(left: cover for an issue of the Big Hero 6 comic book; right: characters from the Big Hero 6 film by Disney)
Our class discussion today on voice acting and representation made me think about my own personal qualms with this year’s Disney animated hit, Big Hero 6. If you haven’t heard, it’s been sweeping all the big awards – an Oscar, a Golden Globe, BAFTA, etc.
So why won’t I watch it?
To preface, I’m a huge Marvel Comics fan. I’ll read the occasional DC comic but I’m most at home with Marvel. When I heard that Big Hero 6 was getting a film adaptation, I was over the moon – the idea of an all-Asian superhero team? That’s the stuff my dreams are made of. Even when I heard it was being set in a fictional San Fransokyo instead of Japan, I was fine with it – artistic license and all of that – but then the characters were revealed.
Hiro Hamada (Hiro Takachiho in the comics) has a Japanese name but most of the fandom consider him to be only half-Japanese, just like his voice actor, Ryan Potter. Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, is also voiced by a half-white man, Daniel Henney (who is half-Korean). Baymax is also changed from a mecha/dragon (it can turn into both!) into a soft, squishy marshmallow thing.
Fred, in the film, is a rich, white kid who builds a suit that looks like something straight out of Monsters vs. Aliens. In the comics, he is ethnically Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group/minority in Japan, and transforms into a kaiju-like creature (think Godzilla). They took a man belonging to an ethnic minority in Japan and made him white.
Honey Lemon (real name in the comics – Aiko Miyazaki) is depicted as white in the film. Now, this is debated over heavily because her voice actress, Genesis Rodriguez, is Latina but there is no indication of Honey Lemon being Latina in the films; at the very least, she is white-passing. To be perfectly honest, I was looking forward to the portrayal of Honey Lemon the most – an East Asian woman who dyes her hair blonde? That’s me! Unfortunately, it appears having a blonde Japanese woman would have been too confusing for viewers (or some other convoluted logic, who knows).
GoGo Tamago (real name Leika Tanaka in the comics) is the closest to her comic counterpart, physically – she’s voiced by Jamie Chung (a Korean-American woman) and depicted as East Asian. In comics, however, she is a former bike gang member who makes a deal with the government to get out of a prison sentence. She’s the hard edge to Honey Lemon’s sweet charm. They completely erase this checkered past in the movie.
Wasabi (Wasabi-no-Ginger in the comics) is a Japanese sushi chef who fights with knives/swords in the comics and is a black man (voiced by Damon Wayans, Jr.) who has laser hands in the film. More on this in a second.
(left column, top to bottom: Hiro Takachiho, Baymax, GoGo Tamago; right column, top to bottom: Honey Lemon, Wasabi-no-Ginger, Fredzilla)
So basically, they took an all-Japanese team and made them “diverse” according to American, Disney standards. I’m not Japanese but, as an Asian-American, we tend to take any representation we can get, so excuse me if I’m a little irritated by this move. They took the source material and erased Asian characters. I’ve seen people argue that the white-washing of Fred and Honey Lemon is offensive but that Wasabi is okay for reasons such as, “Asians have a history of racism against African-Americans so it’s fair.” This argument also doesn’t sit very well with me. It shouldn’t have to be a competition for POC roles, animated or otherwise. Any erasure of POC takes away precious chances at representation.
It’s of course difficult to forget that the Big Hero 6 comic book was created by white men at an American comic book company. Some of the team’s superhero names are indicative of that – Wasabi-no-Ginger? GoGo Tamago (tamago meaning egg)? Where it gets super weird is when someone decided to take a Japanese character code-named Wasabi-no-Ginger and then change him into a black man called nothing but Wasabi. Yes, it’s a nickname, apparently brought on by the man once spilling wasabi on his shirt, but it’s still really iffy for me. Regardless of whether or not white men created this all-Japanese team, it’s still an all-Japanese team. This isn’t to say that all representation is good representation but there are just so few Asian superheroes in American comics that I can’t help but root for them.
These all may seem like minor things I’m blowing out of proportion but I am incredibly upset by Disney’s treatment of Big Hero 6. They knew their source material, they knew they were taking on an all-Japanese team, and then they changed it entirely. If they wanted diversity by American standards, they could have picked from a multitude of other teams – Heroes for Hire, the Nova Corps (introduced in Guardians of the Galaxy), the Runaways, etc. Frankly, the Big Hero 6 team is not particularly famous – I doubt Marvel & Disney decided to make this movie because of fan pressure. If this was the case, we would have had a Black Widow movie a long time ago. So why Big Hero 6? Why pick a comic book series that wouldn’t even be faithfully adapted? I can understand why someone might think Americans might not connect as well with a Japanese team set in Japan (although I love how Americans expect the rest of the world to watch them) but then why not pick a different team?
I don’t mind the switch to making them college students or scientists/engineers (even though it completely erases their individual skill sets). I don’t even mind the team coming together more organically instead of being government-sponsored. But, as an East Asian woman who so rarely sees representation in popular media, I do mind the deliberate selection of an East Asian-set source and then the deliberate erasure of East Asian characters.
It’s hard to say all this to anyone who wants me to watch Big Hero 6 – after all, it won countless awards and the hearts of people all over the world, whatever – but the point still stands. I’m not watching Big Hero 6 because I don’t have to watch it to know it’ll disappoint me deeply.