Saturday, January 17, 2015

How Big Hero 6 Was Great and I Got Mad

[image source]

by Sharon H Chang

Well Big Hero 6 was great. But I hardly need to tell you that.

At this point many of you have probably already seen it or at least have heard rave reviews and plan to see it. Big Hero 6 (the film) is a computer-animated superhero movie produced/released by Disney in 2014 and inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero team of the same name. It's something of a coming-of-age story about 13yo robotics genius Hiro Hamada who faces tragedy and learns to move through his grief by caring for others, valuing the future, and understanding how his genius can be leveraged for good. Another way to say it is he basically becomes a kickass superhero mind-wizard battling "evil forces" with his kickass friends whom he crafts into sidekick superheros by designing them kickass robotic armor and delivering lots of pep talks (which start as misguided and move to kickass). And you should know there is a marshmallow robot involved named Baymax of whom I will say nothing more. Go see the movie. But why I'm really writing about this film -- again if you don't know already -- is because of something centrally pretty kick-ass and important for us here. Hiro Hamada is mixed race Japanese/white.

Hiro Hamada [image from Disney Wiki]

Original Marvel Comics Big Hero 6 [image from The Hollywood Reporter]

Now at this stage a lot of people have noted with glee the fact of Hiro's mixedness. So yet again this might not be of much interest to you. But what might be of interest and some curiosity is how my family of three mixed Asian/whites experienced it as movie goers. In fact, it might even surprise you. After waiting for kiddo to be PG-ready (which finally happened due to friend's houses and too many sick days desperately watching Netflix), my family and I finally got to a showing yesterday afternoon. Okay first. My superhero-loving 5yo currently obsesses over mainstream heroes: Spiderman (white), Batman (white), Superman (white except for Dean Cain), the Americanized Power Rangers derived from the long-running Japanese Super Sentai series, and Ninjago, a wildly inaccurate Lego-appropriated mashup of Japanese ninjas (they practice 'spinjitsu', have a teacher named Sensei Wu and live in China). Much to my chagrin. We don't actually let him watch any of these shows. He learned them, gleaned them, absorbed them just from walking out our front door. This being said you can understand that getting to say we were going to a movie where the hero looked not only like him but his much-beloved Dad? ROCKED MY WORLD. And apparently his too. As we walked into the theater he proclaimed boldly and unabashadly, "I've never seen a superhero that looked like me!"

[image source]

From my perspective the movie encapsulates and affirms a certain multiracial Asian identity beautifully (however as a mixed-with-white narrative I strongly acknowledge it might not speak much to mixes of color). Hiro lives in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo which is stylish and portrayed without tokenizing. Nothing is objectified, exoticized, or othered. Hiro eats spicy chicken wings and white rice for dinner. He's a native American English speaker but holds his Japanese name with pride respectfully mirrored in the way those around him also pronounce it correctly and effortlessly. His visual world is seamlessly woven with American and Japanese iconography. It's simply his everyday lived life. As my husband said it was refreshing to see movie-makers, "Just get it." The film also plays sardonically with racial stereotypes in a manner much appreciated. Of course Hiro is Asian and super smart, but he's also hip, trendy and the hero. Fred, the not so sharp science groupie who just hangs around turns out to be extraordinarily and inexplicably rich; hilarious fun-poking at unearned white privilege/wealth. Meanwhile Wasabi, cautious, smart and orderly, is thankfully far from typical depictions of large Black men as 'dangerous' and 'threatening.' (Admittedly the female characters could use a little help but that's another blog post). In addition there are other extras throughout the film who are visibly mixed Asian. Voiceover talent was even casted color-consciously (vs color-blindly) with actors for the most part racially matched to their parts including two mixed race Asian male actors to voice Hiro and his brother Tadashi.

Multiracial Asian actors Ryan Potter as 'Hiro' and Daniel Henney as 'Tadashi' [image source]

I really like this movie. It felt familiar and valuable. I highly recommend it. You should definitely support it. But I'll tell you something. I felt a range of emotions watching it as a mixed/Asian identifying person that weren't entirely positive. Yes there are some sad parts and I cried at those. But sometimes I wasn't sad because of the sad parts and over the hour and a half I became increasingly mad and irritable despite the flick being really cool and super affirming on so many levels. Why? Because it made me realize in a way I never had before what was missing from my own childhood. And I could tell looking over at my partner that he felt the same way. We never got superheros, or for that matter anybody important in TV and film, that looked like us. At the time I doubt we ever thought about it. As children most of us often just accept things are the way they are and adapt ourselves to said reality. It's social survival, really. Learning how to function, exist in the world we were born into. But my visceral reaction certainly got me thinking a lot on the deep personal impacts societal invisibility can have when we're young and how those impacts become formative in our sense of self throughout life.

It made me realize in a way I never had before what was missing from my own childhood. And I could tell looking over at my partner that he felt the same way.

I think my multiracial Asian family's most important takeaways from this movie were not that it's cool, fun to watch, and has people like us in it. I think our most important takeaways go way deeper than that. I think Big Hero 6 helped remind us of many important things about ourselves. That we will gain so much in life from continuing to identify the ways society tries to shape us, from always talking about our identities together and affirming each other's realities. That we don't have to just accept mainstream heroes that have little to do with our lives and with whom we don't really relate. We don't have to just resign to things at face value; passively allow ourselves to be spoon fed someone else's worldview. That it's okay and right for us to keep wanting, pushing for, and demanding a lived-in world where we don't feel invisible. Where we can be our own heroes.

Dear Hollywood, more please. And now.


  1. I have no clue why a hero would have to look just like you. I had all kinds of heroes, coming in all kinds of ethnicities, genders and nationalities: white, black, asian, aboriginal, French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, English, Mexican, Egyptian, Cameroonian, men, women... what have you. Most of them didn't look anything like me, but I loved them anyway, and still to this date.

    1. Incredibly naive post. One only needs to look at the countless child psychology studies looking at representation and media to see the impact and ascertain as to why its important. Or have an understanding more generally of social learning processes.

  2. You obviously will not be able to understand if you yourself are not a hapa. Just try to put yourself in our shoes most of us rarely see others that look like us, grew up like us, and can relate to us in many aspects of life, for now we are just others scattered across the earth.(Hopefully we won't be just others one day, like in Big Hero 6 :) Just don't be so ignorant. You act like oh well it ain't my problem so who gives a shit, you try living you life as some of the more unfortunate hapas have to!

  3. I don't get why you would be mad over this. >_>

    Glad that you and your family enjoyed the movie though! ^.^

    I know I did when I watched it on my phone! X3

    Plus, to me it's nice to see a character and actor mixed like me, except I'm mixed with Thai.