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Blending Cultures
Futuristic film explores complex racial themes and emotions

By Roland Kelts
Photos Courtesy of Disney

Disney’s Christmas gift for Japan is already wrapped—and has been at least partially delivered. Big Hero 6 (titled Baymax in Japan), Disney’s newest big-budget animated feature, had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival on October 23.

When it opened in the United States on November 7, it took the top spot at the weekend box office, earning $56.2 million and an 89 percent average critics’ rating on the movie review site It will open across Japan on December 20.

Superficially, the film is an archetypal action-adventure yarn, with an unlikely team of heroes banding together to save the world from a vengeful villain. But a closer look reveals a rich mix of media and cultural sources.

The story is adapted from a short-lived comic book series of the same name published in the 1990s by Marvel, the American comics giant acquired by Disney in 2009.

The principal characters are a Benetton-like blend of ethnicities, featuring a Latin-American, an African-American, two Asian-Americans, and a Caucasian hippy—all of whom are obsessed by the possibilities of science and technology.

But distinguishing it from other recent Disney blockbusters is the illustrated metropolitan fusion of the film’s setting: the hybrid city of San Fransokyo. The Tokyo world premiere, say directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, was no accident.

Hall said the original comic was set entirely in Tokyo and calls it “a love letter to Japanese culture.”

“Inspired by Japan and our desire to create a new, unique world for the film,” he said, “we set out to create a mash-up of two of our favorite cities: San Francisco and Tokyo.”

Hybrid setting
The city is a marvel of architectural alchemy.

Shibuya skyscrapers with coursing video screens hug San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Victorian-style row houses line hilly San Fransokyo neighborhoods, swathed in the pink-white light of Japanese cherry blossoms in full bloom. The sprawling Yokohama Bay Bridge connects the city to the East Bay, which may well be home to Oaksaka and Berkyoto in this Japanamerican universe.

“There are so many Easter eggs of Japanese culture tucked into [the film’s] world,” said Ryan Potter, the actor who provides the voice of its lead character. “It’s fun just finding them.”

Potter would know. Half-Japanese, half-Caucasian, he was born in Tokyo, where he was raised by his American mother, who moved with him to California when he was seven years old.

Now 19, Potter fondly recalls being immersed in the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, and he easily reels off a list of favorite manga and anime series, such as One Piece, Akira, and Inuyasha.

“I remember my neighborhood [Yoga, in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward] very well,” he said. “Walking in the massive park, the trains, the food. Especially the food. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.”

Potter’s casting as the film’s protagonist was also no accident. He plays 14-year-old Hiro Hamada who, like Potter, is a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian American. Hiro lives in a second-floor San Fransokyo apartment with his Aunt Cass.

At his first audition for the film, director Hall gave Potter what amounted to an interrogation of his Japanese fanboy chops.

BIG HERO 6“They were looking for someone to play Hiro for quite a while,” Potter said. “When my name was brought up, Don almost gave me a Japanese pop culture test.

Did I know about the comic books? How many anime shows had I seen? What action figures did I collect? I was able to unload all my Japanese pop culture knowledge on him.

And finally they were like, ‘Oh yeah, this is our kid.’ I never thought my knowledge of Dragonball Z and Yugioh would be a factor in an audition.”

Diversity concerns
Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, is played by half-Korean American actor Daniel Henney; Latina Honey Lemon is voiced by Venezuelan/Cuban-American actress Genesis Rodriguez, and Asian-American Jamie Chung is the voice of Go Go Tamago. The earnest, broad-shouldered African-American character, nicknamed Wasabi, is played by comedian Damon Wayan’s son, Damon Jr.

“In recent years, Disney/Pixar has created animated films with more diverse casts,” noted animation critic and historian Charles Solomon, citing the films Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, Up, and Pocahontas.

But, he added, “designing ‘ethnic’ characters poses special challenges. How do you suggest Asian or African-American facial features without sliding into the stereotypes that have been used in unflattering portrayals in the past?

The designs for Hiro and Tadashi reflect the characters’ Japanese heritage in the shape of the eyes and the angle of the cheekbones. But they’re light years away from the buck-toothed, slant-eyed figures in American World War II cartoons.”

The surge of multi-ethnic casting in mainstream animation, and the audience’s embrace of that diversity, may make the medium more progressive and relevant than its live-action cousin.

“The success of films like Big Hero 6 and Up shows that audiences will accept non-white characters at the center of an animated story. Disney recently announced plans for Moana, a feature set in Polynesia, and Pixar is developing a film evoking Mexican Day of the Dead imagery.

Given the relatively small number of animated films produced each year, animation is probably ahead of the live action side of Hollywood in the inclusion of non-white characters,” Solomon added.

Yet the character that gives Big Hero 6 its emotional heart is an ethnic blank slate: the healthcare companion robot Baymax, whose minimalist, Hello Kitty-like features emanate from a more historical Japanese source.

While the directors were conducting research in Japan, “Don visited a [Shinto shrine] and saw a Japanese bell [suzu], which had an opening at the bottom that looked like two circles with a line between,” explained fellow director Williams. “That became the inspiration for Baymax’s face.”

The directors’ respect for Japanese culture, both pop and traditional, has not gone unnoticed.

At the November press screening at Tokyo Disneyland, the largely Japanese audience erupted in applause as the credits scrolled, with some viewers lingering in the lobby and comparing notes afterward.

Like many of its Japanese anime influences, the film boldly explores the nature of loss and remorse; more than a few cheeks and tissues were moistened during some of its most heartbreaking moments.

“We very deliberately held our world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival,” said Hall, “and based on early reactions from the Japanese press, they felt it was very authentic. We were extremely humbled and grateful to hear that.”

Williams agreed. “When we were in Tokyo for the world premiere, it was so gratifying that the details the team put into the film were recognized and complimented. In animation, every detail matters.”


Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.

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