As Season 3 of The Legend of Korra opened with Republic City having to contend with the newly opened spirit world, the idea of nature taking back the Earth from humans is a titillating one, especially since the word “sustainability” has been thrown around so often over the past decade that it has nearly lost its meaning. What does it mean to be “sustainable” and where is the line humanity should retreat behind to allow for the natural world to heal and be in balance once again?
Clearly opinions on sustainability and the environment varies from region to region, even city to city, and to go in depth would be beyond the scope of a single article or book; however it is interesting to see what views have been presented in animation, where the natural world seems closely tied to the spirit one. In the Avatar animated series, Aang’s world is closely connected to nature during a simpler time of small human settlements within still a vast world. In the following generation with Korra, cities have sprung up in an industrial age, where a disconnect between man and nature has begun, until that is, Korra opens the divide between the spirit and human worlds.
But this decision leaves many unanswered questions, both in art and in life. How far is anyone going to go to change their way of life for the sake of restoring nature back to health, and would we even recognize what a “healthy” natural world would look like? And how does humanity truly establish a symbiotic relationship with the Earth?
Like the creators of Korra, Hayao Miyazaki defines the natural world as intrinsically infused with magic, where forest spirits and animal gods dwell. Many of his films deal with encounters with the spirit world, and of these a few have an environmentally conscious message, such as his early Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke; even in Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises, where the environment is not directly addressed, the theme of war destroying dreams and what is beautiful in the world is a common thread that Miyazaki has woven into them all.
Whereas Korra addresses the issue with more hope in finding a solution, Miyazaki concludes his career on a bittersweet note with The Wind Rises. Seemingly to mirror the director’s own trajectory, the protagonist Jiro has a dream of building beautiful airplanes for people to enjoy together and is able to make his dream come true through his hard work and diligence; however, instead of enhancing life as he had envisioned, his beautiful planes are used for war, and Jiro is confronted with body counts and casualties instead of the smiles and laughter he had hoped to see. Miyazaki seems to be wondering through this last film whether or not his art, as many accolades and awards as he has received, has had an impact on the greater good after all, the world still being what it is.
Be that as it may, what Miyazaki and Korra creators have nevertheless cultivated the notion that magic is an intrinsic quality to this planet of ours, whose mystery we have not begun to fathom. The choice to humbly take our place in this mystery is still ours to make and, like Korra, breathe spirit back into human and nature alike.