. Air. DiMartino, Michael Dante, Konietzko, Bryan (writers) & Dos Santos, Joaquim, Ryu, Ki Hyun (directors). Nickelodeon Animation Studio. (April 14, 2012).