Ahead of 2010’s blockbuster-to-be, The Last Airbender, we’re revisiting the Peabody-winning cartoon serial from which it got its name, Avatar.
4. The Warriors Of Kiyoshi
Avatar has shown us in the space of the past three episodes that it’s always about something: the cost of warfare, the struggles of growing up, our connection to nature. The Warriors Of Kiyoshi is, in my opinion, an episode about the women of Avatar and the influence they have on the show’s male protagonists.
Aang learnt about the perks of popularity with the ladeez (pardon me), Sokka redefined the roles of the women around him and Katara quietly played out a number of positive characters in her relationship with Aang.
As the episode opens, Aang is, yet again, eager to hold up arriving at the North Pole with a quick stop off on an Earth Kingdom settlement called Kyoshi Island, an island that has kept mostly out of the way of the ongoing war. The reason: riding an Elephant Koi! Despite all protestations from his friends, that Aang sure loves to rodeo pretty much every mystical character there is.*
So while trying to impress Katara – first with a trick involving some marbles and Airbending, then with riding the Elephant Koi – he finds himself under attack from the Unagi, a massive sea serpent with some temper. Terrified, the Avatar races back to land – with the use of the Hanna Barbera running sound effect! – only for him and his friends to be captured by the Kyoshi Warriors, a gang of fan-wielding, geisha-esque fighters.
Sokka can’t believe his luck in being captured by a squad of girls, having earlier made a somewhat chauvinistic comment to his sister about men being ultimately built for war better than their female counterparts. When the three travellers are threatened with being fed to the Unagi, Aang reveals that he is the Avatar and they are welcomed with open arms. In an interesting aside, the village begin to take better care of the Kiyoshi statue once Aang appears. Faith comes and goes, but the reminders do help.
With Aang outed as the Avatar, he quickly draws a peanut gallery of female fans that at once tests his monkliness and Katara’s patience. Despite his objections otherwise, Aang takes quite easily to a little celebrity status, showing off to the girls of Kyoshi Island with his airbending skills and Flying Bison. And it works: soon they’re calling him “Aaaangie” and posing for pictures.
As anyone can tell you, however, Aang soon learns of the problems that come with celebrity. He gets into rows with Katara and, in a lovely montage, finds his reputation has spread to the attention of Zuko and the Fire Nation Army. I guess gossip spreads fast when people know your name!
Katara plays a number of different roles in this episode. When we first see her, she’s playing mother to the two boys she travels with, sowing Sokka’s trousers and “mhmm”ing Aang’s attempts to impress her. Later on, she’s the best friend just trying to keep Aang’s head on straight and the rescuer as Aang gets thrown like a rag doll by the Unagi.
She’s an archetypal character, just like everyone else on this show, but her role isn’t consigned to simply looking on at the action from the sidelines. She’s totally active in the boys’ lives, and you really get the feeling that Aang and her brother would have no clue what to do without her. Nobody makes a big deal out of it, but she really does work to save the day, ultimately convincing Aang to leave Kyoshi Island for the inhabitants’ greater good. She’s an archetype, sure, but she’s also a great one.
The Kyoshi Warriors, meanwhile, teach Sokka a lesson or two about his chauvinistic ways. Humiliated by his capture, he offers to properly train the warriors, only to be humiliated yet again by the leader, Suki. He learns a lesson about humility, asking to be trained as one of the Kyoshi Warriors, meaning geisha makeup and a type of dress. He’s not happy, but he goes for it, leading to scenes of an intriguingly androgynous nature as the two train together, flirting, fighting and bickering.
The scenes between Sokka and Suki are quite touching as we watch them build a connection. For Sokka, it’s a lesson in understanding both a different culture and the opposite sex through becoming just those things. He doesn’t even seem all that bothered about being mistaken for a woman: “Hey, I’m not a-oh, whatever!”
The Kiyoshi Warriors themselves are interesting. Tthey are worshipful of Avatar Kiyoshi, surely an incredibly strong and respected woman, and they make themselves in her image. Oddly enough, they are first introduced via Oyaji, the leader of the island, only for the character to disappear for much of the episode. It’s almost as if the writers are toying with us for a second by showcasing this character. When he disappears shortly afterwards, it’s almost as if it’s a red herring in getting us to think this man runs the show, and likewise the Kyoshi Warriors. It appears not.
So with all of this going on, it’s actually a bit disappointing that the Fire Nation shows up looking for Aang a couple of minutes before the episode wraps up. There’s a neat Western-style showdown between the Kyoshi Warriors (just substitute Spaghetti Western guitars for Avatar‘s koto-led score) and a pretty badass moment where Aang airbends Zuko into a nearby house, but the Fire Nation plotline seems a bit over-intrusive when you really just want to hang out with the people of Kyoshi Island. I’m aware that’s the point, but it still seems tacked on.
Our heroes leave Kyoshi as Aang realises his notoriety has brought the island the sort of trouble it’s always avoided, and Sokka says goodbye – for now – to Suki as the Warriors fend off the Fire Nation army. The fires on the island are doused by Aang, finally in control of the Unagi, and the three fly off, their animals in tow. It’s all over a bit fast, too fast for such a well-paced episode. I hope we see the Kyoshi Warriors again, and soon.
Some random thoughts:
“Still, hard to argue with a ten ton magical monster.”
“Katara… don’t ride the Unagi. Not fun.”
The guy on Kyoshi Island foaming at the mouth and fainting over Aang’s trick – funny.
When Aang is being chased over the bridge, was that a reference to one of the Beatles movies? I couldn’t shake the feeling it was referencing something or other.
* You disgust me, reader.
Read our recap and review of episode 3 here.