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Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are conceptually influenced by the many different real-world cultures of the Pacific Rim. Primary influences include East Asian cultures, as well as South Asian and Indigenous cultures, with contemporary American storytelling tropes interspersed throughout.
The artistic and animation styles used in Avatar are clearly influenced by various forms of Japanese anime.
"The best anime balances great action sequences with humor and emotion, something we try to do on Avatar. We love all the films of Hayao Miyazaki, especially Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Both movies deal with spirituality and the environment in an entertaining way. Also, there's a lot of great animation."
Avatar draws inspiration from Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, as well as FLCL (Fooly Cooly) of Gainax. Other various studios from which inspiration was drawn include STUDIO4°C, Production I.G, and Studio Ghibli. Bryan has commented that some of his most cherished Watanabe fight scenes were the fight between Bebop's Spike Spiegel and a drug smuggler in "Asteroid Blues", as well as the duel between Mugen and Sara in the Champloo episode "Elegy of Entrapment (Verse 2)". Avatar director Giancarlo Volpe also claims the staff "were all ordered to buy FLCL and watch every single episode of it".
The choreographed martial art bending moves were profoundly inspired by Asian cinema. Avatar creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino stated the particular influence in a magazine interview:
"Asian cinema is really good at action comedy. Shaolin Soccer is one of our favorite movies. It has tons of fantastic action and lots of funny moments. Some of the effects provided inspiration for how bending moves might look on the show."
Numerous moments in the series also draws parallels with the highly acclaimed film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the one of the highest grossing foreign films to date. In particular, the score for the film and the types of weapons can be seen within the series, more commonly toward the end of Book 2, and the entirety of Book 3. Notably, the fighting style used by the Kyoshi Warriors closely resembles the Jade Fox's acupressure technique, and Azula's own fighting style mimics several scenes in this film. This style can be seen throughout numerous other wuxia films.
Another similarity is that of Zhang Ziyi's character, Yu Jiao Long, and Toph Beifong. Both are the daughters of noblemen, and are expected to continue to bring honor to their family. In Jiao's case, it is by entering an arranged marriage; Toph must remain hidden and submissive to please her parents. Both are forced to keep the extent of their talents a secret, an idea that is echoed in the title of the film, and both characters also developed through allowing these secrets to become known, and the problems held with their parents were either left ambiguous, or never resolved.
Book series and novels such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were a heavy influence in developing the story of Avatar. The creators wanted to tell their own epic "legend & love story". The creators have stated that they have relied on traditional archetypes and motifs for creating their characters. They have cited Joseph Campbell as an influence in creating the storyline and characters for the show.
The Avatar world borrows significantly from Chinese culture, Indian culture, and other Far Eastern cultures.
- Tea is a popular drink in the Avatar world. The practice of drinking tea began in Han Dynasty China when it was used as a medicinal drink. It spread throughout Asia and eventually the world. Tea remains one of the most popular drinks in China, along with the rest of the world. Various teas mentioned by Iroh are real teas, for example Jasmine tea.
- The Avatar world uses Traditional Chinese characters, which were created in China, and spread to Korea and Japan. Both seal script (which was only extensively used mainly in China, and writing engraved on rock, etc.) and clerical script (written on paper) are used.
- Everyone regularly uses or can use chopsticks, which are the primary eating utensil throughout East Asia.
- Concepts like yin and yang as well as balance are influenced by Chinese beliefs.
The Five Elements were first developed in India and the Five Classical Elements of Hinduism (Tattva) and Buddhism (Mahabhuta): earth, water, air, fire, and Aether, have not only been influential in the development of the elements in other cultures i.e. Japanese (Godai) and Tibetan (Bon), but being hugely influential on the show, providing the backbone of the five elements seen in the Avatar series.
- These elements are not to be confused with the Five Chinese elements, water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.
- In "The Book of Five Rings", Japanese samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi wrote five books of military strategy and martial arts: The Book of Earth, The Book of Water, The Book of Fire, The Book of Wind, and The Book of Nothing. These five books relate the elements to the idea of different styles of "battle". The 'bending' in Avatar is a literal representation of this concept.
- A common element throughout these different philosophies is the idea of an intangible Fifth element—Aether, the Void, Space, etc. represented in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series through the Spirit World, the Avatar State, and energybending.
Because the Water Tribes are located in polar regions, they are primarily based on the circumpolar Inuit and Sireniki Eskimo cultures. However, their culture also includes references to many other aboriginal, indigenous, and pacific islander cultures.
- The people of the Water Tribe live in igloos and yurts, wear anoraks and mukluks, and rely on fishing. They use animal skins and furs and wear warpaint into battle.
- Their fleet of ships distinctly resembles Polynesian Catamarans, and their culture also draws references to moon myths from Native American, Chinese, and Japanese cultures.
- Sokka, a Southern Water Tribe Warrior, uses a boomerang, a curved weapon used by Australian Aborigines and other tribal people around the world, including Native Americans and South Asians.
- The architecture of the Northern Water Tribe appears to have been influenced by Venice's gondolas and canal systems. It also resembles the layout of the ancient capital of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan.
The architecture, clothing and culture of the Earth Kingdom seems to be primarily based on China, with Korean and Japanese influences, as well as containing tribes or towns that resemble other cultures.
- The Earth Kingdom is extremely large and diverse, and contains different cultures within itself.
- Earth Kingdom architecture has had Chinese influences.
- Earth Kingdom cuisine is almost entirely based on Chinese cuisine. Examples of dishes that the Earth Kingdom and the Chinese share are roast duck and jook.
- With the exception of Ba Sing Se, Earth Kingdom clothing is almost entirely based off pre-Manchu China. The Beifong family clothing is largely inspired by Tang Dynasty clothing.
- The government of Ba Sing Se is similar to Chinese government under Jinyiwei of the Ming Dynasty. The information control and propaganda is reminiscent of its near police state, with total control of the populace through harsh laws and secret police.
- Many Earth Kingdom citizens wear top-knots, which originated in Asia. They are prevalent in India (Sikha), Japan (Chonmage), Korea (Sangtu) and Thailand and do not offer distinction between different social classes.
- Chin the Conqueror is a reference to the title Qin Shihuangdi, literally, "First Emperor of Qin".
- Earth Kingdom army uniform is related to that of ancient Chinese army uniforms.
- The "Beifong Theme" leitmotif that the Track Team uses throughout scenes where Toph invokes her family's influence is based on a Qing Dynasty folk song, Mo Li Hua.
- Although the mainland of the Earth Kingdom resembles China, Kyoshi Island bears a closer resemblance to Japan. The Kyoshi Warriors use face make-up resembling that of a geisha, a Japanese female entertainer, and they also draw influence in their use of the katana, a traditional Japanese sword.
- Kuei, the 52nd king of Ba Sing Se, is similar to the last emperor of China, Puyi. Not only is there a similarity in their names, but Kuei wears the same circular glasses as Puyi. Both rulers were kept ignorant of the state of their nation and had no real power. Kuei had previously never left the Earth Kingdom palace, akin to how Puyi, up to a point, was always kept in the Forbidden City.
Ba Sing Se
Ba Sing Se, the capital of the Earth Kingdom is based on ancient Chinese capitals such as Beijing (Peking), as the creators were inspired by the idea of an isolated city. It also has significant influences from Qing Dynasty China.
- More often found in Ba Sing Se is the queue hairstyle. It can be worn by all men, with no social distinction. Such practice parallels the manchu queue, forced upon the Han population of China after 1644.
- All the Ba Sing Se costumes are inspired by Qing Dynasty dress. For example, the haiku girls wear headpieces reminiscent of headpieces worn by Qing Dynasty court ladies. Also, the Earth King wears very similar clothing to the Qing Dynasty Emperors. The Earth King's costume is clearly an allusion to a famous painting of Xianfeng Emperor.
- The Royal Palace is largely based on the Forbidden City. It has similar architecture, but the Earth Kingdom Royal Palace compound is circular, not square unlike the Forbidden City.
- The Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se is visually based on many towns and marketplaces in the Central Jiangxi Province.
- The Dai Li resemble and are named after the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Secret Police, General Dai Li of the Kuomintang. Their uniform is similar to that worn by the Qing Imperial Guards and it is also reminiscent of that worn by the scholar officials (mandarins) of Qing China. The Dai Li wear conical-shaped hats similar to those worn by Qing mandarins. Their square shaped embroidery with the Earth Kingdom symbol resembles the Mandarin Square worn by Chinese Ming and Qing officials.
- The Outer Wall's design and scale is based on the Great Wall of China, except that the Outer Wall is a defense ring, unlike the Great Wall, which is a line of defense. The walls of Ba Sing Se are much taller than the actual Great Wall, as the creators wanted it to feel more massive.
- Just as the Great Wall is visible from outer space, the Great Walls of Ba Sing Se are always drawn onto maps of the Earth Kingdom.
- Palanquins, used by the Earth King, were also used in China by the upper classes. One particularly large and luxurious type of palanquin was reserved for the emperor.
The culture of the Fire Nation is primarily inspired by Japan, South Asia and South-East Asia. In addition, its government, politics and position in the world seem to draw influence from Imperialist Japan, as well as other expansionist and warrior cultures.
- A parallel can be drawn between the Hundred Year War and the Second Sino-Japanese War (concurrent to World War II). The Fire Nation successfully invaded large swathes of Earth Kingdom territory but victory always eluded them. Similarly, the Japanese captured most of Northern China, along with the Chinese capital of Nanjing, but still failed to win the war.
- The wording in the episode where Fire Lord Sozin discussed the invasion of other nations is not a coincidence. In World War II, the Japanese Empire used an ideological construct, "Dai Toa Kyoeikan" ("The Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere") to justify invading China and conquering the South Pacific, just as the Fire Nation has invaded the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes.
- The military uniforms of the Fire Nation are clearly based on military uniforms of ancient Chinese militaries, as are many weapons. Fire Nation attire often resembles Chinese Hanfu. Zuko is sometimes depicted wearing a shenyi.
- In one scene, Zuko and Iroh are shown cutting off their top-knots to symbolize their separation from their family and their Nation, a practice that occurred in ancient, feudal Japan, China before the Manchu invasion and Korea.
- The Fire Nation is located on the equator, and is a highly volcanic place. Therefore, it is geographically based on places like Indonesia, Hawaii, Iceland, and Japan. Photographs of many geographically interesting parts of Iceland were used directly in designing Fire Nation Geography
- The Agni Kai is a form of "honor duel" commonly seen in warrior societies in South Asia, particularly South India and Sri Lanka. It literally translates to 'Duel of Fire' or 'Fire Quarrel'.
- The Fire Nation has a strong military-industrial complex and a very nationalistic culture replete with propaganda and cult of personality to their ruler, the Fire Lord. The schoolbooks of Fire Nation children are censored to teach them misleading information about the war, similar to schoolbooks in post World War II Japan. These traits are also commonly found in communist countries, such as Maoist China and North Korea, as well as non-communist countries such as the modern United States.
- The creators of Avatar have stated that it is the practice of the Fire Nation for potential rulers to have to "prove their worth" through difficult challenges. This is a practice in many warrior cultures.
- Palanquins, used by Fire Nation Royal Family members, were also used in China by the upper classes. One particularly large and luxurious type of palanquin was reserved for the emperor.
- The Fire Nation is the most industrialized nation in the Avatar world and relies heavily on coal, just as the use of coal during period such as the Meiji restoration, Republican China, and specially, the First Industrial Revolution in the British Empire.
- The architecture of the Fire Nation is mix of South-East Asian, and Chinese architecture. South-East Asia influence can be clearly seen on the Fire Nation Royal Palace, Ember Island and the homes in many Fire Nation villages.
- The Sun Warriors' compound includes architecture inspired by Hindu and Buddhist architecture, found in Southeast Asian landmarks such as the Candi Sukuh, Angkor Wat, and Phanom Rung. The Warriors' dress is also reminiscent of traditional Southeast Asian warrior dress, particularly the headdresses which resemble Iban feather headdresses.
- The City itself is based on Mesopotamian Architecture, such as the Ziggaurats of Ur.
- The Sun Warriors themselves are very similar to the Mayans and the Aztecs of Central America.
- In Fire Nation royal weddings, the bride has a hairdo similar to the ones worn by Korean Queens.
- Many Buddhist and Hindu religious groups preach vegetarianism, which the Air Nomads followed.
- The Air Nomads were monks. Their bald heads, clothing and meditation closely followed the practices of real world Buddhist monks.
- Tibetans use a set of toys to find the next Tulku Lama, which the Air Nomads also did when looking for the new Avatar.
- Like the Dalai Lama, Aang was the reincarnated spiritual leader of his people.
- Aang's mentor was named Monk Gyatso, and his son bears the name Tenzin. At the time of production, the Dalai Lama's real name is Tenzin Gyatso.
- Aang's clothing in season one and two closely resemble the saffron robes of Shaolin Monks. These were in turn based on the robes of Buddhist monks who visited from India.
- The architecture of the air temples resembled real-world brick pagodas similar to the famous Indian "Pagoda Forest". The Pagoda itself is an Indian architectural design and as such there are many such "Pagoda Forests" in India.
- In season three, Aang wears clothing similar to the Dalai Lama. In Buddhist tradition, the right arm of the Dalai Lama is always kept uncovered. In his late-season three clothing, which is similar in style, Aang's right arm is also uncovered.
- Monk Gyatso and Aang used airbending to lightheartedly make cakes, much to the chagrin of the other elders. In Tibetan Buddhism, gtor-ma cakes are sacrificial cakes used in ceremonies and play an important role in Tibetan culture. However, these cakes are usually used to appease the more wrathful of Buddhist deities, and would not have been treated in such a cavalier manner.
The erratic, circular movements of Airbending are derived from Ba Gua. It is sometimes called Bagua Zhang's, a characteristic method of stance and movement based on the theory of continuously changing in response to the situation at hand in order to overcome an opponent with skill rather than brute force. It is more broadly grouped as an internal practice.
Airbending is notable for being almost entirely defensive, however it is reputed to be the most dynamic of the four bending arts. Airbenders can overwhelm many opponents at once with large and powerful attacks that could prove fatal; however due to the pacifist nature of the Air Nomads such attacks are rarely used.
The slow, flowing movements of T'ai Chi are the basis of waterbending. In the real world, T'ai Chi, and the martial practice of T'ai Chi Chuan, is classified as an "internal style", which means that it emphasizes refinement and relaxation before aggression. It emphasizes alignment, body structure, breath, and visualization. The combat forms of waterbending revolve around those of the Chen and Wu styles, self-defense and fighting respectively, of T'ai Chi Ch'uan.
Waterbenders have the ability to heal by using water as a catalyst for manipulating Chi paths in the body. Tai Chi is said to have many health benefits, particularly in the non-martial realm of Tai Chi Chih. This form focuses on developing and balancing one's chi.
The firmly rooted stances and powerful strikes of Hung Gar are the basis for earthbending. In the real world, Hung Gar is an "external style", which means that its art emphasizes use of the art for defense purposes before refinement and relaxation.
Toph's bending is unique in that it is based on Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis instead of Hung Gar. This style, also "external", emphasizes more close-range attacks from the upper body, keeping the feet firmly on the ground or very close to it.
The fast, hard, aggressive strikes of Northern Shaolin style are used for firebending. The style sacrifices defense for fierce attacks. Northern Shaolin is complex and subtle art that retains a pure essence of structured movement and posture. In the Chinese martial art classification system, Northern Shaolin is an "external" art.
Firebending is notable for its intensive attacking style and general lack of adequate defense moves, although some notable firebenders utilize creative defensive moves. For example, Jeong Jeong can create fire walls, and Zuko can easily block and shoot down incoming objects.
- Main article: Boomerang
Sokka's boomerang is based on the 'returning boomerangs', one of two curved weapons used by Australian Aborigines. Other tribal groups around the world, including Native Americans and South Asians, have used boomerangs to hunt, but these boomerangs would not return to the thrower. The name 'boomerang' was used by the Turuwal Aborigines who lived in South Sydney, and is used only to refer to boomerangs which did return.
Dual dao swords
- Main article: Dual dao swords
Zuko dual-wields dao sabres, often while in his Blue Spirit persona. One of the four major Chinese weapons, the dao is known as "the most reckless and daring of all weapons". Unlike Sokka's space sword, Zuko's swords are like traditional dao — single handed and single edged.
Jet's hook swords
- Main article: Hook swords
Also known as tiger hook swords or 'Heaven and Sun Moon Sword' (), these weapons have a blade similar to that of the jian, though possibly thicker or unsharpened, with a prong or hook (similar to a shepherd's crook) near the tip. Guards are substantial, in the style of butterfly swords. Often used in pairs, the hooks of the weapons may be used to trap or deflect other weapons.
Sokka's space sword
Sokka's "space sword" is a jian (), a Chinese, double-edged straight sword. The jian has a 2,500 year old history and is considered one of the major Chinese weapons. Known as "The Gentleman of Weapons" the jian is a multi-purpose weapon used for cutting, thrusting, slashing, and stabbing. One of the trademarks of Chinese wuxia storytelling, special jian swords, like Sokka's "space sword" are often featured prominently in the story.
- The term "Avatar" comes from the Sanskrit word Avatāra, (Sanskrit: अवतार), which means "descent". In Hindu mythology, deities manifest themselves into Avatars to restore balance on earth, usually during a period of great evil.
- In order to master the Avatar State, Aang studies the chakras with a Guru. In Hinduism and Buddhism, chakras are centers of life force and vital energy.
- The firebending third eye of Combustion Man and P'Li is taken directly from the third eye of Shiva, the Hindu God of Dance and Destruction. Their third eyes are in exactly the same shape and design and perform a similar function to Shiva's eye, which would burn the entire universe to ashes if he opened it.
- Aang's vegetarian diet is based on the dietary habits of Hindu priests rather than Buddhist monks, as Buddhism does not explicitly forbid meat-eating.
- Agni, which the series incorporates in "Agni Kai", is both the name of the Hindu God of fire and one of the Sanskrit and Bengali words for fire. In Bengali, Kai or Kaio translates to duel or quarrel. Therefore Agni Kai can be loosely translated to mean 'Duel of Fire' or 'Fire Quarrel'. The Agni Kai is still practiced in South Asia.
- The name of earthbender Bumi, is based on the Sanskrit word for earth, "Bhumi". Bhumidevi is also the name of the Hindu Earth Goddess, or Mother Earth.
- Naga, Korra's animal companion in The Legend of Korra, is named after snake gods in Hindu mythology.
- Rohan (Youngest son of Tenzin and Pema) is a popular Indian name meaning "ascending" in Sanskrit.
- In the commentary for "Sozin's Comet, Part 2: The Old Masters", the creators stated that the scenes where Aang speaks to his past lives are influenced by the Bhagavad Gita.
- The concept of the sun temple and sun worship in "The Firebending Masters" is based on the sun temples found in India, especially Konark Sun Temple is Orrissa. The sun warriors are based on The Gurjars, who worship the God and solar deity Surya.
- The four elements in Avatar are the same ones used in Hinduism with the exception of the fifth element, energy. In Hinduism, it is called Space or the Aether which is close to the concept of energybending.
- The air monks lifestyles, features, practice, and more are based upon Buddhist monks.
- The Four Elements of the series — water, earth, fire, and air — are derived from the Buddhist concept of catudhātu. The primary Four Elements of Buddhism are a basis for understanding and for liberating oneself from suffering.
- Energybending may be an allusion to the less frequently mentioned fifth and six elements, Space and Consciousness.
- In "The Swamp", the character Huu states that he reached enlightenment under the Banyan Grove Tree. This is an allusion to Siddhārtha Gautama attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi tree to become the Buddha.
- Also stated in "Avatar Extras", Zuko's transformation in Book Two reflects as well the story of Siddhārtha Gautama.
- Tenzin and Monk Gyatso bear the name of the current Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso.
- The process of finding a new Dalai Lama is simlar to the process of discovering the Avatar. After Roku died, the Air Nomads found his reincarnation by having children pick from thousands of toys. The Avatar would pick the four that belonged to past Avatars because they were familiar to them. The same process is used in choosing a new Dalai Lama: asking questions and presenting possessions of the Dalai Lama to the candidate to see if they truly are the Dalai Lama.
- Of all the different religions that have a belief in reincarnation, the Avatar's process of reincarnation leans most closely to that of Buddhism.
- Concept of Yin and Yang. The prime example would be the spirit of the moon and sea fish which are black and white, where one cannot function without the other.
- The existence of a Spirit World.
- Various symbols of the Tao.
- The "go with the flow" attitudes of waterbenders.
- The concept of Qi or Chi as an energy used by benders to enhance their combat and manipulate the elements. Manipulation, cultivation, and refinement of one's qi is an important concept in Taoism. Qi is one of the Three Treasures, along with Jing and Shen, in religious Taoism.
- Bumi's attitude of 'doing nothing' resembles the Taoist ideal of 'wuwei' (doing nothing), proposed by the Chinese sage Laozi as a means to doing something without direct action.
- The diverse nature spirits that interact with the people of the Avatar world are reminiscent of Kami. They also (perhaps more closely) resemble nature spirits worshiped by many tribal cultures.
- Most of the "good guys" on Avatar are shown to have respect and reverence for nature. Respect of nature is one of the "four affirmations" of the Shinto spirit.
- While solar worship is omnipresent in the world's non-Abrahamic religions, the set of beliefs present in the Sun Warrior civilization appear to be inspired by both Hindu and Mesoamerican sun-centered beliefs. Ancient Mesoamericans depicted relevant deities as serpents, such as Tohil, one of the Mayan gods of the Sun who is depicted as a dragon, and Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who was a leading god in several indigenous societies in pre-Spanish Mexico. The style of dress and political hierarchy also follows that of the civilizations found in Mesoamerica. The concept of the sun temple and sun worship has been directly influenced by the sun temples found in India, especially Konark Sun Temple is Orrissa. The connection of fire with the Sun and dragons also draws parallels to the Egyptian veneration of Wadjet and the levantine seraphs, which were originally depicted as fiery winged dragons rather than humanoid angels.