Why This Iroh Scene in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Is Sadder Than You Remember

Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of those masterfully crafted shows that withstands the test of time. After teaching valuable lessons to fans during the aughts, the show has returned in its entirety thanks to Netflix. Now, as fans revisit one of their favorite shows, or perhaps introduce it to a new generation of young would-be benders, they’re realizing that many of the scenes in the show are more emotionally stirring than they remembered. One such scene features Uncle Iroh paying respects to his deceased son, Lu Ten. However, there’s something special that makes this scene extra poignant, and it’s all about Iroh’s voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu. 

Uncle Iroh’s moment under the tree at Ba Sing Se

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Avatar: The Last Airbender fans can all agree on one thing — Uncle Iroh is the best. The sage general helped guide Prince Zuko on his journey of self-discovery, offering priceless advice to his nephew and viewers alike. 

However, Iroh wasn’t always an avuncular guide. He used to be a renowned general and firebending master. And while he’s still an expert bender, his passion for warfare and leadership are long gone. 

Iroh lost his son, Lu Ten, during his six-hundred-day siege of Ba Sing Se. Lu Ten’s death eliminated Iroh’s desire to break the city. Iroh abandoned his siege, and his place as future Fire Lord. 

Later, viewers see Iroh visiting a tree outside of Ba Sing Se proper. Iroh brings a few offerings as well as a portrait of his son, and prepares a small service for Lu Ten. During this he sings “Leaves From The Vine” and sheds tears over his son’s grave.  

Why this ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ scene is extra sad

'Avatar: The Last Airbender' pays tribute to Mako Iwamatsu and Uncle Iroh
‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ pays tribute to Mako Iwamatsu | Avatar: The Last Airbender via YouTube

Iroh’s scene under the tree is already poignant. Iroh has always acted as a life-embracing guide for Zuko, and viewers were used to seeing him from this perspective. When Iroh teared up at Lu Ten’s grave, it was a reminder that he has overcome vast emotional troubles of his own. 

There’s more to the scene, however. As it ends, it shifts to a silhouette of Iroh under the tree. The screen reads, “In honor of Mako.” During the time this episode was filmed, Mako Iwamatsu was dealing with esophageal cancer. Iroh’s scene under the tree was the last scene Mako was able to film with Nickelodeon prior to his death. 

The fact that Mako wanted to continue filming until he was no longer able shows his love for the series and his dedication to Iroh as a character. This fact alone is enough to send many fans running for the nearest box of tissues. However, there may be even more to the story.

Is Lu Ten’s portrait actually Mako Iwamatsu?

As if it wasn’t enough to have Mako venerating his character’s lost son, singing a song about loss and death at the end-stage of his own life, it turns out the portrait of Lu Ten may have significance as well. 

Many fans have put forth a rumor that the portrait of Lu Ten is actually a self-portrait Mako drew of himself as a young man. On the Avatar: The Last Airbender wiki, one user writes, “I’ve seen numerous people say Lu Ten is drawn to resemble a young Mako Iwamatsu. Does anyone know where that comes from? Is it true?”

On a Reddit thread in the Avatar: The Last Airbender sub, one user asked, “We’ve all seen the portrait of Iroh’s son, Lu Ten, but is there any real-life significance or connection of the portrait to Mako’s life? Is it based on someone real? I’ve always found the portrait seemed to look like a picture of a real-life person, and the face to be out-of-place when compared to the faces of the other characters.”

A user replied, “I believe Mako drew it when he was younger as a self-portrait.”

There are similar comments and replies across various YouTube videos and Reddit posts, among other platforms. While the rumor has not been confirmed, it would be a touching tribute from Nickelodeon in addition to the rest of the scene.