Color Coding: How "Avatar the Last Airbender" Uses Color (Part 1)
There are many tools that Avatar the Last Airbender uses to characterize each of the four nations that form its world. Just in time for the Day of Black Sun, Toon Zone News will take a look how at the show associates specific colors to each of the four nations, and then examine some of the exceptions to show how color is used to send subtle messages about characters and their true allegiances.
As a rule, you can examine the use of color into “on-screen” reasons and “off-screen” reasons. “On-screen” uses of color are the instances where color has meaning or value to the characters in the show itself, such as when Suki explains her costume’s color scheme to Sokka in the episode “Warriors of Kyoshi Island.” These reasons are targeted at the characters, and detail what the color means to them. “Off-screen” reasons are targeted at the audience, and can have a variety of uses and purposes. For example, a classic film technique is to costume a character in a different color to make them visually distinct from other characters on-screen, often to provide subtle clues to their inner motivations or allegiances. These two broad categories are not mutually exclusive, but they will be identified here up-front to ensure that they don’t get confused with each other.
The first section of this article will cover the costume colors of the major nations of Avatar, while the second discusses the exceptions and any on-screen or off-screen explanations or interpretations. Whenever possible, discussions are kept in the abstract, but this article does contain multiple spoilers for the first two seasons of Avatar.
The Northern and Souther Water Tribes live their lives in the Arctic climates at the poles of the Avatar world, and are clearly inspired by Inuit and other native peoples living at the North Pole. Their outfits are predominantly blue with white trim, matching blue water and white ice. Many different cultures associate blue and white with water and ice, so it is not surprising that they are associated with the Water Tribes of Avatar.
Many of the whites used are fur, which matches the natural colors of many polar mammals, and the traditional association of white with sterility lines up with the vast, barren tracts of arctic climates. However, the choice of blue is very much for off-screen reasons over on-screen ones. Historically, blue was not an easy color to find or use, with the earliest sources being the indigo plant and minerals like cobalt. Neither one would be readily available to the pre-industrial Water Tribes. Interestingly, many icebergs have a sharp, electric blue that looks completely unnatural, but this is one of the only naturally occurring blue hues in many polar regions and would certainly not be usable to dye clothing.
In terms of Western color theory, blues are “cooling” colors, and are often associated with calming effects. This also makes it a good match for the Water Tribes, whose bending arts are modeled after Tai-chi. As a martial art, Tai-chi is often used as the embodiment of a “soft” martial-art, eschewing aggressive, strong, and assertive movements in favor of a more flexible and open responses to an attack. Thus, it requires the calm, relaxed attitudes that blue colors are meant to induce.
The Earth Kingdom is the largest of the four Avatar nations, and their clothing is dominated by greens and yellows. Cross-culturally, green is most often associated with the Earth and environment, since it is the natural color of most vegetation. It can also be associated with safety and security, as with green traffic lights and Hollywood green rooms. Night vision goggles project their images in green because the human eye can distinguish more hues of green than any other color on the spectrum; this has little to do with Avatar, except to point out that Earth Kingdom costumes seem to have far more variations to the basic color scheme than the other nations.
Interestingly, darker hues of green can be associated with decay and putrefaction because the mental association shifts from vegetation to mold. The Dai Li of Ba Sing Se are colored in a much darker green than the rest of the Earth Kingdom. The on-screen reason for this hue is as a uniform color, versus the lighter greens of regular soldiers. However, the fact that they are also the instruments of the inner decay affecting the city is an interesting coincidence.
“Hotter” yellows are used for warning signs, such as traffic lights or traffic signs. Warmer, desaturated yellows bring out the more calming, relaxing, and cheering effects. These softer yellows used also tend to be associated with the Earth in many different cultures due to the resemblance to rock or sand. Both of these psychological associations of yellow may be at work in the outfit of Joo Dee, the perpetually smiling handler in Ba Sing Se (right). Her function is to obstruct Aang and his friends while fulfilling the Dai Li’s mandate to keep the city passive and unaware of the war being waged outside its walls — the yellow of her outfit can be seen as an external manifestation of her job (to calm and soothe) and as a warning sign that she is not what she seems to be.
The specific greens and yellows used for the Earth Kingdom colors appear a lot in Chinese funerary ceramics. It is also worth mentioning the apocryphal Chinese historic figure of the Yellow Emperor, strongly associated with the establishment of Chinese culture. Yellow happened to be one of the five “orthodox” Confucian colors, but these associations and meanings seem to have little connection to the Avatar world.
The aggressive Fire Nation is one of the smaller nations of Avatar, and seems to be the most industrialized and dependent on machinery. The Fire Nation clothes itself in browns and reds, and the premiere of season 3 shows that jet black is incorporated for formal occasions. The color choices match the colors that are associated with fire — reds for the flames themselves, browns for burnable wood, and blacks for burning or burnt materials.
In contrast to all three of the other nations, the Fire Nation colors are dull and washed out. One potential on-screen explanation is that the fires of the nation’s benders, the volcanic dust and ash that seem to dominate the Fire Nation landscape, and their heavy reliance on coal-fired machinery has coated everybody in a layer of soot. The natural colors of Fire Nation costumes may be obscured by this soot, or the colors may have been selected simply because they would show the dirt less. Psychologically, though, these colors make this nation dour, serious, and weighty — appropriate considering their status as the primary antagonists of the Avatar world. It also happens to make everybody wearing the colors look slightly burnt.
Brown tends to be associated with strength, stability, and nature, largely due to its connection to wood and trees. In the case of the Fire Nation, the association is probably more with flammable materials, but there is an undeniable strength and solidity to be seen in the Fire Nation. Meanwhile, black is a striking color that often represents authority and power, and its use can be extremely intimidating. The Fire Nation armor worn for formal occasions is dominated by black (left), which lines up with modern fashion sensibilities (such as on “black-tie” occasions).
As a color, red has the largest number of psychological associations, although the duller hues used in Fire Nation costumes tend to partially defuse these associations. Still, the fact that red is associated with danger or extreme emotion matches well with the Fire Nation’s role as the designated villains of Avatar. Red is the iconic “hot” color, generating feelings of anxiety and strong emotion. The predominantly red rooms of Fire Nation ships can generate anxiety rather easily, such as when Aang realizes he is on a Fire Nation ship in the Book 3 premiere (right). It isn’t much of a surprise to see that calmer, more pensive moments on board Fire Nation ships happen in rooms that are dimmed or in all-metal cargo holds or command centers. Comments by Prince Zuko, Uncle Iroh, and the exiled Firebending master Jeong Jeong also suggest that Firebending derives much of its power through emotion, which can also make it the most difficult element to keep under control. Red has had a long-standing association with good luck in many Asian cultures, but this association is with a brighter, crimson red.
Japanese culture places multiple meanings on red colors. It is associated with several Shinto gods, and there also happens to be a strong association with red and smallpox. The latter association is a dual-edged sword, since red can indicate both disease and sickness as well as healing and protection. The affliction association is probably closer to the Fire Nation of Avatar, but as season 3 unfolds, we will see if the healing association comes to the fore.
The Air Nomads were supposedly the smallest of the four nations of Avatar before they were exterminated by the Fire Nation at the start of the war that drives the show. Other than the title character of the show, we have only seen Air Nomads in flashback sequences depicting Aang’s life as a monk. Aang’s orange and saffron yellow robes and the accessories of his seniors at the Southern Air Temple are a dead match for the robes and paraphenalia of Buddhist monks of Southeast Asia. Orange and saffron robed monks are fairly common sights on the streets of countries like Vietnam, Nepal, Cambodia, and Thailand. The choice of these colors is clearly intended to parallel their real-world counterparts, marking Aang as a deeply spiritual character. Unfortunately, the lack of any scenes of non-monastic life among the Air Nomads limits any speculation on whether the orange and saffron colors can be generalized to the nation as a whole.
There are two different symbolic interpretations of the monastic colors. The Buddha himself supposedly selected the saffron yellow color, partially due to yellow’s association with the Earth. Interestingly, the shade of yellow was borrowed from Hindu color symbolism, which associates it with Agni (or fire) — a word familiar to Avatar fans from the “Agni Kai,” or Fire Nation challenge. In addition, yellow, orange, and brown were selected as the major colors of the Buddhist monastic order to mirror leaves that are about to fall off the trees in autumn. The colors thus become symbolic reminders of the importance of not clinging to the world and of letting go when the time is right. Interestingly, in Book 3’s “The Day of Black Sun,” Aang has replaced his saffron yellow pants for brown ones from his Fire Nation disguise (right), thus adding the third traditional Buddhist monastic color to his costume color palette.
Although it is technically a “hot” color, orange tends to generate widely divergent psychological reactions. It tends to generate some of the same feelings of warmth and energy as red, but without the same connotations of danger or anxiety. There is still a sense of warning or alert with orange, but it is slightly different than the reactions of yellow or red. “Safety orange” seen on vests and traffic cones does not trigger the same reaction as either yellow or red traffic signals. In fashion, orange tends to signal fun and flamboyance, and Chinese and Japanese culture sometimes uses orange to symbolize happiness and love. All of these are well in keeping with Aang’s inner nature.
Even though it’s technically one of the Water Tribe colors, Avatar has garbed a character primarily in white for at least three distinct reasons. The first is to show their neutrality, as with the nuns depicted in the Book 1 episode “Bato of the Water Tribe” (above). In this specific case, the color also associates the nuns with healing, in line with the assistance they provide for the recuperating Bato.
The second use of white is another real-world cultural borrowing, since white is the traditional color of mourning in many different Asian cultures. This is the reason why the Fire Nation royal family is all dressed in white at Firelord Azulon’s funeral in the last flashback of the Book 2 episode “Zuko Alone” (above). Also note how all the flashback segments of the episode are colored with a noticeable Fire Nation red-brown cast. This is a trick that the show uses elsewhere as well, as Sokka and Princess Yue’s flashbacks have a noticeable whitish or bluish-white cast to distinguish them from current events. Aang’s flashbacks seem to be done mostly by using softer focus, but there is a bit of an orange tint to his flashbacks as well (as in the image above with Aang and Monk Gyatso).
The last use of white is an association with the moon, and specifically with Princess Yue, the tragic figure of Book 1. Princess Yue is marked at first through her distinctive white hair color (above, left), explained on-screen as an association with the moon spirits that kept her alive as a child. Notice also that the mystic Koi fish in the Water Tribe sanctuary that represents the moon is the white one. That link eventually comes back as she sacrifices herself to save the mystic Koi fish to restore the moon at the end of Book 1. When she ascends to become the new moon spirit, she trades in her distinctive purple robes for a pure white dress (above, right). White’s association with innocence, purity, and wholesomeness is also quite relevant in regards to Princess Yue.
There is a fourth use of white in the finale of season 1, but this will be discussed in part 2, when we examine how exceptions to the color schemes outlined above can send subtle messages to the viewer. Go on to read part 2 of “Color Coding: How Avatar the Last Airbender Uses Color.”
Avatar: The Day of Black Sun debuts tonight, November 30, 2007, at 8:00 PM (Eastern/Pacific) on Nickelodeon.