“My programming prevents me from injuring a human being.”
In 2014, Disney released Big Hero 6, an animated science fiction film loosely based on a series of Marvel comics by the same name. Set in San Fransokyo, a fictionalized combination of San Francisco and Tokyo, the movie centers on brothers Hiro and Tadashi, who are local engineering prodigies. Protagonist and younger brother Hiro builds small battle bots in his spare time, entering them in underground bot fights. Elder brother Tadashi uses his talent for more altruistic means, creating an inflatable robot named Baymax, designed to provide medical assistance.
The film is littered with typical sci-fi visuals, from mech robots to neon lights and flashy fight choreography. It’s a vibrant and colorful story, and provides all the typical big budget enjoyment audiences have come to expect from an animated Disney film. What sets it apart is the fact that our leads are Asian-American, and the resulting narrative elements are subtly woven into the story in a wonderful and non-intrusive way. Themes of familial bonds and living up to the expectations your family has bestowed upon you are stories that many Asian American youth can identify with, and are thus important stories to tell, especially given the ways in which science fiction has historically ignored Asian narratives.
Science fiction as a genre of film and television has always borrowed heavily from East Asian culture. Arguably one of the most iconic modern science fiction films, Blade Runner falls victim to this dilemma. The opening sequence shows Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard eating ramen before navigating his flying car past a now iconic digital billboard of a geisha. Outside of the replicant's eye designer and a handful of background extras, it’s a film nearly devoid of Asian characters; a fact that rings odd given the level of influence Asian cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong appear to have had on the city’s design. However, Blade Runner is far from the only offender of this cinematic trapping.
It isn’t treading new ground to claim that the 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell fell flat where the original manga and subsequent 1995 animated film succeeded. Set in Japan in 2029 where mankind has reached technological enlightenment, gaining the ability to augment their bodies, it asks a very similar question to that introduced in Blade Runner – what does it mean to be human? It’s here that an important distinction needs to be made: being set in Japan isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for having a Japanese cast, and the 1995 animated film never mentions Major Kusanagi’s ethnic background. Similarly, Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo is filled with a diverse cast of characters that aren’t Asian. However, where Ghost in the Shell (2017) does it’s greatest disservice is the revelation that Scarlett Johanssen’s character is a purely robotic shell, inhabited by a Japanese woman who took her own life a year prior. In a film whose source material sought to explore the theme of personal identity, created in Japan and heavily featuring Japanese iconography, choosing to not feature actors of that ethnic background in the lead role undermines the film’s plot.
The unsatisfying conclusion is that Scarlett Johanssen’s name carries with it enough weight to draw audiences, driving economic benefit for the studio in a way that an Asian lead may not have. These films take the most basic teachings from what made their inspirations so popular: feeling like little more than glitzy production design. It’s visually appealing yet narratively empty.
The impossibly large and diverse cities of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element share common design elements, which audiences can infer have come from years, potentially even centuries, of Asian influence. Wouldn’t it then be more interesting to follow an Asian lead, given that their cultural background had such a large impact on the world the story takes place in?
Discourse regarding Asian Americans' place in Western cinema has been unfortunately enduring, given that movies with Asian leads are exceedingly rare. It’s frustrating then, that in a genre that borrows so heavily from Asian influence, that Asian people are relegated to the sidelines, never being afforded a chance at the spotlight. By framing Hiro as our protagonist, Big Hero 6 subverts this tendency in a meaningful way, bringing an Asian American story to the foreground.
One of the greatest strengths of the movie is the way that these elements are introduced in such a way that they never hinder or slow narrative momentum. Hiro never experiences any adverse reaction to his ethnic background, and never even explicitly talks about his Japanese heritage. We’re instead treated to more textured touches such as the theme of feeling the pressure to live up to the academic achievements of an elder sibling.
There’s a wealth of ways in which Hiro stands as a strong surrogate character for many Asian American kids. Physically, his straight black hair is disheveled and sticks out in every direction, a phase most Asian kids will inevitably go through with their own hair. His room is littered with mecha clocks, daruma dolls, and anime posters. A gifted student, he decides to follow in his brothers footsteps and apply to San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and has to put aside his childhood tendencies of playing with battle bots to follow in his brothers footsteps and achieve something greater through Baymax.
These are distinct features that aren’t exclusionary to any non-Asian American children watching the movie, but that anyone sharing Hiro’s phenotype can immediately latch on to and identify with, lending the movie to a more inclusive experience. This, coupled with the fact that the Asian characters are voiced by Asian American actors makes our characters feel like accurate representations, an incredibly important attribute for young Asian American audiences to be able to connect with and see themselves in.
Originally conceived as a family friendly animated film loosely based on an obscure Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 proved to be a success for Disney on multiple fronts. Beloved by critics and general audiences, it proved that stories with Asian leads could provide strong financial incentive, with the film grossing over $650 million internationally on a $165 million budget. Furthermore, by framing the story around a young Asian American protagonist, it subverted expectations around what we could expect from our science fiction leads – placing a person of color in the role that would have historically been closed off to them. A fun, action-packed family movie about self betterment and overcoming grief, it instilled in Asian American youth the idea that sci-fi is a space that they belong, and that their culture is more than just shallow production design.
KEEP READING: ‘Baymax!’ Series Trailer Has Everyone’s Favorite ‘Big Hero 6’ Health Care Robot Helping Others
My man really used “Scooby-Doo” as a verb meaning “physically fight real monsters.”
Keegan Tran writes features for Collider. His Clark Kent persona is a data analyst and predictive modeler. He lives in Portland, OR with his girlfriend and their dog Kenji. You can typically find him cycling, trying new cafes, and begging people to watch Twin Peaks with him.
“My programming prevents me from injuring a human being.”