This week I continue my next batch of posts for the East Meets West series, dedicated to comparing/contrasting anime and Western media of similar premises, and, based on a specific set of criteria, decide which of the two is, in my fallible opinion, the superior version. Normally, I try to compare shows based on how similar they are to each other in terms of content. Hence, why I compared Dragon League and The Mighty Ducks together because of their “underdog sports story” premise, and Boku No Hero Academia and The Karate Kid because of the student-teacher relationship. But, what about two shows which I absolutely adore and are highlights of my personal life? Namely, Toei Animation’s monster fight show, Digimon Adventure, and Nickelodeon’s martial arts war epic, The Last Airbender. Featuring awesome visuals, a deep cast of characters, great fight scenes and some of the best story arcs I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, I figured that, although the premises were unlike each other, their role as my favorites ended up with me warranting a slot on this segment.
EASTERN COMPETITOR #6: DIGIMON ADVENTURE
Toei Animation’s Digimon Adventure was the first anime that I watched, both as a kid and during my university years spent revisiting the show. In the case of the latter, I have this show to credit for saving my life from a tumultuous second semester, and following it up with the greatest summer I’ve ever had in a while. The story focuses on seven (soon to be eight) children known as the Digidestined who, during one August sojourn to summer camp, are sucked into the Digital World, where they are introduced to creatures known as Digimon who serve as their battle companions throughout their stay. As they learn about the intricacies of the new world, their Digimon’s powers and abilities, and venture on their search to find a way home, they also stand to fight evil forces that threaten the stability of both their home world and the Digital World, ranging from giant devils, rock-star monkeys, clowns and vampires galore. In addition, their friendship with their assigned Digimon partners also evolves, which helps, in some cases, to have the characters reconcile their own doubts and fears about the tidbits going on in their lives.
Though many in America especially accused it of being a Pokemon ripoff, which I can say with absolute certainty is not the case, the show fared successfully in both North America and Japan, where in the former it was aired as part of the defunct Fox Kids block; it wound up generating a sequel series, Digimon Adventure 02, and a spectacular Mamoru Hosoda movie named Bokura No War Game.
WESTERN COMPETITOR #6: THE LAST AIRBENDER
Nickelodeon’s The Last Airbender, written and produced by writers Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, centers around a world where individuals live in societies based on their God-given ability to control (bend) the elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. Up until a certain point in time, when members of the Fire Nation started an expansionist war, and subsequently turned their campaign into a meme, the four groups lived together in harmony, all thanks to the presence of a person known as the Avatar – a person capable of controlling the four elements without fail. The current Avatar and main protagonist, a boy named Aang, who unbeknownst to him, is the last airbender, is discovered in a ball of ice by sibling waterbenders Katara and Sokka, and taking him in as their responsibility, do everything in their power to shield him from Prince Zuko, the heir to the Fire Nation’s throne, and help him fulfill his vocation. Their travels take them across the Water, Earth and Fire nations as they meet new friends, rivals, and learn new strategies to help them save the war-torn landscape.
The story is filled with an excellent show of bending techniques, dramatic character arcs (especially that of Prince Zuko and Aang), and occasional humor which easily cement this, as one would put it, “the last good show produced by Nickelodeon”. Its critical acclaim is far and wide, enough for it to also spawn an inferior successor show, titled The Legend Of Korra, and a 2011 film by M. Night Shyamalan which to this day is universally reviled as one of the worst things that God has sanctioned on this Earth.
It has been a while since I ranked a show based on seven categories, so this week I’m going to re-introduce that format since there’s a lot that can be talked about between both of these amazing franchises. These will include:
- Best World
- Best Soundtrack
- Best Favorite Moments
- Best Action Sequences
- Best Character Development
- Best Spinoff
- Best Overall Adventure
Now that I’ve properly introduced the showdown, time for me to wipe the dust off my soles and look into which of the two shows dominates which category to take this week’s title.
CATEGORY #1: BEST WORLD
You may be surprised to see me start by ranking the worlds first, but as a matter of fact, talking about things like how well can the series immerse the viewer in its environment, how captivating is its historical background, and how well-demonstrated are its components are key to setting the story and its stage. To their credit, both shows do take time to explain a little bit behind how the Digital World and the Four Nations geography operate.
The world of The Last Airbender is quite complex, closely resembling that of our world. Four nations – the Earth, Fire, Water, and Air nation – make up the world and in each of its three story arcs the viewer is introduced to a new nation and its form of element bending, its uses, both good and bad – and with special tactics such as the Firebending ability to control lightning, the Waterbending strategy of controlling bodily fluids, Earthbending’s armor plating, and energybending. What’s more sophisticated though is how deep they go into explaining the various societal cultures of the different regions – militaristic, monarchist, nomadic types – and the secrets each nation hold. All in all, it feels much like a political cartoon for kids, and something straight out of a high school history textbook.
The Digital World is much like the visual representation of the Internet, separated into various regions named after computer parts, with pockets of Digimon communities residing in them. Thanks to Gennai, their mentor, we learn a few things about how the world works: each day that passes in the Digital World are a second on Earth; Digimon have different attribute types – Data, Virus and Vaccine – which serve to establish their personality traits, and levels – Fresh, In-Training, Rookie, Champion, Ultimate, and Mega – which can be unlocked by deepening the human-Digimon bond instead of merely training them.
Suffice to say The Last Airbender really captures the worldbuilding aspect of a show more excellently. It’s structured, full of depth, and is very comprehensive at gathering the viewer’s appreciation for the culture of the Four Nations, and the various cultural motifs in place. In contrast Digimon Adventure, while decent at explaining the various monster types, is quite loose in world organization, and doesn’t offer much outside of its visuals and the Alice In Wonderland syndrome.
THE LAST AIRBENDER 1, DIGIMON ADVENTURE 0
CATEGORY #2: BEST SOUNDTRACK
Let me get one thing straight: I love the Japanese soundtrack of Digimon Adventure; it feels so special and diverse. It’s got the ability to set up the tone of any scene, and hammer home the gravity of a situation. For example, Shouri – Zen No Theme is an emotional rollercoaster which was used most notably when Taichi returns to the Digital World. Though he gets to see his sickly sister Hikari for the first time in what feels like months, he’s torn between wanting to stay with her, or helping his other friends stuck in the Digital World. The music perfectly captures the dilemma he faces, and makes it sentimental as heck, powerfully synthesizing once he decides to return to his friends, and possibly leave his sister behind. Happy End is a charming tune that properly concludes the Digidestined’s conquest and prepares the viewer for the next episode; I honestly can imagine this kind of song playing at a hockey arena at the end of a playoff series win. Most perfectly, Tomodachi – Tatakai No Theme sums up the friendship aspect of the series, and the bond between the humans and their Digimon partners. I could go on, but the point is The Last Airbender‘s soundtrack has nothing on Digimon Adventure.
Granted, The Last Airbender has powerful tracks like Agni Kai, Avatar State, Dai Li – or perhaps most famously, the Leaves From The Vine sequence. The first three have the markings of a boss fight, a game-changing event, or pure secrecy, and sound straight out of a video game. The final one is perhaps the most gut-wrenching track to listen to; all the more considering this was the last performance of Mako Iwamatsu, the voice actor of Uncle Iroh (second to Mr. Miyagi as the greatest wise guy ever). However great, it’s nowhere near the impact of Digimon Adventure in my book.
DIGIMON ADVENTURE 1, THE LAST AIRBENDER 1
CATEGORY #3: BEST ACTION SEQUENCES
Digimon Adventure‘s battles rely heavily on process called Digivolution, where the Digidestined’s partners temporarily evolve into stronger forms to subdue their opponent. Victories are usually assured within an episode or two and either result in the assailant getting restored to normal, or part of the Digital World being restored, before moving to the next bad guy. The appeal of seeing the characters evolve to higher levels and act independently as opposed to having the kids control them like Pokemon is a twist on the traditional monster formula, and learning about their stats and set abilities.
The Last Airbender relies on man-to-man fights, where everyone in this show is assigned a particular bending ability which allows them to not only perform attacks, but heal others, build artifacts and travel to places faster, which means it’s more practical. When bending battles show up, don’t be surprised if they put you at the edge of your seat. With each character spawning different abilities, the show gets very creative with how they make use of their bending. You have blind girls who can chuck rocks accurately via sonar waves, edgy royals being human jetpacks, water-based healing magic, and spontaneously-generated tornadoes.
As for the actual battles themselves: admittedly, both of them are quite epic in their own right, and it’s cool seeing dinosaurs, oversized cactuses and angels delivering righteous justice against the forces of evil as much as it is seeing a scrawny kid shoot fire out of his hands or throw boulders. They’re also heavy with the idea that power and strategy wins battles; especially during the Dark Masters Arc and in the Azula-commandeered siege of Ba Sing Se. I was far more impressed with the diversity of moves in The Last Airbender though, because hearing Greymon shout “Mega Flame” repeatedly can get tiring; not to mention, the very progressive storyline in the former. Whereas you know in the latter that Digivolution will somehow solve all problems, the former is more adept at showing that hard work, willpower and persistence is what pays off with success, and will get you where you want to go in life.
THE LAST AIRBENDER 2, DIGIMON ADVENTURE 1
CATEGORY #4: BEST FAVORITE MOMENTS
It’s best to explain through seven of my favorite moments from each series (ranked in no particular order), and go from there.
The Last Airbender
- The entire Ember Island Players retelling of the group’s adventure. Still a better, cheaper adaptation than Shyamalan’s trainwreck.
- Aang, Katara and Sokka watching the Earth Kingdom equivalent of the WWE in the Earth Rumble, and Toph’s subsequent pwnage of The Boulder.
- Prince Zuko learning about the feud between Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin, subsequently flipping off his father to join Aang’s side and composing one of the most touching reconciliations in animated history with Uncle Iroh
- Sokka’s famous psychedelic cactus juice sequence
- Toph, Aang and Sokka scamming Fire Nation folks out of their money, and landing in jail
- That one time when a sleep-deprived Aang hallucinates that his flying bison, Appa, engages in samurai combat against fellow flying lemur ally Momo – and trash talks each other
- Aang having to defend himself before unruly anti-Avatar villagers
- When trying to hitch-hike their way to Odaiba, Yamato gets flustered by an attractive young woman trying to lure him into her car, and angrily denies to a snarky Taichi, Mimi and TK that he was embarrassed
- The final battle against VenomVamdemon, with references to the Book Of Revelations and an epic Warp-Digivolution sequence involving Agumon/Gabumon
- Puppetmon trolling the Digidestined using voodoo magic, and TK singlehandedly trolling him back
- The episode where the cast fights against Machinedramon
- Taichi/Agumon and Joe/Gomamon failing to sing I Wish (the first ED song) and getting on Mimi’s nerves
- Sora expounding on her own problems with her mother during a temporary depressive episode
- The quest to rescue Sora from Datamon’s clutches, and MetalGreymon’s arrival
Both shows maintain a balanced mix of goofy, serious, and gut-wrenching moments. The one difference that they have is, however, atmospheric performance. Digimon Adventure excels at this simply because it used a combination of great voice acting, fitting music (Brave Heart, for example, during battles), and action; The Last Airbender on the other hand, is excellent at setting up emotional moments, but is sorely lacking in setting up the tone.
DIGIMON ADVENTURE 2, THE LAST AIRBENDER 2
CATEGORY #5: BEST CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
One thing that Digimon Adventure and The Last Airbender excel at is character development. As the story progresses, so do the characters; one can see the progress they make over time. Every new story arc further expands the characters’ backstories and drive an understanding of where they come from and their motives. This is seen in Digimon Adventure with why Taichi is so overprotective of her sister Hikari, Yamato/Takeru’s separated upbringing, Sora’s conflict with her mother, and Joe’s neurotic behavior. In The Last Airbender this facet exists too: Aang’s desire to be accepted as a person despite his Avatar status, Toph, Katara and Sokka’s lives prior to meeting him, and the source of Prince Zuko’s pain and suffering are well-manufactured here.
The stories encourage the characters to open up with their insecurities, difficulties, and doubts, and face them head-on rather than running away from them. The Digimon partners certainly act as an asset to facilitating this moment for the Digidestined. Through their influence, and emboldened by the very crests they represent, their partners become stronger in virtue, resist the urge to fall back to their old ways, and the stronger Digivolution stages are paramount to showing how far the characters have gone in emotional progress. Moreover likewise, Aang and Prince Zuko are the best examples of this in their show: both of them being individuals who, despite their high-ranking statuses as Avatar and Crown Prince, desperately seek acceptance and a desire to be treated for who they are, rather than what they are. Various episodes are dedicated to exploring this component, and allowing the viewer to sympathize with their plights, and episodes such as Aang during his Avatar State training, or Uncle Iroh confronting Prince Zuko to what he wants to be hammer home this point until the two of them ultimately meet and reconcile with one another.
Most importantly, character development is done without radically sacrificing the character’s integral personality. At the end of the day, while changed, they still retain their identifiable personality traits. After all they’ve gone through, Taichi/Agumon still are the fearless leaders, Sora/Biyomon are the “Team Moms”, TK/Patamon are the comic relief duo, Koushiro/Tentomon the brains, etc. Likewise, Aang is still the same fun-loving optimist we saw in the first episode, Sokka still knows how to throw haiku and humor, and Toph and Katara continue to serve as the voices of reason for the group. Even Zuko, the former bad guy, despite his change of heart, still is hotheaded (no pun intended) and stern as he was when viewers first met him.
The characters of Digimon Adventure and The Last Airbender are some of my favorite animated characters of all time, whom I will continue to view positively if seeing them online or at an anime convention. However, if I had to pick which show handled them best, The Last Airbender wins out – especially with Prince Zuko’s redemption arc. It’s one of the best-told subplots I have ever seen, of a prodigal son gone astray only to be embraced back into the fold. Just watch the moment when a repentant Zuko meets Uncle Iroh, who he betrayed previously, and instead of the latter rebuking him, embraces him like a father to son – and expresses happiness that he found his way. Considering how much the show put us through his sad backstory, losing his mother to political intrigue and suffering at the hands of his sadistic father and sister; seeing this moment, THAT ALONE trumps anything Digimon Adventure offers – of which the closest one I can think of that matches it is the Dark Cave segment or Taichi evoking his protectiveness of Hikari to Koushiro.
THE LAST AIRBENDER 3, DIGIMON ADVENTURE 2
CATEGORY #6: BEST SPINOFF
Digimon Adventure 02 and The Legend Of Korra will be the subject of this category, and the best way to describe these shows compared to their predecessor is like the second dish of spaghetti: nowhere near as good as the first. The Legend Of Korra leaves off 70 years from where The Last Airbender ended, retaining more or less the same elemental stuff with a completely changed landscape and a focus on fighting Mafia-style organizations rather than an entire nation. It’s quite tame compared to its predecessor, and that’s where the problem lies; the show substitutes all the things that made the original great, memorable, and thought-provoking and dilutes it. Granted though, I’ve only seen a few episodes of it as opposed to Digimon Adventure 02, so I apologize if I’m being biased.
Digimon Adventure 02 has newer Digivolutions, newer enemies, and a more diverse cast – but still retains the flair of the previous series. Watching this, you don’t expect anything other than mild pre-teen drama and the occasional monster fight. Even the main characters from the original series play a vital role in helping the newer generation adjust to their role as the Digidestined, and team up near the end on a worldwide tour to fight Arukenimon and Mummymon. In short, Digimon Adventure 02 is more relatable to its predecessor, while The Legend Of Korra feels like a startling departure. Oh yeah, the music is still pretty awesome, like Wada Kouji’s opening song Target, or my classic last-day-of-work song, Itsumo Itsudemo.
DIGIMON ADVENTURE 3, THE LAST AIRBENDER 3
CATEGORY #7: BEST OVERALL ADVENTURE
The best quote I found to summarize these shows would be from Uncle Iroh: “It is important to draw wisdom from many different places. If you take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale.” Very true when talking about both shows, and one of the ways they have impacted me is in my personality. Characters like Joe/Gomamon, Koushiro/Tentomon, Sokka and Aang closely relate to my tendency to troll people and my analytical abilities; Uncle Iroh reminds me a lot about my grandfather; and I’ve found myself preferring tomboyish girls like Sora or Toph instead of more girly types like Mimi, Katara or Suki. Altogether, the visuals, characterization and action are top-notch, and neck-and-neck to each other. These are two wonderful shows which continue to enthrall me with its colorful world, action-packed motions and amazing characters, and I’ll gladly sing both their praises continually. Moreover, it’s reminded me to enjoy life’s circumstances, make the best of your situation and no matter how hard things may get, never lose hope that a positive outcome will come about.
Going back to the adventure first and foremonst; frankly, there isn’t one that I’d single out as superior. Going on a trip across the Internet and fighting monsters is just as gripping as taking on the world to restore balance when it needed it most. What’s adamant however is the virtues and lessons that were achieved during such a journey. So I guess the question for me isn’t as much “Whose journey was better?”; but rather, “Whose journey was more interesting?” because so much has changed about the characters from the start of the show to the end. They’ve gained new perspectives on life, new life skills, made new friends, fell in love, you name it – it’s got everything packed into one.
Let me tell you why I feel The Last Airbender deserves this recognition: because even though the show is aired for kids, the subject matter they deal with is very maturely covered – the loss of a loved one, dealing with personal conflict, the value of hard work, standing up for yourself, and independence. You see this in Aang after learning the death of his only friend in Monk Gyatso, Katara/Sokka’s sense of responsibility in absence of their father, Toph standing up against her sheltered lifestyle, and Zuko learning to love himself for who he is, and not what he isn’t. Digimon Adventure does these things too, for we have characters that are divorced, have self-confidence issues, are spoiled brats, and also pure-of-heart folks. But in my opinion, it doesn’t go as deep into those themes as The Last Airbender does; at the end of the day, it’s a show aimed at kids, and more or less writes as if geared towards them only.
My point goes to The Last Airbender as the winner of this week’s bout. I’m sure ten-year-old me would have been very disappointed to know about this outcome, but that’s what time does to a person and their perspectives on life.
FINAL SCORE: THE LAST AIRBENDER 4, DIGIMON ADVENTURE 3
Digimon Adventure marked my first foray into anime and of course, I will continue to rank it high and praise it for however long I can; but The Last Airbender holds up as a superior, timeless classic with its characters and moral values. Both shows have great adventures and moments to tell, but Digimon Adventure is the one whose moments I most connected with. While the music of Digimon Adventure was far more superior, that’s nothing compared to the powerful quotes from The Last Airbender and how boldly they were delivered. Even the comics based on the show fantastically continued the story from where it left off, and I’m happy to say that I had the pleasure of reading them just about a year ago. This show was a bold take on animation, a drastic take on typical Nickelodeon shows, and ultimately, it’s a show that exceeded all expectations and blows my mind even to this day.