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Hayao Miyazaki’s Influence on the World of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

Hayao Miyazaki’s Influence on the World of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

One of the first articles I wrote for GIC back in 2013 was about Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. After that article, I’m still a fan of that movie and Miyazaki’s other work.  Since becoming more familiar with his style and themes, I’ve noticed his influence not just in other anime shows or films, but also in Western media too.

Glen Keane, Pixar’s John Lasseter and Pete Doctor are only some of many creators who have been influenced one way or another.   In my personal opinion, the strongest influence he had was on Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino, the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series, Legend of Korra.

Throughout his career, Miyazaki has stated that he disliked creating wholly “good” and “bad” characters.  He believed in creating characters that had a mix of good and bad qualities.  He treated his antagonists no different.  Avatar and Korra definitely gave their characters a range of traits.

I feel that Prince Zuko is the embodiment of Miyazaki’s belief.  In the start of the series, he’s the main antagonist whose mission is to capture Aang.  However, the series showed viewers he wasn’t a standard “bad guy”.  The first season explained his motive for capturing Aang: to restore his honor and have his father’s respect after his father burned his eye in an Agni Kai.  The love and respect he had for his uncle also showed that he wasn’t looking out for only himself.  And by the end of the series, Zuko saw the error of his nation’s ways and joined Aang to defeat his father.

Films like Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle make it easy to see that Miyazaki has a strong stance against war.  The U.S’s involvement in Iraq is the reason Miyazaki didn’t attend the Oscars when Spirited Away won for best animated feature in 2003.  That anti-war stance is also reflected in Avatar, which shows the consequences of war on those who do and don’t participate.  The origins of the Hundred Year War started when Fire Lord Sozin, during (his friend) Avatar Roku’s time, wanted to “share” the Fire Nation’s prosperity to the rest of the world.  After allowing Roku to die in a volcanic eruption, he continued his campaign.  His greed and hunger for power led to his genocide of the Air Nomads and later resulted in other causalities, including Katara’s mother, Kya, and Uncle Iroh’s son, Lu Ten.

This theme continues in Korra where we see conflicts throughout the series leading to huge consequences.  Book 2 featured Korra’s Uncle Unalaq attempting to colonize Korra’s homeland, the independent Southern Water Tribe.  Later in the season, he fuses with the dark spirit Vaatu and defeats Korra by removing the light spirit Raava from her.  With that move, he permanently disconnected Korra from the past avatars. Although she was able to re-fuse with Raava, Korra could never ask for advice from her past reincarnations.

Since the beginning of his career, Miyazaki featured a diverse range of female characters in his films.  From Nausicaa to The Wind Rises’ Nahoko, these characters held their own and had distinctive personalities. Throughout his career, Miyazaki has given his fans wonderful female characters including fierce warrior San (Mononoke), shy and determined Sophie (Howl), bubbly Ponyo, and career driven witch Kiki.

It’s really nice to see that Avatar and Korra used his author appeal. Two of Avatar’s prominent female characters were Katara and Toph Beifong. It’s fun to watch their dynamic in Books 2 and 3.  While she had her moments, Katara was the team mom of the group and became Aang’s waterbending teacher as well as later love interest.  Toph, on the other hand, was brash and on occasion made jokes about her own blindness.

Book 2 also introduced Princess Azula as the Gaang’s (and Zuko’s) antagonist.  The favorite of she and Zuko’s father, Azula not only sought Aang, but also Zuko and Uncle Iroh, who were seen as traitors to the Fire Nation.  With her supreme firebending skills and manipulative personality, she was a great foil to the protagonists.

Luckily, Korra also had a distinctive female cast.  For starters there’s the titular character, who’s definitely the San of the Avatar universe. Korra’s a nice contrast to Aang because while she’s shown learning greater understanding and compassion for others, she’s also headstrong and had issues controlling her anger early in the series.  The cast also included savvy engineer-businesswoman (and future Mrs. Korra) Asami Sato, Aang’s granddaughter and airbending master Jinora, Toph’s daughter and Republic City Police Chief Lin Beifong, and many others.

In Konietzko’s post where he confirmed Korra and Asami’s romantic relationship, he referenced this quote by Miyazaki:

“I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live – if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.”

While most of Avatar’s and Korra’s protagonists do end up in a romance, the couples do influence each other in one way or another.

Out of all the canon couples from both series, Aang and Katara’s and Korra and Asami’s relationships feel most like a Miyazaki couple.  Both couples build their relationships by supporting one another and developing a deep respect for each other.  As a result of their growing relationships, Katara and Asami can tell when Aang and Katara are bothered about something. Both allow their respected partners to confide in them when they’re feeling doubt.

I’m not the only one that felt a deep sadness when Miyazaki stated in 2013 that he was going to retire. Under the “Beginnings Part 1 and 2” tab of Korra’s Heartwarming page, TvTropes has this as the last bullet point: “The Shout-Out and allusions to Hayao Miyazaki’s works, such as Spirited Away and Mononoke, ensures that American fans like Bryke will preserve Hayao’s legacy. Especially meaningful in the wake of Hayao’s retirement in feature films.”  There’s no doubt that Miyazaki’s filmography, as well as the Avatar series, will inspire many for years to come.

Janelle Smith is a TV & Film Writer at Girls in Capes.  She recently graduated from the Ohio State University with a degree in film studies.

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Janelle Smith
TV & Film Writer at Girls in Capes
Janelle Smith is a TV & Film Writer at Girls in Capes and covers in films from the U.S. and Japan. She recently graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in film studies.
Janelle Smith
Written by Janelle Smith

Janelle Smith is a TV & Film Writer at Girls in Capes and covers in films from the U.S. and Japan. She recently graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in film studies.