Are there really any perfectly written scenes in anime?
If you think that no scene is perfectly written then you might have stumbled on to the best article of your life.
There is a perfectly written 5-minute scene sequence of storytelling, and it is in between the fight scene from the episode “Crossroads of Destiny“, which is also the final episode of season 2 of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
In this episode, we see Aang creating a crystal armor for the first time, and seeing it made fans like me, go bonkers.
This 5-minute scene is filled with multiple examples of characters using their abilities in new ways that’s just one of the reasons why this fight isn’t your typical anime battle.
It’s a brilliant scene that uses screenwriting rules and tricks to create a perfect 5-minute sequence of storytelling.
To quickly recap the scene, Azula & Zuko attack Aang & Katara in the crystal caves of the earth Kingdom. The Dai li’s show up to help Azula. So, Aang decides to enter the avatar state in order to win but, Azula strikes him down with a bolt of lightning, and uncle Iroh then jumps in and stalls Azula, only to let Katara escape with the unconscious Aang.
One reason why this is such an amazing fight scene is that it’s a perfect example of the three laws of magic.
These laws were written by Brandon Sanderson the author of over 25 fantasy novels, such as the Mistborn series and The Stormlight archive.
Brandon has thought a lot about the use of magic in fantasy writing, and he believes that these three rules are important guidelines to writing a compelling magic system. The first law of magic is that,
• An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic in a satisfying way is directly proportional to how well the reader understands the magic.
Essentially this means that the better the audience understands the rules of a magic system the more satisfying it is when magic is used.
This is one of the greatest strengths of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. The show is well-defined but has a relatively basic magic system that is so simple that it’s easily explained in the show’s title sequence that plays before every episode.
There are four different types of elements:
While some people have the ability to bend ONLY ONE of these elements there is only one avatar in a generation, who is able to bend all the four elements.
According to this first law of magic,
As the audience has an extremely clear understanding of the rules of bending characters using their bending skills, showing them in creative ways turns out to be extremely satisfying for the audience.
For instance, take the example of the scene when Azula literally starts rocketing towards Aang. So, what should he do?
He uses his earthbending powers to create a crystal armor for himself.
This is a really creative and smart solution to AAang’s problem and it’s not just this one occurrence, these new and intelligent bending techniques appear throughout this battle.
Azula creates smoke with her firebending to hide her location, Aang creates a crystal dome to protect himself while he’s meditating and Katara creates a ring of water tentacles in order to fend off multiple enemies.
It’s simply enthralling to watch these characters use bending in new and imaginative ways because we have a clear understanding of their magic, and this leads us to Brandon’s second law of magic,
• What the magic can’t do is more interesting than what it can.
When there are limitations built into a magic system it creates natural obstacles that the characters have to overcome.
For example, the Avatar can’t automatically attain the Avatar state. First, they have to let go of their worldly attachments, and this limitation forces Aang to have to learn how to let go of his connections. Overcoming these limitations results in a rewarding moment of character growth when he finally detaches and successfully achieves the Avatar state.
Another example of a smart restriction is that although airbenders can manipulate air but they can’t fly. This limits Aang’s mobility and makes him have to solve more problems than he wouldn’t have if this limitation was not there.
Take a look at the escape sequence from the season 1 episode the “Blue Spirit”. If Aang could fly, then this escape would be boring but because there are limits to his airbending it forces Aang to come up with creative solutions that make the sequence captivating and contrast the limits of the last airbender.
In the Harry Potter series, the rules of magic are more nebulous and the number of spells that Wizards can use in a battle are practically limitless, and yet despite these near infinite possibilities, the fights generally boil down to the villains shooting the killing curse spells everywhere, while everyone else tries to dodge or block the spell.
Some of the fights are unique but typically the battles in Harry Potter are not very interesting. This is because it would be overwhelming to the audience if dozens of dissimilar spells were introduced every time there was a conflict. So, instead most of the fights consist of the same two or three spells. However, this is not to say that the Harry Potter universe has a bad magic system.
It’s just that it’s a flexible magic system and it is much better suited for moments of grandeur than it is for fighting, unlike the magic system in the Last Airbender which is inspired by martial arts.
Brandon’s third and final law of magic is that
• One should expand what you already have before you add something new.
This idea has already been touched on but to illustrate just how well the last airbender deals with this concept. Take a look at how the show expanded upon the four main types of elemental bending, such as when they introduced metal bending as an extension of earthbending you can see how the show gradually added new types of bending before ultimately adding a completely new type of bending like the energy bending in the last episode of the show.
The fight from the crossroads of Destiny expands on the magic system in a subtle way by setting up that there will be spirit world consequences for Aang by being struck down in the Avatar state. A storyline that is explored in the final season of the show while the extremely intelligent use of magic in the scene is fantastic, it’s only half of what makes this battle so special.
The other half is that it’s more than just an action scene, it’s a vehicle to reveal character. An action scene consisting of two characters just punching each other can make for a passable fight scene but one way to make a more compelling action scene is to have the sequence reveal a character’s personality.
Battle of the crossroads of destiny does a masterful job of using its fight to reveal the character is when Aang enters the Avatar State, Zuko and the Dai Li back away from him but Azula actually attacks him with lightning and strikes him down.
This short four second sequence tells the audience everything that they need to know about Azula’s power and ambitious nature.
And to bring up that awesome crystal armor moment one more time when Aang charges headlong at Azula, it’s not only a cool earthbending technique, it also shows personal character growth of Aang who has historically avoided conflict.
Additionally multiple season-long arcs are what makes it so emotional, like the conflict of the second season involves Prince Zuko struggling with his identity, lightning as a new and powerful form of firebending, and Aang struggling to control the Avatar State.
These ideas are explored through the season in different ways but it’s a sign of great storytelling that all of these season-long arcs are able to come to a satisfying conclusion in a five minute battle. Just like how Aang finally attains the Avatar state by letting go of his attachment to Katara. However, he is immediately struck down by Azula with a bolt of lightning, seemingly killing him.
Zuko betrays uncle Iroh and sides with Azula to seize the opportunity to regain his father’s trust again.
Uncle Iroh firmly aligns himself with the Avatar and sacrifices himself to let Katara and Aang escape. So ashamed of the actions of his nephew Zuko that he can’t stand to look at him.
The reason that Avatar: The Last Airbender is so beloved is because of scenes like this battle combining so many different elements into one amazing sequence.
There is thrilling action, dazzling magic, satisfying character development, and moving displays of emotion. It’s incredibly impressive that so many of us who enjoyed this show years ago, still find it just as touching and entertaining today.