Latest Disney Release Billed as a “Love Letter” to Japan


The latest offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios – a 3D adventure titled Big Hero 6 – hit North American theaters on November 7 to rave reviews, eclipsing the much-anticipated sci-fi feature Interstellar on its opening weekend and garnering over $100 million in domestic revenues during its first two weeks. This wasn’t the film’s maiden voyage, however: Big Hero 6 premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival on October 23, becoming the first animated Disney movie in history to kick off that prestigious cinematic event.

The decision to debut the film in Tokyo was strategic. Big Hero 6, which chronicles the exploits of the adolescent protagonist Hiro Hamada, his robot pal Baymax, and sidekicks bearing names like Wasabi and GoGo Tomago, was written with Japan in mind. Indeed, producer Roy Conli goes so far as to call it a “love letter to Japanese culture.”

A “thank you note” might be a more apt metaphor. Walt Disney Animation Studios owes a great deal to Japanese audiences, who accounted for 29% of the international revenue from Disney’s last animated venture, Frozen. The Disney franchise in general commands a wide following in Japan: the Tokyo Disney Resort is the world’s third most-frequented theme park, and Mickey Mouse rivals Hello Kitty in popularity.

The film version of Big Hero 6 is loosely based on the Marvel comic series of the same name, which was published intermittently between 1998 and 2012. Set in the fictional “Cool World Amusement Park” in Japan, the comic series pits young Hiro, along with career superheroes like the Silver Samurai, against a rotating cast of villains. Despite its long tenure, it never managed to achieve widespread popularity and remains among the most obscure Marvel comics.

The Disney adaptation takes certain liberties with the original characters and content but preserves an unmistakably Japanese flair. The film is set in “San Fransokyo,” a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo, which melds features of both metropolises. The city layout is based on San Francisco, but all street signs are written in Japanese, and the Golden Gate Bridge has been refashioned to resemble a series of traditional torii gates. The villain wears a kabuki mask, a nod to classical Japanese drama. One minor character bears a close resemblance to an actual ping-pong playing robot unveiled at Japan’s Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies in October. Viewers will note stylistic allusions to Hayao Miyazaki (who received an honorary Academy Award on November 8) and other icons of Japanese animation. Miyazaki's homeland seems to have influenced all aspects of production, both onscreen and off: nineteen-year-old Ryan Potter, who voices Hiro, was apparently treated to a barrage of Japanese pop culture questions during his audition, and he half-jokingly attributes the subsequent casting decision to his proficiency in the lingo of manga and anime.

Big Hero 6 is the latest example of what seems to be growing Asian influence in US cinema. Marvel’s upcoming Avengers sequel was shot partly in Seoul; Chinese audiences are some of the most enthusiastic consumers of Hollywood films; and Korean-born “4D” technology has dazzled theater-goers in LA since its 2014 debut. The “[blending of] Eastern and Western culture,” as Big Hero 6’s co-director Don Hall puts it, is evidently a winning formula, likely to be seen more often in the future.

Olivia Waring is a graduate of Princeton and Oxford Universities and a Research Intern at the East West Center in Washington DC.