Big Hero 6: A Wonderful Blend of Two Countries
The title didn’t provide much info, and the trailers simply emphasized the big, huggable robot, Baymax, preparing to fight a masked villain alongside a seemingly rag-tag group of kids. Not being that big on superhero films, I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I went to the cinema, but I came out quite impressed. The top box office position in its opening weekend, with earnings of $56 million, was very well deserved.
Inspired by the Marvel comic of the same name, “Big Hero 6” is an action/mystery film involving “Iron Man”-esque protagonists fighting a classic villain with an unknown identity and unknown agenda. The film opens with a young boy, Hiro Hamada, who seems to be a naïve and inexperienced robot maker, who faces a menacing opponent in an illegal robot fight. This opponent (as well as the audience) quickly learns a lesson on not judging a book by its cover. As the balance of power in the robot fight quickly shifts, and Hiro’s robot defeats its opponent with incredible ease, we see that Hiro is actually a robotics genius.
Early on in the film, Hiro’s caring and reliable older brother, Tadashi Hamada, dies in an explosion at his university. After months have passed since the funeral, Hiro finds Tadashi’s life work, Baymax. Baymax is a robot healthcare companion who attempts to heal Hiro of his depression. Hiro doesn’t give Baymax much thought or attention until he meets the villain who may be responsible for Tadashi’s death. Hiro and Tadashi’s university friends decide to upgrade Baymax with gadgets of his own creation in order to fight this masked villain. As the film progresses, we see everything from mystery-solving through spectacular fictional technology, to heart-breaking scenes that look into the human condition when dealing with the sudden and tragic death of a loved one. As with any other Disney film, this one is riddled with easter eggs and nods to Pixar, Marvel, and even Walt Disney himself.
The brilliant plot line, character development, and computer animation aside, what really impressed me was the beautiful way in which Disney blended together the Japanese and American cultures. These two cultures are quite distinct from each other, but this film seamlessly blended them as one. At no point in the film was there a cultural clash that distracted the audience from the story telling.
The film is set in the fictional city of “San Fransokyo” which, as you might guess, is an amalgamation of San Francisco and Tokyo. Being a Japanese-American man who has juggled both cultures and languages throughout his life, San Fransokyo felt like home to me. From a bird’s eye view, San Fransokyo is a San Franisco-like bay city complete with a structure that heavily resembles the Golden Gate Bridge. However, when you get down to the street level, you see the distinctly Japanese influenced architecture interspersed with cherry blossoms in full bloom. Japanese shop signs that look like they were taken directly from Tokyo fill the scenery, making me think at times that this is a Japanese film dubbed in English. All of this is seamlessly integrated with the steep hills of San Francisco, the iconic trolley cars, and the distinctly American style campus of “The San Fransokyo Institute of Technology.” Almost everything we see has a distinct Japanese flair; San Francisco trolley cars with Japanese lanterns, American style police officers riding Japanese style police cars, and iconic San Francisco apartment buildings with Japanese ceramic roof tiles.
Disney, as evident from its ABC sitcom “Selfie” whose protagonist is John Cho, has recently been doing a wonderful job of bringing in a new area of ethnic diversity into mainstream entertainment media: central Asian characters. The central character of the film (alongside the huggable robot Baymax) is Hiro Hamada, a 14 year old robotics genius who wants to avenge the death of his older brother, Tadashi Hamada. Needless to say, these character names (aside from “Baymax”) are quite typical Japanese names that would not sound out of place in Tokyo today. Their names aren’t the only things that are authentically Japanese. Hiro and Tadashi’s bedroom is divided by a Japanese folding screen, and Hiro’s side of the room is filled with posters and models of Gundam-like characters. Black and white family photos that line the stairs show Hiro’s family members in typical 1950s Japanese kimonos, and their cat is named “Mochi.” Elsewhere in their house, you can spot Japanese Kokeshi dolls as well as a Japanese Lucky Cat (“Maneki-neko”) at the entrance of the Lucky Cat Café run by Hiro and Tadashi’s aunt, Cass. Having grown up in a Japanese household in the US myself, all of these authentically Japanese components made the film highly relatable.
The last time Disney had a major motion picture with an Asian main character was “Mulan” in 1998, and this is the first time Disney has created a major feature length film with an Asian main character in a racially diverse setting. I applaud Disney for continuing its trend of bringing more ethnic diversity into the world of mainstream entertainment media. As I would say to Baymax, “I am satisfied with my care (read: the film).”