Film

Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’ reassembles Japan without the ‘cultural cringe’

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

So we’ve all heard that it’s hard to be a woman in Japan, but being a Japanese geek comes with its own troubles. For some, it’s a life lived in front of glowing screens, a dateless existence spent in a six-mat tatami room with posters of idol group AKB48 plastered on the walls. But here’s Disney’s “Big Hero 6” (released in Japan as “Baymax”), a Christmas animation extravaganza that elevates the Japanese geek to superhero status. And he’s cute, too.

This is the first Disney animation feature in which the stars have Japanese names: 14-year-old genius Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his older tech-wizard brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). The boys’ parents died, and they are being brought up by their exuberant Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Interestingly, Hiro comes off as a cross between a typical Tokyo chūbō (a slang term for junior high school kids) and a young Lionel Messi, while Tadashi fits the normal Hollywood bill of a polite young Japanese male. Despite their names, the brothers only speak English and there’s nothing in their surroundings to suggest a penchant for samurai or idols — they are, however, obsessed with robots. Aunt Cass, who runs a cafe and seems to have at least three different nationalities coursing through her veins, never serves Japanese food to her nephews, just ribs. Ribs every time.

And yet, “Big Hero 6” gets Japan, much more than, say, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” For perhaps the first time in Hollywood history, the Japanese depicted here are not wearing glasses, they’re not short limbed and they don’t have an accent. The story, after all, isn’t about Japan but about how humanity can take themselves to the next level and beyond through robotic technology. Tadashi invents and programs “Baymax” — a healthcare robot whose sole function is to help and heal humans. In real life, Japan is one of the forerunners of robotics and prosthetics technology, largely deployed in medicine and nursing. In the movie, Baymax is serene, soft-spoken and polite; an inflatable, XXL softie who resembles a sumo wrestler and is an excellent caretaker.

“The whole movie is not just a tribute to Japan, but a love letter to the Pacific Rim,” Roy Conli, producer of “Big Hero 6” tells The Japan Times.

The film is set in a fictional city called “San Fransokyo” — a bright, sunny amalgam of Tokyo and San Francisco. Disney’s production team kept many of San Francisco’s familiar landmarks (such as the Embarcadero and Coit Tower), but close-ups of the streets recall Tokyo’s Shimbashi, Kanda and Ueno districts. The characters are multicultural and multinational, bonded by a common love for robotics, technology and adventure.

“Hayao Miyazaki’s works provided the unofficial inspiration for this,” says Conli. “The animation you see here is distinctly Disney but there’s a gentleness of spirit that’s very much Japanese, and very Miyazaki. Baymax could remind you of ‘Totoro,’ or one of the gods in ‘Spirited Away.’ And he could also be a sumo wrestler. I’m always impressed by how their gentleness and subtlety comes through, even during the bouts.”

Conli adds that he has heard people criticize Disney for “taking a culture and twisting it to suit the movie’s requirements.” He acknowledges that there’s “some truth to that.”

“In the past, I would look at some of the movies I had worked on, and then cringe. But I think that with ‘Big Hero 6,’ we managed to get it right, because we weren’t aiming for the Japanese effect, per se. We simply took the essence of what Japan meant to the rest of the world — concepts like peace and Zen and technology — and combined all those things into the story. We also wanted to make a superhero story that wasn’t about weapons or violence. The greatest superpower is your intelligence, and I think that’s a viable message in a family movie.”

For all the family-movie aesthetics, “Big Hero 6” is actually based on a comic book by Marvel Comics, which means there’s plenty of potential for dark matter. That probably accounts for some atypical scary and adult moments that upset the balance of the story, such as the opening sequence in which Hiro shows himself as a bit of a gambling addict as he takes part in various underground “robot fights” held in back-alley spaces, and then pockets his winnings. Or the masked villain figure commanding a gazillion tiny bolts to gather together into the figure of a monster that wreaks havoc on San Fransokyo.

“Overall, though, the movie has quite a different tone from the comic,” says Conli. “In Japan, it opens during Christmas season, and we wanted to keep that in mind during production.”

The Disney team that worked on “Big Hero 6” is the same that created “Frozen,” which was a worldwide megahit. In Japan, Anna and Elsa still haven’t made their exits from media outlets and events — for all their visibility, they could have been this year’s Christmas characters instead of Baymax.

“You have to admit, it’s a tough act to follow,” says Conli. “But I think that this year, boys should get their own role models and their own story of friendship and empowerment.”

It’s a bit of subversive fun that Hiro’s empowerment happens because of a robot. “In Western cultures, robots are looked upon as evil, apocalyptic figures,” says Conli. “Western cinema has banked on the fear of robots taking over the world. But in Eastern cultures, robots are helpmates and for Hiro, Baymax is a surrogate father figure and best friend. We’ve done something new here, and most important of all, I’m not cringing!”