Benjamin Ryu and Simon Yu

Appa is the name of the giant flying sky bison from the popular American animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show is set in a world where some people are able to manipulate, or "bend," the natural elements of water, earth, fire, and air. Each element is tied to its own nation: the Southern and Northern Water Tribes, the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, and the Air Temples “are based on Inuit, Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan cultures respectively.”[1] The cartoon seemingly appropriates various Asian cultural practices, including architecture, religious iconography, costumes, calligraphy, and other aesthetic elements, while Avatar’s live action version sparked particular controversy with the whitewashing of its cast.[2] Avatar’s story is centered around the last airbender, Aang, and his journey to fulfill his role as the avatar of mastering the four elements and restoring peace to the world. As part of the Air nomad’s culture, air benders who are coming of age are paired with sky bison pups and form a lifelong bond with their animal companions. Aang was introduced to Appa through this very tradition (see Figure 1). Appa’s interactions with Aang and the other characters have captured the hearts of many viewers through his cute design and behavior, which draw from both kawaii aesthetics and anime inspirations.

Figure 1. Appa as he appears in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Appa’s design is based on a combination of a bison and a manatee: his nose and horns resemble those of a buffalo’s, and his round body and tail resemble a manatee’s.[2] He also takes inspiration from the Catbus from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro; the show’s creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, have stated that Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke were significant inspirations for Avatar.[4] Similar to Catbus, Appa is fluffy, pettable, capable of transporting others, and generally portrayed as a lovable flying animal (see Figures 2a and 2b).[5] This is aesthetically important since, as Sianne Ngai notes, the idea of cuteness as an aesthetic “depends on a softness that invites physical touching — or, to use a more provocative verb, fondling.”[6] Moreover, Appa has a large, round, and chibi-like head relative to the rest of his body. Although his large size may seem to detract from his cuteness, his largeness is balanced by his vulnerability and role in the show.

Besides serving as the main character’s mode of transportation, Appa exhibits a deep sense of connection and loyalty to Aang and is highly trusting toward humans. However, in the episode “Appa’s Lost Days,” Appa is kidnapped and mistreated by many firebenders, transforming his love and trust into fear. During his mission to reunite with Aang, Appa develops a fear of fire. This vulnerability evokes a sense of helplessness and pitifulness, qualities often associated with cuteness.[7] By incorporating Appa’s vulnerabilities, the episode shows viewers Appa’s softer and more innocent side in contrast to the reliable and steadfast sky bison normally presented in the show. Throughout the episode, Appa is faced with much adversity and must fend for himself, making apparent his emotional dependence on Aang. Their deep bond is endearing and exemplifies a mutual relationship, with Appa being a reliable sky bison as well as depending on Aang for support. Such reciprocal tenderness lends the episode an overall feeling of cuteness.

Figure 2a.  A comparison of Appa’s and Catbus’ character designs (Appa).
Figure 2b.  A comparison of Appa’s and Catbus’ character designs (Catbus).

Furthermore, it is important to note Appa’s cautious connection to anthropomorphism, a quality central to cuteness.[8] In depicting Appa, the show strikes a delicate balance between social intelligence and silliness to enhance Appa’s kawaii appeal. Bison and manatees are not typical pets, yet Appa takes on a pet-like role. However, Appa is also a reliable and intelligent companion. Throughout the show, he is shown to act silly or like an impulsive “pet sky bison,” yet is also shown to be smart and a crucial member of the team. This divergence in behavior allows him to be viewed as a companion and a cute pet, appealing to viewers’ emotions through cuteness (see Figure 3). Additionally, Appa does not communicate via human language, as this would disturb the “incompleteness of the cute visage [that] implies that… the object must be given just enough face to enable it to return our gaze.”[9] Nevertheless, he is shown to understand human speech and be extremely capable. The show even allows its audience to have a first-person perspective of Appa in “Appa’s Lost Days,” leading to the audience better empathizing and sympathizing with him. In one encounter, Appa stands on two legs like a human and throws an enemy in defense. Such diverse moments permit Appa to fit well into his supportive role, echoing anthropomorphism’s allowing companion animals to provide nonhuman social support. 

Figure 3. Young Aang feeding young Appa an apple.

Outside of the show, Appa’s cuteness serves as a marketable aspect to promote the show itself. This connection between animals and capitalism is not new and has been observed even before the invention of film and photography.[10] Appa plush toys and stickers are common among the Avatar fan base, with cute cartoon renditions that show a rounder, chibi, and simplified design. These products generate cute-emotion responses and appeal to younger and adolescent audiences while increasing the show's popularity among the Asian American population through cultural resonance.[11] While Appa’s origins draw from Buddhist and East Asian influences, his appearance steers away from any particular cultural fragrance and is more neutral and culturally odorless. This neutrality can be attributed to the concept of mukokuseki, which refers to the erasure of racial and ethnic characteristics.[12] Mukokuseki allows for a more global attraction especially for an American audience by removing the cultural nuances or potentially stronger “odors” that may prevent the audience from favoring Appa, even as East Asian cultures are central to the show.

Appa’s overall cuteness is derived from his appearance, behavior, relationships, and anthropomorphism. His design utilizes many cute elements in his appearance as well as the loyalty and bonds portrayed between Appa and Aang. The mukokuseki aspect of Appa’s design also allows for increased popularity and thus carries high commercial potential for the show. In any case, the design and lore behind Appa clearly draws upon specific cute characteristics to captivate viewers and establish Appa as a cute and memorable character.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Peter Wood, “Reframing Sympathy for Indigenous Captives in Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Undergraduate Review 14 (2018): 176,

[2] Lori Kido Lopez, “Fan activists and the politics of race in The Last Airbender,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 5 (2012): 431–45.

[3] Caroline Fox, “Avatar: Why Appa Has Six Legs in Last Airbender,” ScreenRant, November 12, 2020,

[4] Eduardo Vasconcellos. “Interview: Avatar's Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino,” IGN, May 14, 2012,

[5] Fox, “Avatar.”

[6] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 815.

[7] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 816.

[8] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 815.

[9] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 833.

[10] Allison Page, “‘This Baby Sloth Will Inspire You to Keep Going’: Capital, Labor, and the Affective Power of Cute Animal Videos,” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale et al. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 78.

[11] Ralf C. Buckley, “AWW: The Emotion of Perceiving Cuteness,” Frontiers, October 24, 2016,

[12] Koichi Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ Is Pokémon?”, in Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, ed. Joseph Tobin (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 58.