Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved animated shows of the 21st century. But as time passes, and the Nickelodeon series becomes more ubiquitous, few may realize how much work went into its development — particularly in its treatment of the martial arts. The styles featured in the series were coordinated by Sifu Kisu, a practitioner of fighting styles and the show’s martial arts consultant.
“I started martial arts when I was seven or eight years old with my crazy uncles,” Kisu tells Polygon. “They’d gone off to the military and learned Judo, so they came back and were throwing each other around the apartment.” At around the same time, Bruce Lee secured a role as Kato on The Green Hornet. Kisu was riveted. He needed to do that.
From training with family friends to practicing Taekwondo at the marine station in Kāneʻohe Bay in Hawaii, Kisu spent years mastering the martial arts. In his early 20s, however, he encountered his current teacher, Kenneth Hui, and fell in love with Northern Shaolin. “I’ve been his student ever since, even though I [now] have two generations of my own students,” Kisu explains.
So how did this lead to Avatar? “[One day], I was teaching in the backyard of my house in LA, and one of the creators, Bryan Konietzko, was one of my students.” Despite Konietzko’s attempts to get Kisu on board with the project, he was done with the entertainment business after working as a stunt player on shows like Power Rangers and BeetleBorgs. According to Kisu, being a stunt player in Hollywood isn’t easy. “It’s very political,” he explains. “It’s very catty, it’s very backstabbing.”
Kisu originally turned Konietzko down. Then he turned him down several times afterward. It wasn’t until Konietzko finally showed him some of the drawings he had that Kisu decided this was a project worth working on. “It was some of the most amazing artwork I had ever seen in my life,” he says. “So [the fighting in] Avatar kind of started in my backyard.”
Kisu and the team began to work together in an extremely collaborative process. Creatives on the show would forward him scripts, and he would innovate on the staff’s action scenes. “But the best writers are smart enough not to try to write action,” he says with a laugh.
Bending quickly became more than a form of combat. For every “Zuko shoots a fireball” in a script, there were smaller moments, like Aang moving water from a table to a glass. Kisu would advise on how that could be visualized: the breath, stance, preparatory movement, executionary movement, manifestation of the element, and subsequent decline to pull the whole cycle back into a natural position.
“Originally, bending was gonna be lumped into this one big category of martial arts manifestation that created rocks flying or fire coming out of hands,” Kisu says. Connecting these elements to martial arts involved a deep understanding of the body. Kisu notes that his teacher — who he has been with for over 40 years — maintains a vast curriculum, and as a result, he was able to pair styles he had expertise in with elements that heavily resonated with them. Kisu says Tai Chi and water were a perfect fit.
Once things started to come together, the team designed a pencil test, a low-grade rendering of the animation. In Kisu’s eyes, the (unaired, but recently released) pilot they designed was “weak sauce” compared to what the show ended up accomplishing. “I think we ended up pushing the boundaries between 2D and 3D,” he says. “I had never been involved in anything like it.”
Kisu would meet the animation team three or four times per episode in order to be as imaginative as possible. The first discussion would always focus on intent; the second workshopped movements that made sense to the scripts; and the third was when the filming took place. Sometimes there was a fourth, just to really put the icing on the cake.
“We took a lot of time for the martial arts,” Kisu says. “If you’ve seen the Hong Kong movies, the fight scenes are really involved, but if you look at an American or European production, it pales in comparison.” He notes that, especially in America, applying this type of time to martial arts alone is unheard of, and is how the team ended up pushing the boundaries of what was possible.
In terms of the martial arts selected, Kisu opted to use styles he had the most respect for. “Tai Chi had a certain utility to it and could be used to ward off an attacker,” he explains. “Hung Ga, I always had great respect and a little bit of fear for people who were really good at that style […] Bagua, I had been practicing for about 10 years, and thought that would go really well with airbending. I’m not a Bagua expert, so some of the things that ended up in the show weren’t canon.”
His favorite, though, and one of the styles that made a huge impact on Avatar, is Northern Shaolin. “The style has so much utility, and it trains the practitioner to defend or attack in any direction with little or no wind-up,” Kisu says. “It’s pretty much all I’m practicing now. Northern Shaolin is beautiful — it’s aerobatic, it’s acrobatic, it’s physically demanding, the high long kicks, the low stances. There’s arrow attacks and feather-like retreats.”
“There are weapon sets that go back hundreds of years,” he continues. “The spear for instance was a specialty of the great Grandmaster and I was lucky enough to learn that technique. I think I was in the first generation of non-Asians to learn it. It was very secretive, and still is to a point. My teacher’s main effort for teaching traditional Chinese martial arts is to keep the culture alive.”
The series drew on more than the martial arts as they ostensibly appear. Each of the individual styles is linked to mythology, according to Kisu, such as the Water Margin stories and the Three Kingdoms. “There were cultural consultants [too],” Kisu says. “There was one guy who did nothing but make sure the calligraphy was spot on.”
As the team started to talk about how these stories could influence Avatar, where things that aren’t endemic to the real world could easily be realized, they began to focus on opposites like yin and yang, light and dark, front and back — the “duality of existence,” in Kisu’s words.
“We started to explore the aspects of what is yin and what is yang,” he explains. “You could have fire that’s yang, which would be a big blast that would blow a hole in a building, or you could have fire that’s yin that’s almost like a black hole, that does a reverse burn. It’s so not there that it takes everything with it.” This is where phenomena such as blood-bending eventually entered the fold. “We really thought about the physics of this world, and since the body is mostly water, we talked about all these dark things in bending.”
Kisu says the boundary-pushing powers put some people on edge, and a few pitches were even rejected out of caution for “imitative behaviour.” The last thing anyone wanted was for kid to try out firebending by grabbing their parents’ lighter fluid and burning down the house. But by ensuring that the emphasis was always on the responsibility that comes with power, they created a children’s show that sometimes verged on dark, but never quite went the whole way — especially when you consider the warmth that drastically outweighed it.
“I thought it was really cool that Aang, in his fervor of being a firebender, accidentally burns his best friend,” Kisu says. “There was a lot of that in the show: honor, duty, loyalty, friendship, love. I don’t think you had seen much of that, at least not in an American production.” The martial artist notes that the series was heavily influenced by anime out of Korea, especially the animated film Wonderful Days. The team even brought on a storyboard artist from the film, Seung-Hyun Oh, to direct three episodes and storyboard for the final season.
The end of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the whole run of Legend of Korra that followed it, were different to what came before. The series became less about innocence, sweetness, and the spiritual side of bending, and more about how it could relate to contemporary phenomena outside of itself. The original concept for the sequel season leaned into that even more.
“Korra was not supposed to be an entire series,” Kisu says. “They actually wanted to do a series of mini-shows based on the lives of different Avatars. Korra was only going to be 12 episodes long and she was going to lose her powers. That was the moral of the story — each one of them was going to be some sort of morality tale about the lives of different Avatars, their triumphs and failures, and Korra was going to be a failure because of her lack of spirituality. She had great physical prowess but she lacked a connection to the Spirit World.”
The fighting in Korra also evolved past what Kisu established in the first series. “While they were trying to figure out what to do next, Bryan, Mike, and Joaquim [dos Santos, director] had gotten enamored with the UFC,” Kisu says. “I think it’s cool, I did stuff like that when I was young, but it doesn’t have much substance as a martial art [...] I think that really came across as a glaring aspect in Korra.”
Still, Kisu keeps massively fond memories of the time he spent on the team who made Avatar a cultural phenomenon.
“Being taken seriously in that environment was a big kick in the head in the beginning,” he says. “The level of respect it started out with were some really amazing feelings. I [still] have a box full of VHS tapes and DVDs — we taped every reference session, and we did that three times over 61 episodes [...] I even choke up a little talking about it, because I watched Bryan and Mike and some other animators doing 14 or 18 hour days, just sitting there drawing, and that will break your back. I’ve got great respect for those guys.”
As Kisu reminds me, every episode of Avatar was the concerted effort of several hundred people — animators, writers, post-production crew, colorists, background artists, and the consultants who did what he did. “There’s never been anything like it and there will never be anything like it again,” he says.
But the legacy is found in the real world. The really big payoff of the job, for Kisu, has been seeing people flock to martial arts. Before Avatar, the trainer never saw kids in Tai Chi classes — that was for the older generation. Now the Northern Shaolin community is growing.
“I don’t take myself that seriously and I’m not running around tooting my own horn going at how great I am because I did something like this, I’m just really happy that it made an impact, that the kids who were fans of this 15 years ago are grown people now. They’re out in the world and they’re dictating the times, and I’d like to think that our work made a better generation of people.”