The trailers for Big Hero 6 have been floating around for a while, and I kept seeing it on friends’ Facebook feeds and my Tumblr dashboard. So I finally decided to watch it and see what all the hype was about. Imagine my surprise when I found out about the Asian protagonist—and a lot of racism underneath.
The trailer talks about Hiro Hamada, a young Japanese-American boy growing up in San Fransokyo. He has a robot, Baymax, left to him by his presumed-dead older brother Tadashi, and it isn’t long before Hiro and Baymax are attacked by “a man wearing a kabuki mask” who is controlling a bunch of flying robots with his mind. Hiro, who knows a thing or two about robotics himself, decides to build some robotic suits for him and his friends to take the guy down.
The thing about Big Hero 6 is that the original comics series was about a team of six Japanese superheroes who were based in Japan, and now, the movie is set in “San Fransokyo”, a sort of futuristic San Francisco with some Eastern influence thrown in. In creating the backgrounds, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams specifically set out to combine Eastern (read: Japanese) and Western culture, and we can see many clear references to Japan aside from the Japanese writing on walls and in ads—such as the Tokyo downtown, the Japanese pagodas, and the red Japanese lanterns (chochin). And San Fransokyo makes for a stunning image, to be sure. But having these things without addressing the Japanese culture and history that they come from is, to put it very bluntly, culturally appropriative. Since Big Hero 6 is a futuristic movie, Hall and Williams did a lot o
f research on robots at MIT and CMU, but I have to wonder if they put the same amount of thought and care into any research on actual Japanese culture. If they aren’t careful, this movie will end up like Firefly: a series that also claimed to blend Eastern and Western aesthetics, but the Asian scenery was just there to make things “look exotic” and there were only one or two Asian extras.
Big Hero 6’s one saving grace might be Ryan Potter, the voice actor for Hiro. Potter is half-Japanese and was raised in Tokyo until he was seven, and it looks like Hiro is going to have the same racial background. Of course, now we’ve gone from six Japanese characters to one Japanese character; there is no identifying information for the other visibly Asian character, Go Go Tomago, who is played by the Korean-American actress Jamie Chung (Once Upon A Time’s Mulan). It’s hard to stomach this from a studio like Disney; even more so because a large portion of the internet has been using the “it’s historically accurate” defense for having an all-white cast in Frozen, without doing the same here.
While it’s great that we finally have a Japanese-American lead, the trailer itself seems a little boring. Boy discovers villain, uses own talent to save his hometown/the world. After Tangled, which was about a girl who successfully escaped her abuser, Wreck-It Ralph, which was about a guy learning he was more than his label (and had some excellent female characters to boot), and Frozen, which was about two sisters saving each other, I want and expect more from Disney. That’s why the cultural appropriation issue shouldn’t just be swept aside. Diverse stories are better stories. I hope that Disney enhances their “boy saves world” plotline by further exploring the “we’re all nerds” comment in the trailer and going into racism and bullying; I hope they really talk about the Japanese-American immigration experience, which has its fair share of horror stories; I hope they talk about how Hiro’s background has influenced who he is as a person and don’t just think “look, we got a person who looks Asian on the screen” and wash their hands of the responsibility that comes with such a protagonist
Despite everything, I’m sort of looking forward to the movie—proving that cute robots and meager crumbs of Japanese representation win out—but it’s a cautious sort of excitement. What about you? Will you be seeing it on November 7th?