One Small Scene: Leaves from the Vine
In an episode divided into vignettes already, the ending of Iroh’s particular story of a day in Ba Sing Se punctuates a very quiet, but very poignant scene about help and heartbreak. At the culmination, in a scene as long as two sentences and a song, the old man speaks to a portrait coming into view. After helping a would-be mugger discover his vocation and help out a few kids on the street, Iroh lights some incense and sits for his habitual tea on a hill with a portrait. But when we see a trail of tears pass his face, realise the portrait is of a son who has passed away, Iroh begins to sing. This song he had used to cheer a boy earlier, as surely he did many years ago in context gives the light tune and happier mood a melancholy mood fitting the theme of duality in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Where for others there was help and joy today that came from the eccentric stranger, for Iroh himself he sits alone with his failure and sorrow.
It was not another day for the old man: uncle, comedy relief, former Dragon of the West. But his son’s birthday. A ritual at the end after trying to be kind no one but the audience will see. It not only stands out as a single moment in an ensemble cast episode, but grows the direction for the character as the series grows. There is more to the man than either comedy and being the respected commander years before.
It becomes clear that this wise, funny side character has in truth a very pitiable hurt at his core. His sense of experience makes sense, his unusual honour and respect in contrast to others of the Fire Nation. Without seeing these moments, we can extrapolate so much. And on a meta level, another very terrible sadness is the epitaph ‘For Mako’. As sadly Makoto Iwamatsu has spoken his last words as voice actor, having passed away.
In that small song, the empathy and compassion of a man who used to be a warlord, and remains a great warrior comes into view. The pursuit of art and harmony, wisdom and loss in punctuated by the lighting on the incense, the ritual of singing and sharing with the spirit of his son. It is a picture within a picture, the animation featuring a drawn portrait of Lu Ten. None of this day was trivial, but it becomes more than a day which Iroh shared with others at the same time. It is Lu Ten’s birthday, and a solemn ritual no other living people see save for the audience. And for an optimistic and compassionate man, no doubt this fuels the inner fire of what he does; why his reaction to live is to find wisdom and giving kindness to others is the only dutiful course.
The moment takes 58 seconds.
And it is one of the most emotionally biting, even tear-jerking moments I can think of in any series. All the beauty of the animation style, the notes of music and song, and such short but elegant lines of writing. I believe that the original series, and in particular this episode are worth the time to study for any writer or animator.
All the best,
Book Two: Earth. Episode 15: ‘Tales of Ba Sing Se’. Nickelodeon Animation Studios. 2006.
All Avatar: The Last Airbender material is the intellectual property of Nickelodeon Animation Studios. I do not own the rights or have any association to the property and literature, and only make this article and recommendation as an individual audience member.