Movie: Anime is often referred to as cartoons that emanate from the shores of Japan. Granted, having spoken at length about this topic with a number of folks from Japan, I think the definition is a bit limiting, especially since the term "anime" comes from France and my conversation partners have virtually always been intent on suggesting that the term refers more to a style of show but whatever your personal belief, there's room for discussion, yes? Well, today's review is of a little title from Nickelodeon called Avatar: The Last Air Bender: Book 1: Water V1. Never having watched the show in the past, I was unfamiliar that it was in the second season (having debuted on 2/21/2005) but I gave it a chance nonetheless.
The show is set in a timeless place where four factions had existed in harmony for eons. This balance was upset generations ago when the ruthless Fire Nation waged war and destroyed the Air Nation, the home of the then powerful Avatar. Apparently, each faction could learn a type of magic based on the martial arts that allowed them to manipulate the elemental forces of nature (the Fire Nation folk could "bend" fire to their will, the Water Nation could do likewise with water, etc.) with the Avatar being the only one who could bend all four elements to his will at a given time. This being would reincarnate into a different faction in a rotating cycle and the world was at peace.
At the start of the volume, a couple of youthful water benders, Sokka and Katara, were fishing in the frozen wastelands near the South Pole. They came across a large iceberg that contained a small boy and a larger animal inside. One thing leads to another and the iceberg melts, revealing Aang, a boy that appears to be the lost Avatar (and person the Fire Nation pursued even as a myth to insure their dominance over the remaining two tribes). Inside the iceberg with him is his huge flying bison, Appa, and soon enough the group is flying around the world. When reports of the returning Avatar hit the Fire Nation, Aang gives himself up since his mere presence endangers those around him. He escapes after damaging the ship of his captors, including a disgraced Fire Nation Prince, Zuko who then begins a series long chase of the characters.
The episodes were 1) The Boy in the Iceberg, 2) The Avatar Returns, 3) The Southern Temple, and 4) The Warriors of Kyoshi, and they detail the introduction of the lead characters and the setting of the universe in which they lived. The premise at the onset of this first volume is that it's another chase show where Aang and company will move from town to town to avoid the clutches of the Fire Nation. Aang's capture would mean the end of any hope the rest of the world has of restoring the balance and his powers, while not fully in bloom due to his age, are simply too great to fall into the hands of the evil nation.
My biggest complaint about the show at this point is that it already seems to have fallen into the trap of the Saturday morning cartoon trap. Most of you would recognize it as such; the moral at the end of the story (such as girls are people too, ignorance isn't bliss, and vanity is bad were all on proud display here), the first act set up, the second act finishing of the weekly plot points, and the happy ending. Still, for the younger crowd, it's not a bad show and the animation is akin to the level of most recent low end anime shows from the Land of the Rising Sun. In defense of the thematic elements, it was better done than most domestic shows I've taken to checking out though I admit that I'm only comfortable rating it as a Rent It based on the four episodes included but it has potential as Aang and his pals seek out their destiny of saving the world from destruction.
Picture: Avatar: The Last Air Bender: Book 1: Water V1 was presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as it airs on the Nickelodeon cable television channel. The animation style showed all the limitations you'd expect of a lower end show (static backgrounds, panning of the characters to show movement, stock positions) but unless you pay more attention to the technical aspects than the story, you probably won't care a whole lot. The DVD itself had no compression artifacts or visual flaws that really stood out but there weren't a lot of extras to clutter up the disc and push the envelop in order to force any compromises either.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of a 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo signal in either English, French or Spanish. I spot checked the other two languages but the English language track was fairly pleasing with some separation between the channels and a decent dynamic range. The best effects came during the fighting sequences but the vocals were reasonably good (I liked hearing Mako as Prince Zuko's advisor) and the music pretty decent too. It was better than the show sounded when I checked it out on cable but not that much better if you catch my drift.
Extras: The best extra was a short feature describing the four martial arts styles the series employs with Sifu Kisu (the show's resident expert and consultant) at the helm. It lasted under five minutes but helped describe the premise a little better. There was also a set of trailers, a paper insert that advertised other shows, and a couple of limited edition trading cards (that might not last long given the comment on the cellophane wrapper).
Final Thoughts: Avatar: The Last Air Bender: Book 1: Water V1 might not appear to be traditionally accepted anime, much like movies such as Fire & Ice or Rock & Rule, but for all intents and purposes it would be considered anime by those in Japan and maybe even a decent introduction for the younger crowd to some of the better stuff available. If later volumes break free of the clichés, I might actually find it worth an even higher rating but sometimes it's difficult to base an opinion on a first volume of a show since all the explaining of the show tends to take place there. The real test of the quality of the show will be in the next two volumes where the series can continue the generic approach to the genre or branch out and try something new.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.