Last week was a big week for Big Hero 6. Not only did the film take home an Oscar, but its DVD and Blu-Ray releases hit stores Tuesday and owned the Best Sellers list on Amazon.
I'd been anticipating Big Hero 6 since the first teaser slowly revealed a jaw-dropping rendering of San Fransokyo, the Tokyo/San Francisco hybrid that sets the stage. Though I am wary of any films that feature Asian...anything, there was a certain nostalgic familiarity in the Kingdom Hearts-style pan over the city.
Setting aside my anticipation, I was a unsure of what to expect. The film is a Disney flick featuring Japanese Americans. It takes place in a weird, futuristic (but not really?) San Francisco/Tokyo hybrid that looks like a less apocalyptic vision of Blade Runner's Los Angeles. There is a character named Yama and a cat named Mochi and the whole thing lends itself to plenty of opportunities for gratuitous "Hi-yahs" and caricatured kung fu. Despite all the promising elements, there was definitely room for this film to fall into the overflowing bucket of cringeworthy Asian/Japanese representation.
Though it's an inherently sad statement, I recognize that within the Asian American media sphere Japanese Americans have been privileged to see representation of ourselves in entertainment, as slim as it has been. Starting as far back as silent film star Sessue Hayakawa, we can trace through names like James Shigeta, Tura Santana, Pat Morita, Tamlyn Tomita, Kristi Yamaguchi, and of course George Takei. Growing up I looked up to Mike Shinoda. To this day I still look up to Mike Shinoda.
But apart from Pat Morita in The Karate Kid (1984) or Mike Shinoda's "Kenji", these moments in mainstream media have largely not been built from our points of view. Even films like Come See the Paradise (1990) and Snow Falling On Cedars (1999) have been more about White saviors than our lived experiences.
So when a kid named Hiro Hamada shows up as the star of a Disney movie with a brother named Tadashi Hamada, I'm going to get #RepSweats.
In many ways, this was my Fresh Off The Boat. And it was everything I could have wanted.
The film, oddly, felt like Asian American cinema. True to many Asian American films (though the writers and directors were primarily not Asian Americans), the film plays with the concept of a self-contained Asian American world that either exists in opposition to or in the place of our real life racial stratum. Though the cast is multicultural, the sandbox/social bubble of San Fransokyo is driven by Asian American self-determination. We have seen real world layers of this in SF, LA, or NYC (in LA for example, the food world is currently saturated in Asian American culinary nostalgia) that have ignited new, forward-thinking waves of Asian American identity and community formation patterns. The fantastical actualization of these patterns is exciting, especially in something as recognizable and culturally impactful as a Disney movie.
Just as princess films offer a magical glimpse of European fantastical romance, San Fransokyo itself is rooted in an alternate Japanese American history. In The Art of Big Hero 6, art director Scott Watanabe explains that, “I came up with the idea that after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Japanese immigrants rebuilt the place using techniques that allow movement and flexibility in a seismic event.”
1906 not only brought the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake but also brought the 1906 Naturalization Act which renewed and updated standards for citizenship naturalization set forth in the Naturalization Act of 1870, an act that declared that only White immigrants could become naturalized citizens. The 1906 act would later be referenced during the Ozawa v. United States (1922) case in which Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa tried to have Japanese people reclassified as White (this was, expectedly, not successful). Not only were our great grandparents farmers and coal miners and probably not licensed architects, but we came through San Francisco Harbor in droves to a country full of anti-Japanese sentiment.
It is a Disney fantasy to believe that we would be given the keys to design an entire city, and while this is a harsh reminder of our lived histories it's also an exciting glimpse into what could have been. Stylistically, the movie is on point. From the food to the decorations lining the Hamadas' walls, everything feels true-to-life. The old family portraits look like those in my family's albums and Aunt Cass' kitchen counter houses my parents' rice cooker. I literally gasped at the casual placement of a daruma in Hiro's room as it was casually thrown somewhere in mine.
Tadashi has a banner above his bed for a sports team called the Ninjas, also the name of a real life San Jose Japanese American basketball team. Watanabe is from San Jose. I refuse to believe this was an accident. (CORRECTION: Ok folks there is a good chance I was given misinformation and Watanabe is NOT from San Jose, but I will nevertheless not stop believing.)
Everything from Hiro's nerdy-but-socially-functional mannerisms to his hairstyle reminded me of various periods of my own life. Even the fact that Hiro and Tadashi are mixed-race, Whitewashing tactic or not, rang absolutely true to not only my own family (my cousins are all mixed race) but Japanese American families at large.
Hiro does not randomly start speaking Japanese at any point, but there are handwritten signs in Japanese in his house and yen lying around his desk. Tadashi's classmates are largely not visibly Asian Americans, but they pronounce his name with ease. Aunt Cass casually drops off a plate with rice on it, then decides to make hot wings a few nights later.
This film is not just an animated action-comedy that happens to feature Japanese Americans, Japanese America is built into the DNA and the structure.
So when I look at San Fransokyo and think about the alternate vision of Japanese America presented (intentionally or not), I of course turn my thoughts towards the real world. I jotted down a few notes on the changing faces of our neighborhoods in LA a few weeks ago, and in the wake of my latest re-watch of Big Hero 6 I am contemplating future visions of Little Tokyo and Japanese America.
San Fransokyo only works with the buy-in of the whole city. There can be no neon forest of Japanese signs without the whole city helping it grow, real-world friction sparking around this specific issue in Hong Konger-heavy Richmond, Canada and our own San Gabriel Valley.
As Little Tokyo revives and the Gosei (fifth generation Japanese American) come of age, how we tell the story of Japanese America is crucial at this moment. Will we simply continue talking about our community as one rooted in victimhood and shame or will we consider ways to build cultural practice into our everyday lives? For the second generation Asian Americans who are starting to raise families, will you transmit your histories and if so, why?
Perhaps more importantly, how?
The lesson of Big Hero 6 is that we can own our histories on an everyday level, and through that ownership we can be powerful. Though Japanese Americans were largely forced to relinquish our rituals with WWII, it has been the process of reclamation and return to the community that has allowed neighborhoods like Little Tokyo to revive.
San Fransokyo is a stretch as a physical city, but as a metaphor it is not so far off. Sometimes, to own our stories, we need to let everything crumble and rebuild from the rubble.
I found myself crying during Big Hero 6, not only at the hopelessly sad/uplifting storyline but also at the glimpse of what we could have had. Forget about robots, torii-inspired bridges, or dense urban signage -- Big Hero 6 showed me the 14-year-old version of myself who was allowed to own everything he was without fear of social repercussion. Hiro Hamada is the kid I wanted to be as I turned to the internet as a teenager looking to find my people and my voice, personal and part of a collective. This movie highlights the discrepancy between fantasy and reality and reminds me that ultimately we aren't looking to build San Fransokyo, but rather the comfort and familiarity of Aunt Cass' home.
I am excited for the world we will build for our children and the stories we have yet to pass down.
Thank you to Juliet Shen for helping me contain all my feels.