This week’s Tokyo International Film Festival is hot on animation, featuring screenings of the collected works of Hideaki Anno, creator of the epic franchise, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” and 3-D shorts directed by Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, producer of “Donkey Kong” and “Super Mario Bros.” But the festival’s opening animated film is from America — even if Japan is very much on its mind.
The world premiere of “Big Hero 6” (released in Japan as “Baymax”) from Disney and Marvel Comics took place in Tokyo on Oct. 23. It will open in theaters in the United States on Nov. 7. Last week, as I swung through Los Angeles, where the film was produced and directed, the pre-release buzz was palpable.
The eponymous hero of the film is a “Hiro” — Hiro Hamada, a half-Japanese, half-Caucasian boy genius with a flair for robotics. Hamada and his robot companion, Baymax, fight evil forces who threaten to destroy their home city — an urban hybrid called “San Fransokyo.”
The city is a visual astonishment: meticulously detailed renderings of San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods with Tokyo’s Odaiba Rainbow Bridge spanning its bay and Shibuya skyscrapers hugging the iconic Transamerica Pyramid. Animation critic and historian Charles Solomon notes that the artists had long stays in both cities, where they studied the architecture and skylines to combine them into a single metropolis.
” ‘Big Hero 6’ suggests the Disney animators are offering a more thoughtful response to the challenges presented by Japanese animated action-adventure films,” Solomon says. “It’s not as dark or violent as ‘Akira,’ ‘Ghost in the Shell’ or ‘Evangelion,’ but the artists have raised the stakes for the hero and pumped up the action. ‘Big Hero 6’ preserves the polished animation of American films but combines it with exciting, contemporary filmmaking that rivals the hit live-action fantasies.”
Hiro is voiced by Ryan Potter, who, like his character, is half-Japanese, half-Caucasian — born in Tokyo to an American mother and Japanese father and raised in Japan and the U.S. He even looks like the illustrated character — though that, he tells me, is pure coincidence.
“It was surreal,” Potter explains at his home in Los Angeles. “People say, ‘the character kind of looks like you,’ but when I first walked into the studio, the character was already designed. Even I said, ‘Hey, that kind of looks like me.’ “
Potter grew up with Japanese pop culture, admiring giant robots and the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon. After his mother moved to California, he became immersed in the works of Disney and Marvel Comics. Now 19, he still loves Lego and model kits, and says playing a 14-year-old kid was hardly a stretch.
“Hiro’s just like me. We’re both pretty emotional and wear our hearts on our sleeves. We’re both what you see is what you get. The only real difference is that Hiro is a lot smarter. He’s a genius.”
The film’s predilection for brains over brawn is yet another sign of anime’s growing influence over a new generation of American producers and animators. In addition to its nods to the works of Miyazaki and other anime auteurs, the film features several icons of Japanese culture sprinkled throughout the background scenery.
“You see robot characters in Hiro’s room that closely resemble robots from Gundam or Appleseed or Voltron,” says Potter. “All these different pieces of Japan. You even have the lucky cat with its right paw up (maneki neko). The film is crazy because there are so many Easter eggs of Japanese culture tucked into its world. It’s fun just finding them.”
Part of the pleasure of animation is sensing the sheer joy and freedom experienced by the artists who make it: Miyazaki’s ecstatic renderings of flight, for example, or Kon’s playfully elastic doppelgangers. In “Big Hero 6,” the cross-pollination of American and Japanese cultures takes visual form. One scene shows a historic San Francisco streetcar with its destination posted on the back: the intersection of Market Street and Meiji Dori.
Potter thinks Japanese audiences will love the film, but not just because of its mis-en-scene. The cast is as ethnically diverse as the characters, he points out, which he believes will transcend a purely American audience and help bridge cultures. The Latina character named Honey Lemon is voiced by Venezualan/Cuban-American actress, Genesis Rodriguez. Asian-Americans Daniel Henney and Jamie Chung voice the characters Tadashi Hamada and Go Go Tamago. Another character, voiced by comedian Damon Wayan’s son, Damon Jr., is named Wasabi.
“But what’s great is that they don’t make a big deal of it in the film. It’s not like, ‘Oh, here’s an Asian American character.’ It’s just part of the story, part of the world.”
Japan remains a big part of Potter’s own world. He visits every year and retains powerful memories of his childhood in Yoga, the neighborhood in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward where he was raised until the age of seven. But don’t expect him to speak Japanese at the movie’s press conference.
“I wish I could. I know the Japanese would love to see that, and it was my first language, but I’ve forgotten it. My mom still speaks fluently, though. Maybe she can be my interpreter.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.