Wednesday, 11 August 2010

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Creating Critical Distance; or, on Teaching Avatar: The Last Airbender As I noted earlier, I decided to teach an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender in my "American Manga" class even though only half that title applies. (It's technically "American anime.") I chose the penultimate episode, "The Ember Island Players," because it 1) requires almost no knowledge of the series to understand and 2) it performs the show's fraught relation to its Japanese forebears. I'll tackle the first item today, the second tomorrow. Before I continue, I'll add the same caveat I have to all these analyses designed for freshmen-level composition courses: they're designed for freshmen-level composition courses.* I'm attempting to model engaged cultural criticism for students who consider culture something to be passively consumed, i.e. I provide the tools then teach them how to construct a persuasive rhetorical argument.** On with the show: "The Ember Island Players" requires little knowledge of the series because it consists of the main characters watching a play that recapitulates it. All I need to tell the two students who haven't already seen every episode is that the kids are about to go to war with the Fire Nation, and that this play (as the title of the episode indicates) is being produced by a Fire Nation theater troupe. As soon as Sokka—the Zeppo of this crew—discovers the poster, the difference between the kids: And their on-stage equivalents becomes clear: Sokka and his sister, Katara, are being played by adults, and Aang, the titular Airbender, by a woman. The episode is as committed to verisimilitude (or a realistic representation the series' established aesthetic) as the average Elizabethean drama in which the women were portrayed by young boys and the young boys were portrayed by old men. Just as with all theater—and by extension, all animated representations of it—the act of suspending disbelief is a wilfull one, a fact which "The Ember Island Players" takes pains to foreground. To wit: That would be curtain rising in the theater to reveal a highly stylized (ahem) representation of the first event in the series: Sokka and Katara on the verge of discovering Aang frozen in a block of ice. Note that the backdrop is clearly attached to a batten (its top is visible even when staring the stage straight on) and that the lighting above is purely functional (intended merely to illuminate the scene in a way that "suggests" the time of day). The stage is framed like a television, calling attention to the unreality of the events depicted on it; but it's framed like a television on a television, which should (but often doesn't) call attention to the unreality of the events depicted on it. (Especially when they're animated.) Director Giancarlo Volpe has created a complex narrative situation that is simple enough for a child to decode. (Which is partly the point of recapitulating the narrative arc of a complex show aimed at children whose memory for nuances may yet be underdeveloped.) Not only is the viewer constantly aware that the on-stage narrative is constructed, Volpe...

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