Thursday, December 11, 2014

Disney's Japanamerica, for The New Yorker

Japan and America Meet in “Big Hero 6”


By Roland Kelts

I first heard about Disney’s “Big Hero 6” and its unprecedented hybrid setting—an urban mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo—at this summer’s Anime Expo, North America’s largest annual convention devoted entirely to Japanese pop culture. Amid the throngs of cosplay (costume play), anime, and manga revellers and garishly lit promotional booths, the news of “Big Hero 6,” delivered by a bright-eyed and green-wigged young companion, didn’t sound promising. I pictured a crudely expanded version of San Francisco’s existing Chinatown, with maybe a few additional sushi counters and one or two Pikachu or Totoro dolls cluttering the background.

Instead, the movie’s metropolitan portmanteau is a marvel of architectural alchemy. Shibuya skyscrapers with pulsing video screens hug San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Victorian Mission duplexes line hilly San Fransokyo neighborhoods, aglow from the pink-white light of Japanese cherry blossoms in full bloom below. Trains from the Yamanote and Chuo lines, two of Tokyo’s central and most popular railways, stream by on elevated tracks. The sprawling Yokohama Bay Bridge connects the financial district to San Francisco’s East Bay, which may well be home to Oaksaka and Berkyoto in this Japanamerican universe.


Since the end of the Second World War, American and Japanese popular culture has been cross-pollinating, sharing and sometimes stealing ideas. It hasn’t always been honorable. Disney’s “Bambi” was beloved by Osamu Tezuka, the seminal Japanese cartoonist, known as “the god of manga,” who drew, published, and sold his own illustrated version of the story in the nineteen-fifties. But Disney was later accused of plagiarizing Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion” for its multi-media franchise hit “The Lion King.” (Tezuka Productions never sued, and Disney never formally admitted wrongdoing.)

More recently, the Pixar honcho and animation auteur John Lasseter has been a longtime champion and friend of Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-award winning director of 2003’s “Spirited Away” and the now-consecrated children’s classic “My Neighbor Totoro.” Last weekend in Los Angeles, Lasseter bestowed upon Miyazaki an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, proclaiming that only Miyazaki and Disney could be called the greatest animators in world history.

A stuffed Totoro makes a cameo in Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” and there have been a few forgettable Hollywood remakes of popular anime titles like Tezuka’s “Astro Boy” and “Dragonball Z.” Live-action directors such as Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky have borrowed concepts and entire scenes from the works of the late anime auteur Satoshi Kon. But the open embrace of Japan and its cultural iconography, both pop and traditional, distinguishes “Big Hero 6” from any other major Hollywood release.

Ryan Potter, the actor who provides the voice of the film’s protagonist, told me that “there are so many Easter eggs of Japanese culture tucked into the world” of “Big Hero 6.” Potter, who is half-Japanese and half-Caucasian, was born and raised in Tokyo by his American mother, who moved him to California when he was seven. Now nineteen, he recalls being immersed in the animated films of Miyazaki and Kon, and counts manga and anime series such as “One Piece,” “Akira,” and “Inuyasha” among his favorites. In the movie, Potter plays Hiro Hamada, a fourteen-year-old boy who, like Potter, is Japanese-American. (As am I, and I was startled to see my ethnic mix so specifically rendered in a main character.)


At his first audition for the film, Potter told me, Don Hall, the co-director, “almost gave me a Japanese pop-culture test.” Potter continued: “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.”

Daniel Henney, a Korean-American actor, plays Hiro’s brother, Tadashi. The Venezuelen-Cuban-American actress Genesis Rodriquez provides the voice of Latina Honey Lemon, and the Asian-American actress Jamie Chung is the voice of Go Go Tamago. The earnest, broad-shouldered African-American character, nicknamed Wasabi, is played by Damon Wayans, Jr., the son of the comedian Damon Wayans. “But what’s great is that they don’t make a big deal of it in the film,” Potter said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s the Asian-American character, and here’s the Latina.’ It’s just part of the story, part of the world.”

This blend of ethnicities has become a hallmark of recent Disney and Pixar releases, from “Pocahontas” and “Mulan” to “Lilo and Stitch.” Cynics will cite Hollywood’s need to conquer more diverse domestic and global markets. But as the animation critic and historian Charles Solomon points out, portraying explicitly non-white characters can be risky for animators. “Designing ‘ethnic’ characters poses special challenges,” he told me. “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?”

Perhaps that’s why the character that gives “Big Hero 6” its elegiac heart belongs to no ethnic group: a roly-poly health-care-companion robot named Baymax. (That’s also the film’s title in Japan, where it will be released next month). Baymax is a big, squeaky balloon, given to gaseous leaks, rubbery fart-like noises, and perpetual awkwardness and befuddlement. He has a flat-line mouth and stares blankly through two black, expressionless orbs. His sole goal is to help his charge—the spastic, pre-pubescent Hiro—which makes his helplessness all the more piercing. He’s a wonder of medical technology, but lacks the agility to pick up a soccer ball or navigate a bedroom without disrupting a stack of books.


In the United States and Japan, two countries facing fast-graying populations, the pillow-soft Baymax feels like the right robot for the times. His most common refrain is a query that can be found on the walls of health-care facilities worldwide: “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your pain?” Baymax’s question is accompanied by a display on his chest of the pain scale showing smiley faces deteriorating into tearful ones. But his own minimalist, Hello Kitty-like features were inspired by an ancient Japanese bell that Don Hall saw during a visit to a Shinto shrine.

In “Big Hero 6,” such authentic details add up to a portrait of two onscreen cultures sharing the same world, undiluted by their affinities, tethered by mutual respect. While the script contains many of Disney’s boilerplate action-adventure pyrotechnics (including a villain of unconvincing motives in a Kabuki-inspired mask), and viewers will likely wince at some of the throwaway jokes, the movie’s characters and mise-en-scene mark a genuine break from the past. The American entertainment industry is honoring one of its chief transcultural roots and trusting that its audience has come a long way, too.

(Photographs courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett)

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.

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