“Water. Earth. Fire. Air.”
The iconic intro to Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender series is as unforgettable as the show itself. Avatar premiered a decade and a half ago, and the children who grew up wanting to be benders have proven that they’re now adults who still want to be benders — the show shot to the number-one spot on Netflix after being released on the streaming platform in the United States over the summer. As it turned out, Uncle Iroh’s wisdom has been just what a lot of us needed to get through these past few months.
If you’ve seen Avatar, chances are you get the hype. If you haven’t, you should start watching now (and beware, as this article contains a few small spoilers). Though made for children, the show tackles a lot of adult themes like genocide, childhood abuse, sexism, spirituality, and many, many others. And it manages to do it all while incorporating a comprehensive magic system that directly involves martial arts.
The four types of bending — that is, water bending, earth bending, fire bending, and air bending — are all based on real martial arts: tai chi, hung gar, Northern Shaolin, and bagua, respectively. And if you really want a fighting chance at shooting fire out of your fists, Sifu Kisu is the instructor to learn from.
Sifu Kisu is, quite literally, the man behind the magic of the Avatar universe. As the show’s martial arts consultant, he brought the writers’ ideas to life and created the movements that the heroes and villains use to bend their respective elements. With a lifetime of martial arts experience and decades of instruction behind him (the word “Sifu” meaning “master” or “teacher,” which Aang also uses in the show to respectfully refer to Toph and Katara when they teach him how to bend earth and water), he got started with the role after taking on Avatar co-creator Bryan Konietzko as a student.
“[Bryan] had mentioned the series to me a couple of times,” Sifu Kisu told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I’d had a run with the entertainment industry, and it’s stressful and strange. When I saw his storyboard drawings, he had an amazing eye for perspective, probably one of the best artists I’ve ever met.”
The road to working on Avatar was a long one for the martial artist, which began when he was just a baby watching his uncles (who were about 18 at the time and in the military) practicing judo, jiu-jitsu, and karate. “They taught me how to keep my dukes up in a fight,” he says, adding that he “got beat up a lot” when he was a kid.
Sifu Kisu started training in karate when he was about seven or eight years old, then got involved with taekwondo when he was a teenager. “I met my taekwondo teacher in the military. He would take me off to Korea and Canada to train, so I got to get some high-end training. When I went to Los Angeles, I met some of my classmates with our kung fu association, the Northern Shaolin association. That was in the late ’70s. So I’m still affiliated and train with my teacher.”
Now 60 years old, Sifu Kisu has passed on his love for martial arts to his students, children, and grandchildren. Though he says that he doesn’t have “half the strength or half the wind” that he did when he was younger, he still trains six days a week and runs around his condo complex or the cow pasture near his Colorado home (about 2.5 to 3 miles) a couple of times a week as well. “People say kung fu is garbage, and a lot of it is. This has served me just for health and exercise,” he says. “The Northern Shaolin, the traditional form, some of them have 60 or 70 kicks. There’s ground techniques. It’s super demanding, and it’s kept me very healthy.”
While fans of the show may know that the design of Master Piandao — who becomes Sokka’s swordmaster in book 3, episode 4 — was based on the appearance of Sifu Kisu, the real Kisu says he most closely identifies with Uncle Iroh out of all the Avatar characters. “He’s so freakin’ gentle until he’s fed up, which is how it should be. When it’s time for war, war is a whole different thing than training in the dojo.”
He speaks from experience. Sifu Kisu joined the military when he was young “out of boredom and out of employment. Though he prefers not to speak in-depth about his time in the service, he says he took some valuable lessons from it. “The big takeaway from that was everything is temporary; you can endure anything for a limited amount of time. In the end, you’re always on your own, even when you have a whole army there waiting to help you. It taught me self-sufficiency.”
It’s no great surprise that Sifu Kisu seems to embody Iroh’s beloved vibe of ‘do no harm, but take no sh*t.’ In addition to his experience in the military and competitive fighting, he’s also used his expertise to defend himself in public, though he says he took no joy in it. “Once I was at an ATM and a dude came up behind me, and I kicked him off his feet when he tried to take me down. I felt really bad about that, but this guy was gonna do me harm. He would’ve been really disappointed with the $60 in my bank account,” he says. “I guess an educated person wouldn’t behave that way. If you wonder what’s wrong with the world today, we need more education.”
Having experienced both the toughest and most gentle ends of the martial arts spectrum and everything in between (and yes, that includes jiu-jitsu), Sifu Kisu ended up being the perfect person to develop a martial-arts-based magic system that was built for war, but designed for a kids’ show. After teaching martial arts for years, the transition back to a 9-to-5 job wasn’t easy, but the reward was worth it.
“Creating the show was an eye-opener for me. I’d never worked in animation. The process that we followed had never been done before. Generally, we’d get a script, and the script would suggest certain actions or bendings. We had a conversation about what that would look like. They’d pitch me with some ideas, I’d pitch them back with some ideas. I’d come up with some moves,” he says.
Originally, the martial arts moves used in Avatar were going to be made up specifically for the show, but Sifu Kisu decided to take movements directly from the curriculum of his teacher, who’s an expert in hung gar. “Hung gar uses low stances that are close to the ground, and I thought it would be a really great thing, visually. We got into this whole fantasy — how would that work? If I stomp down hard enough, would a chunk of the earth jump up in the air for me to kick into your face? We had to tone a lot of that stuff down because you know what happens when you get hit with a big rock, when you get burned, when you get hit with a giant deluge of water.”
That balance between efficiency and aesthetics is present not only in the animation, but in the arts themselves. “In tai chi, it’s thirteen postures and positions, but a lot of people don’t realize it’s really thirteen nasty throws,” says Kisu. “You see these tai chi masters getting their butts kicked lately — these guys that have never fought in their life popping up and going, ‘I will fight you with my tai chi,’ and, you know, come on. It’s just a tool. In jiu-jitsu, you have your forms, too. You have different ways of seizing, crawling on the outside, crawling on the inside, shimmying up the body, catching the leg for a takedown. It’s the same process. Tai chi has all these pretty names, and if you just do it in the air, it’s nothing, but if you think of ‘rollback push’ like you’re pushing your dad’s pickup truck, that’s not a gentle thing. You’ve gotta get your back into it.”
We see in Avatar how each style of bending can be used for peaceful tasks (such as heating up a cup of tea) or to cause destruction (such as burning an entire naval fleet), and Sifu Kisu applies this concept to all forms of martial arts as well. “Everything has its greater and lesser form. An advanced jiu-jitsu player is really dangerous, like a freaking anaconda. It’s the same thing with a hung gar player,” he says.
“It’s not about which martial art is the best, it’s which player applies themselves to it and is great within the realm of that practice. Are you just playing around in the sandbox, or are you going to war? If I’m going to war, I’m not just going to try to knock your hands off, I’m going to try to break your arm. If I grab your legs, I’m going to snap them, I’m not just going to try to roll you over. It’s a whole different emphasis. There’s no ‘greater’ martial art, there’s greater martial art practitioners. I caution everyone out there in your audience to have respect for all martial arts. Don’t let your ego write a check that your behind can’t cash.”
The process involved in developing the scenes that required bending would take three or four meetings per episode. “The start for every bending was a breath,” says Sifu Kisu, adding that the animators had never animated breathing in a cartoon prior to this. “Everything had a process that made it very organic, so it wasn’t like the teenage witch wrinkling her nose and having something happen. There was some sort of internal process that started with a thought, to a breath, to some wind-up movement, to some manifestation movement.
“The second meeting, we’d come back and decide what the movements were going to be, what the structure was going to look like. The third meeting, we’d come back and film me and Bryan or someone else from the angle that was going to be in the animation. And then the movements were literally rotoscoped one frame at a time, then you’d marry that into a character design.”
The process was a combination of childlike wonder and decades’ worth of professional experience. “It was really fun. As a kid, you live in your own little fantasy world. I got to imagine all these great powers and got to watch the process of that happening,” he says. “It was a very complex process. I don’t think anything like that had ever happened. Generally in the animation world, you have keyframes, or what you’d see as you were looking through in a comic book. Then you have what are called the in-betweens of the movements. That’s a very tedious process. I think Avatar was the first show that ever detailed legit martial art movements.”
The Last Airbender’s (TLA) sequel series, The Legend of Korra (LoK), reflects the development and growing popularity of martial arts as they became more mainstream through professional MMA, which we see in the execution of the Pro Bending League. “Bryan and Joaquim [dos Santos] and Mike [Dante DiMartino] got into watching UFC and got really enamored with it. They were crazy about Anderson Silva (which, I’m a big fan of him as well),” says Sifu Kisu, who says that although the UFC isn’t his “cup of tea,” he still respects it as an “amazing” testing ground. “The producers and some of the directors of [LoK] had some different ideas about how they wanted it done and even some strong ideas of the action they wanted to see. I kinda felt like I had a diminished role in that one. Then they brought on a couple of other guys. It was like ‘Team UFC’ with different types of elemental bending, which I thought was kind of cute.”
Kisu says he had a few “triumphs” in the series, such as Korra and Tenzin’s work with the airbending gates on Air Temple Island. Like many critics of the follow-up series, though, he wasn’t necessarily a fan of everything about LoK. “There were a lot of hands in that pot. A lot of people had a lot of ideas. Artistically and structurally, it was an amazing show. There was a lot of stuff that I didn’t think was very well executed… They did a lot of this kicking stuff. They had a lot of these young men that were trickers. I used to flip around when I was younger. I don’t do that stuff anymore, but I thought the execution in that came off a little bit iffy.”
Many of the differences between LoK and TLA come from the very different ways that the shows were produced and planned. Unlike TLA, which has a grand plotline that spans the length of all three seasons (or ‘books’), LoK’s four books are more distinctly separated. According to Kisu, this was largely because the series was originally supposed to consist of only twelve episodes, with the producers initially intending to do a series of “many different shows about the different lives of different Avatars,” such as Avatar Wan.
“A lot of people don’t know there was a huge gap between the first and second season — a two-year gap. There was a lot of executive input there. [Korra] was going to lose her powers, and then I think it got political about the first woman hero losing her powers, so I can kinda see where they went with that. Then they snuck in Avatar Wan and a couple of the others,” he says.
Sifu Kisu ended up only working on LoK until the third book due to being involved with other projects and says that he doesn’t even know how the series ended. But despite the criticism he has for the second Avatar series, he also has plenty of praise for it. “It’s not a small thing — probably over $1 million per episode with probably a couple thousand people working on it from beginning to end. And the animators in Korea, Studio Mir, the animation is just unparalleled. They did stuff that had never been done in animation. I gotta hand it to those guys — it was clean, it was beautiful, it was seamless. A lot of really detailed work. If you were to go and watch it frame by frame, you can see the detail as you track your particular type of motion.”
Having seen his own children make their way through life, he also acknowledges the bittersweet feelings that many Avatar fans had as they saw their favorite animated children grow old and leave a legacy behind. “I really liked how it continued the stories of the descendants of the Avatar. It kinda broke my heart. It’s like being a father and having your kids have kids, and you’re on your deathbed, and their kids have some kids. It’s like you’re getting ready to leave when life is so rich. Age is a crazy thing. It’s kinda scary. Not for me, though. I do kung fu,” he says with a laugh.
Sifu Kisu has already built an incredible legacy of his own, but make no mistake: he’s nowhere near done yet. His focus has simply shifted over the years, taking what he’s learned from his own martial arts journey and passing it along to others as a representative of the Northern Shaolin Kung Fu Association. “I have less and less ego involved in this thing now. Now I’m really interested in the people that I’m teaching and seeing them go through the strata of learning how to own their own space,” he says. “Most people, they don’t want to be a jiu-jitsu champion or a kung fu master. They just want people to leave them alone and stay off of them. They don’t want to get jumped and have their money taken or have their person violated. I get it. I think a lot of that is owning your own mind and being present and knowing where you’re at. Some people don’t look up when they should.”
Though he’s an accomplished instructor, he still strives to achieve perfection in both his own education and the continuation of that knowledge. “I’m part of the first group of non-Chinese practitioners that got to learn the style. There’s racism everywhere we go, and when you learn Chinese kung fu, that creates a little barrier in understanding and connection,” he says. “I would like to think one day I’ll be as good as my teacher. He’s probably one of the best martial artists I’ve ever met. And so as I teach, I’m attempting to pass along what I learned in the most pure fashion that I can muster without adding into it, but more importantly without leaving anything out of it.”
He encourages others — both in martial arts and in the entertainment industry — to strive for this same level of perfection through their practice and instruction, too. “There’s a lot of people out there that are teaching before they’re qualified to teach. Don’t let your ego get in the way. Study, get certified, and then grow your group slowly. Don’t let it turn into just a business for yourself… If you see shows out of Hong Kong — Shaw Brothers stuff, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen (one of my heroes) — they get a chance to approach the art for entertainment way differently than in the U.S. I think there’s a bunch of people who are unqualified who are choreographing fights.”
Although a lot has changed since his time working on the Avatar series, Sifu Kisu still looks back on his time working on the show with pride. “People probably saw me at my best self at that time. I had been practicing, and I was very pure in my practice. There was very little of my ego and a whole lot of my training that made it into the show. I think that people kind of see that authenticity. The episode where the guy gets attacked by the platypus bear [S1, E14, “The Fortuneteller”] and just avoids it with stance work — I think that was one of the coolest things that we got away with,” he says, emphasizing that “finesse” is even more important in brutality when it comes to fighting. “Especially if you’re a young woman and you’re against a big strong man, if you can learn finesse and outmaneuver them with footwork and good technique, that’s real martial arts.”
He heavily acknowledges how his experience with martial arts has shaped not only his career, but his personal development as well. “You can’t cheat yourself in martial arts. You either do the work or you don’t. It’s caused me to meet some very interesting people and travel the world and have opportunities I don’t think I would’ve had the opportunity to have,” he says. “Collaboratively with martial arts, I got involved with certain spiritual practices and a lot of yoga. It started as me wanting to defend myself from mean people to wanting to get in touch with myself and my spirit.”
If you want to see more of Sifu Kisu’s work beyond the original Avatar series, keep your fingers crossed — he’s currently working on a project called Legends of the Sword Society, and although the forthcoming live-action Avatar series is still in the very early stages of development (and has been further stalled due to the pandemic), he’s hoping to be involved with it when the time comes, especially given that the creators of the original series will be the ones working on it. “They’re still working on what a live-action show would look like, which makes me feel good that they didn’t rush it. I’m hoping if they have their way, that I’m involved with it, you’ll see some of what you saw in the original TV series. And we’ve all matured since then — we’ve learned a lot,” he says.
Just as the rest of the “Gaang” made the world a better place through their mastery of themselves and their arts, the impact of Sifu Kisu’s contributions to the series has extended far beyond the realms of the fictional world he helped create. “I remember when the first show came out, in the first couple years, I’d get emails from people in the martial arts community, and they’d say, ‘We don’t know who you are or what you did, but there are children in our tai chi class for the first time ever.’ Stuff like that was better than money.
“I love martial arts, and to have an impact on the martial arts world at large, to have someone make a little dough because of something I did, was kind of flattering. It’s a great fantasy. I mean, who doesn’t want to shoot fire out of their hands? Who doesn’t want to cause a hole to drop under their enemy and see them disappear?” he says. “All those things are really cool things. It’s the cutest thing that there ever was. I’m really proud to have been involved with it.”
You can keep up with Sifu Kisu on Instagram (@lokhopkuen) and Facebook (Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association).