When developing the concept for Avatar: The Last Airbender, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino wanted something big, something mythic. A story of adventure, and trial, and … ACTION.
But they also needed to create a world in which the physics (read: fighting) met the standards for Nickelodeon’s Y-7 rating, or programing for ages 7 and above. The answer: element bending. Characters shooting fire, water, earth, and air.
A similar Japanese series, Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, also makes use of element bending. But in that series, lightning strikes from characters cause severed limbs and fountain-gushing blood.
Obviously, Nickelodeon couldn’t show the full consequences of the elements bashing into people. Instead, they focused on the motions of bending those elements—strikes and kicks based on real martial arts techniques—motions forceful enough to make you forget what you’re watching is, in fact, a children’s show.
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Konietzko and DiMartino consulted Sifu Kisu, a master in Northern Shaolin style of martial arts, but also an expert in several other forms. Kisu would develop the fighting styles for each of the four benders, drawing from real martial arts schools that best matched the ethos of those bending elements.
Here’s what Kisu decided on.
Waterbending (Tai Chi)
Kisu notes Tai Chi’s softer style, characterized more by control than aggression. “Tai Chi is less about strength and more about alignment, body structure, breath, and visualization,” Kisu explains. In Taoist philosophy, water is also associated with Yin, which shares many of the same characteristics.
Earthbending (Hung Gar)
Hung Gar is known for strong stances and rooting to the ground, noes Kisu. “Hung Gar is based on the movements of animals, especially the tiger, which represents hard power, and the crane, which stands for soft power.”
Toph (Chow Gar / Southern Praying Mantis)
Toph is so badass she gets her very own style. Sifu Manuel Rodriguez, a practicitioner of the rare style, Chow Gar, worked as the character model for Toph’s movements. The aggressive, close-range style Kisu and Rodriquez thought would best suit the blind earthbender.
Firebending (Northern Shaolin)
The style is Kisu’s preferred style. “It’s a very strong, dynamic style,” Kisu explains. “It uses powerful hand and leg movements.” Aggression and dynamism equate the style to the element of fire in Taoist thinking—Yang. The two characters most at odds throughout the series are, unsurprisingly, Katara and Zuko, practitioners of waterbending and firebending. Of course, Yin and Yang are not in opposition; they are in harmony, codependent. Which may be a spoiler in itself.
“Bagua fighters are known for moving in a circle and constantly spinning back and forth,” Kisu explains. Aang’s circular movements generate tornado-like force and demonstrate how the particular bending style—though peaceful-looking—can be one of the most powerful in the Four Nations.
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