Color Coding: How "Avatar the Last Airbender" Uses Color (Part 2)
The first half of this article examined the basic color schemes of each of the four nations of Avatar the Last Airbender. In this half, we take a look at the exceptions to the rule, some of which may send subtle clues about character traits or true motivations. As with the first half, this article contains spoilers for the first two seasons of Avatar, but much of what follows will make little sense unless you have at least a passing knowledge of the show.
AVATAR STATE BLUE
There is a special, glowing blue color that is associated with the Avatar, especially when Aang goes into the Avatar State (above left). The on-screen explanation for it is that it is a combination of all of the Avatar’s past lives, channeling their collected energy to tap into immense power. However, the same color is also commonly used to show when Aang has crossed over partially into the Spirit World. During part 1 of “Winter Solstice,” Aang is colored entirely in glowing blue tones, as is Avatar Roku’s pet dragon Fang. In this state, neither are visible to people in the “real” world with the exception of Uncle Iroh.
However, that particular shade of blue is also associated with the Avatar during “The Southern Air Temple,” when Aang, Sokka, and Katara enter the Air Temple sanctuary. The entire room is tinted in Avatar blue rather than Air Nomad orange and saffron yellow (above center). It’s a quick visual shorthand technique to show the room’s connection to the Avatar, even though the specific shade of blue was only seen once before in the show.
Even more specifically, the color seems to be used to show that the Spirit World is crossing over into the real one. The howls of Heibai in “Winter Solstice Part 1” are colored in “Spirit World blue,” but Heibai himself isn’t because he isn’t a spirit but a real physical presence. There is also no Spirit World blue used during Aang’s inner journeys into the secrets of the Avatar State in “The Guru” and “Crossroads of Destiny” at the end of Book 2. Instead, Aang sees a giant version of himself colored in blacks and dark purple (above right).
THE SPIRIT HEIBAI
While we’re on the subject of Heibai, it’s worth pointing out that his name literally translates to “Black White” in Chinese. This is appropriate, considering his markings as an angered spirit and his more benign form as a panda, although otherwise his coloring seems to have no special symbolic significance.
Prince Zuko spends most of his time in traditional Fire Nation browns and reds. There are two times in the first season when he deviates from the Fire Nation norm: once in “The Blue Spirit” when he dons the Blue Spirit mask (right), and once in “Siege of the North,” when he wears a white and gray oversuit to infiltrate the Northern Water Tribe stronghold (left). In both of these cases, the alternate color could be seen as a visible symbol of how Zuko is placing his own interests before those of the Fire Nation. In “The Blue Spirit,” he institutes a jailbreak and battles soldiers of the Fire Nation to spring Aang from the clutches of Admiral Zhao. The same motive drives Zuko again in “Siege of the North;” the on-screen reason for the oversuit he wears is as camouflage for his infiltration mission, but his actions are again driven more by his own interests rather than those of the Fire Nation.
In fact, the Blue Spirit mask is a subtle indicator that Zuko is acting selfish. When the Blue Spirit first re-appears in Book 2, it is used first to cover Zuko’s vengeance in “Avatar Day” and then his life of crime in “The Swamp” and “Avatar Day.” Zuko uses the mask again much later in the episode “Lake Laogai,” as he breaks into the secret Earth Kingdom prison. Again, his actions are motivated by his personal obsession to capture the Avatar.
ZUKO AND UNCLE IROH
By the midpoint of Book 2, Prince Zuko and Uncle Iroh have abandoned their Fire Nation colors for those of the Earth Kingdom as they adapt to life in Ba Sing Se. The unstated on-screen reason is probably so they will blend in better with the other Earth Kingdom refugees, but even so, there are subtle hints sent by the color differences between Iroh and Zuko. Uncle Iroh begins to adopt Earth Kingdom colors as early as “Avatar Day,” and once he does, Fire Nation browns and reds never dominate his wardrobe again — symbolic of how he has truly turned his back on his native country and is seeking a brand new life in the city of Ba Sing Se.
In contrast, Zuko takes much longer to adopt Earth Kingdom greens and yellows. Fire Nation brown and red continue to dominate his clothing for the remainder of the season, even when he’s on his date with Jin in “Tales of Ba Sing Se.” The only time he ever puts on full Earth Kingdom green and yellow clothing is at the very end of the season in “The Guru” (above left), when his extremely un-Zuko-like behavior even raises the suspicions of Uncle Iroh. It’s extremely short-lived, though — by “The Crossroads of Destiny,” Zuko is wearing Fire Nation colors again when he and Uncle Iroh visit to the Earth King’s palace (right). It’s the first hint we get how he will ultimately turn on the Avatar by the end of the episode.
KYOSHI ISLAND AND THE KYOSHI WARRIORS
The early Book 1 episode “Warriors of Kyoshi” brings Aang and his friends to Kyoshi Island, named for the Earthbending Avatar who served two lives before Aang. The Kyoshi Warriors themselves model themselves after Avatar Kyoshi, which gives a clean on-screen explanation for the Earth Kingdom colors in their costumes. In fact, this episode is one of the few times that costuming is given an explicit on-screen explanation, as noted in the earlier sections of this article.
However, the island’s neutrality and the use of primarily Water Tribe colors for everyone else is a subtle way to reinforce the point that Kyoshi Island is neutral, and probably composed of people from multiple nations (above left). In fact, the white makeup that the Kyoshi Warriors use may even be seen as a cue that they have no clear loyalty to the Earth Kingdom, just as white was used to indicate neutrality in other instances on the show. While the Kyoshi Warriors ultimately join the war effort, their true allegiance (and, by extension, the allegiance of the Kyoshi Islanders as a whole) is to the Avatar, not to the Earth Kingdom.
Then again, the different color costumes on Kyoshi Island may just be evidence that the crew was still hashing out the world at the time and were only picking colors that looked good. In any event, the mixture of clothing colors is used to send mostly the same message in “The Northern Air Temple,” since the squatters in the temple wear both Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe colors.
AZULA AND ZUKO
The colors and allegiance of the Kyoshi Warriors is important, since those costumes are used by Azula and her cronies, the acrobatic Ty Lee and the dour Mai, as a disguise to infiltrate Ba Sing Se. However, this is definitely not a sign that Azula has allied herself with the Earth Kingdom. Thus, the use of the Kyoshi Warrior costumes instead of just regular Earth Kingdom soldier uniforms can be interpreted as significant. The Kyoshi Warriors have only a coincidental allegiance to the Earth Kingdom, and by the end of Book 2 we see a similar coincidental allegiance between Azula and the agents of the Dai Li. Furthermore, the fact that Azula is so quick to adopt alien colors and equally fast to abandon them might indicate that her first and foremost allegiance is to herself over her native country.
It’s also quite interesting to notice that the closing scenes of “The Crossroads of Destiny” show Azula and Zuko in different colors (above right). Azula is still in Earth Nation green and yellow, but Zuko is wearing the browns and reds of the Fire Nation — a clear indicator that even though the two may have worked together to defeat the Avatar, they are still not truly allies.
It might be a case of reading far too much into things, but in the Fire Nation trio of the acrobatic Ty Lee, the vicious Princess Azula, and the dour Mai (left to right, respectively, in the image at left), Ty Lee’s costume is noticeably different from the others. Azula and Mai both wear stereotypical Fire Nation colors, but Ty Lee wears pink and red instead. Even Ty Lee’s red is different from the Fire Nation norm. In Ty Lee’s debut in Book 2’s “Return to Omashu,” we see she had largely left the Fire Nation to join the circus and had to be coerced by Azula into assisting in the hunt for Prince Zuko. Ty Lee’s more colorful costume may just be to make her visually distinct from the other two, but it might also be an advance hint of a fracture to come within the trio. And isn’t it interesting that in the Book 3 episode “The Beach,” Azula and Mai’s swimwear is in Fire Nation brown and red, but Ty Lee is in a very un-Fire Nation white (right)?
JET AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS
When we meet him in his eponymous episode, Jet seems like a hero of the Robin Hood or Han Solo mode — a charming rogue with little regard for rules, a certain savage cunning, and a wicked sense of humor. Early on, he states that he was an Earth Kingdom subject whose parents were killed by the Fire Nation. He is a self-described freedom fighter, and one would presume that he fights for the freedom of the Earth Kingdom. However, notice how none of Jet and his freedom fighters are wearing Earth Kingdom colors. Indeed, their colors are notable for not belonging to ANY of the nations. Jet’s wardrobe is the first indicator that he’s strictly an independent operator, concerned with himself and his localized tribe first and foremost. This is eventually confirmed by later events in the episode, as Jet crosses over from “Freedom Fighter” to “Terrorist” as he nearly murders numerous Earth Kingdom citizens just to strike at occupying Fire Nation soldiers.
Most of what can be said about Jet also applies to the hippie musicians from Book 2’s “The Cave of Two Lovers,” except that the hippies aren’t self-interested, but just far too free-spirited to claim ties to any one nation.
This bounty hunter, who appears in “Bato of the Water Tribe” is quite an enigma. Like Jet, she carries herself as an independent operator, not affiliated with any one nation. However, unlike Jet, her color scheme is entirely a darker version of Fire Nation browns, with a dark red tattoo on her shoulder. Couple that with the broad hints that she and Uncle Iroh seem to know each other and it isn’t hard to guess that she has some kind of tie to the Fire Nation. Perhaps the darker color indicates that her tie has been corrupted or destroyed. One can speculate further on her origins based on this, but this is pretty dangerous ground to try to build much on.
GRAN-GRAN AND PRINCESS YUE
In the earliest episodes of the show, Katara and Sokka’s grandmother Gran-Gran is clearly the tribal elder of the Southern Water Tribes, leading the people while the men are at war. By clothing her in a purple robe rather than a blue one, we are given a subtle visual clue to her importance to the tribe and to the two lead characters (left). She looks different from the rest of the Water Tribe, and thus tends to draw our eye when she is in frame. It’s also worth pointing out that purple has been a “royal” color for a long time, due to the difficulty in finding purple dyes. It’s possible that this real-world color association was what drove Gran-Gran’s robe color.
That royal association with the color purple is reinforced at the end of the season when we meet Princess Yue (right), who is set off by her white hair and the purple robe she wears. As with Gran-Gran, both colors serve to set her off from the Water Tribe norm, tipping viewers off as to her importance to the plot. However, the intriguing connection between the two is that Princess Yue is wearing the exactly same purple hue as what Gran-Gran is wearing. We are led to believe that the Northern and Southern Water Tribes don’t have much contact with each other, and we are later explicitly told that Gran-Gran fled an arranged marriage in the Northern Water Tribe. Having both characters clothed in the same purple shade seems to be a surprising coincidence.
In the end, it probably is just a coincidence, though. There is certainly not enough evidence in the show to conclude that there’s any sort of connection beyond the visual between Gran-Gran and Princess Yue. But what’s the Internet for if not for making provocative suggestions and insane speculations with scanty evidence?
We hope this look at how Avatar the Last Airbender has been educational and enlightening, and given you a new way to re-examine older episodes. There are no doubt plenty of uses of color that these articles missed, got wrong, or read too much into, but due credit must be given to the show for establishing such a rich and wonderful environment for such speculation.
(Selected images taken from the AvatarSpirit.net screenshot library)