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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Editorial: Why Big Hero 6 is Kinda Racist and That's Not Okay.

Oh, man, hi. Did I mention that I have a Let's Play channel where I post Let's Plays? Go check that out, guys. Go check out the Let's Play channel. 

Editorial: Why Big Hero 6 Is Kinda Racist And That's Not Okay.

Is everyone sitting comfortably? Then let's begin.

Big Hero 6.

Big Hero 6, the upcoming movie by Disney and their first animated Marvel adaptation, tells the story of six Japanese youths in Tokyo as they form a superhero team under the direction of the Japanese government and former X-Man Sunfire to battle crime and the forces of e – oh, what's that? They're … they're not … ?


Um. Okay. Let's … do that again … I guess …

Big Hero 6, the, er, the upcoming movie by Disney and their first animated Marvel adaptation, tells the story of two Japanese-American youths, two white American kids, and one very awesome looking black American kid in, um, in … San Fransokyo … as they form a superhero team to battle crime and the forces of evil. Or something.

I - huh.

Let's make one thing clear here before I talk about whitewashing and – what I can only refer to as culture-washing: Big Hero 6 the comic book series has been noted multiple times in the past to be intensely problematic, and with good reason. It came out in the early 2000s to cash in on the current ninja trend and the rising popularity of anime, and it is every bit the shameless cash-grab that that description would suggest. It is not good. It is not progressive, not by today's standards or by the standards of the time. It is truly atrocious as far as its representation of Japan and Japanese people goes.

That having been said, and ignoring entirely the fact that out of all of Marvel's many and varied properties – this is a company that is prolific in its production of comic books and comic book series, and has several prominent youth teams like the Runaways and the Young Avengers, both of which Disney has the rights to now, and its proverbial fingers in some early tokusatsu – Disney is not exactly doing well with making this horrifyingly racist comic series any less racist in its movie adaptation form. It is actually making it worse.

I see Rapunzel is back.

Let's talk about Fred. Let's exclusively talk about Fred, actually, amongst the cast of characters, because he is the best and most striking example of the whitewashing problem I'm talking about.

In the original comic book series, Fred is an Ainu. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido (and a few Russian islands) who historically have suffered severe discrimination and oppression – severe enough that it concerned Oda Nobunaga. It was only in 1997 that Japanese courts recognised the right of the Ainu to enjoy their own culture, after almost a century of a policy of forced assimilation in which their lands were occupied, they were legally denied any status as an indigenous group, and their culture was systematically suppressed in a manner startlingly similar to how the US has historically attempted to suppress or criminalise Native American culture.

So, obviously, Disney would be respectful of this. This is an ethnic group that has had a long history of being culturally suppressed and politically discriminated against, and which has nearly no representation in media in Japan or abroad, so it would be ridiculous if they then - …

... What a suspiciously pale Ainu lad.


Ah, yes. The white American dude. Has there ever been a more marginalised group. You did well there, Disney. You're not contributing to an ongoing problem at all.

I'm not saying that Disney would have needed to include a massive spiel about Fred's Ainu-ness and his Ainu history. Just to have kept him Ainu. Have visual cues through his clothing that he's an Ainu, or have him just say – it doesn't need to be a big deal, it shouldn't be a big deal, and if you're worrying about it being confusing for kids? I call bull, because kids are a) Smart enough to spell 'Ainu', and b) Have grown up with the internet.

What is a big deal, though, is looking at an extremely marginalised group and going 'Okay, what we really need now is to completely erase this dude's background as part of a persecuted ethnic group and make him white.'

Fred the Ainu now being Fred the Kinda Douchey Looking White Kid really gets my goat. It gets my sheep, and my cow. It gets all of my farm animals.

(For some reason – okay, we know why, so that he's 'not too foreign', they also made the main character, Hiro, half-Japanese instead of just – Japanese. One of their less offensive changes, in that I'm just kind of baffled.)

... Huh.

Let's also talk about 'San Fransokyo.'

San Fransokyo is San Francisco with a few aesthetic elements of Japan thrown in to look cool. Don't do this. Don't take a culture and reduce it down to the basest and most easily recognisable aesthetic quirks, and then stick it onto an American city so that people can go 'Ooh, how exotic,' without being threatened by the Scary Foreign Thing. 


Here's a novel idea: Set it in Tokyo. Where the original is set. Don't do this halfway house pandering where you go 'ooh, oooooh, it's sort of like Tokyo, if Tokyo was safely and unthreateningly American, ooooooooh-aaaaaaaaaaaah you won't ever have to acknowledge that a world outside of America exists, my ducklings.'

If Disney had wanted a more diverse cast, then sure. Keep Wasabi (that name makes me cringe, and that one isn't actually Disney's fault, and actually may be part of their reason for making him in particular not Japanese) as a black dude. Maybe even keep Honey Lemon as a white girl (Note: Since writing this editorial, it has been revealed that Honey Lemon is Latina, so that, at least, is a plus), if you're absolutely set on having white people in your film. But Fred. Making Fred a white dude is absolutely beyond the pale, and 'San Fransokyo' is just creepy.

Now, for some of the responses to this controversy that I've seen around the internet!

I don't really care about whitewashing, I just, like, factor it into my suspension of disbelief.

Good for you, I guess, although I think you might need to check the definition of 'suspension of disbelief', people are annoyed, not disbelieving.

Disney's a profit-making company, and merchandise of white people sells better.

Capitalism should not trump ethics.

Well, people would just find something else to complain about.

That's very true, but it doesn't mean that the criticism isn't valid.

I'm hungry.

Eat more filling food, like bread or crackers.

Cream crackers are called such because they are made with the
creaming process, giving them their distinctive texture.

But I'm excited about this film!

Personal excitement should also not trump ethics, and it's possible to like something and acknowledge where it's problematic.

It's a more diverse film now!

Diversity is admirable! Diversity at the cost of turning characters from marginalised groups into white people is not, and I think a quick glance at the pattern of Hollywood in this regard – making Khan in Star Trek a white dude, having Johnny Depp play a Native American – shows that this probably isn't driven by a desire for diversity, but by a belief that American audiences find people who aren't white and American threatening.

I had some crackers and I'm still hungry.

You may be suffering from tapeworms. It is too late for you.

I just don't care, this film is going to be terrible anyway.

Undoubtedly true, but even terrible films need to be held to account for their problematic shenanigans. Otherwise we'd just let M. Night Shyalaman off the hook for The Last Airbender, and we will never do that. We will never do that. N-e-v-e-r.

What are the symptoms of tapeworms?

I'm sorry, this is a review blog. You've – you've come to the wrong place, unfortunately, but they're probably going to eat you from the inside before you can get to a hospital. Tapeworms have jaws. It is known.


  1. Big Hero 6 came out in the 1990s, not the 2000s.

    And specifically how was it "atrocious as far as its representation of Japan and Japanese people goes?" (other than the Everwraith character, who doesn't appear to be in the upcoming Disney movie)

    I've read wiki bios of all the main members of the original line-up and they seem to be pretty well fleshed-out characters, or as well as most characters in the comic book medium get fleshed out.

    There's a difference between cultural accuracy and racism. Is it racist or stereotypical to have a member of a Japanese superhero team be an itamae (sushi chef) on the side? Probably not considering how many sushi restaurants and chefs there are in Japan as compared to other countries . . . just as it's probably not racist or stereotypical to have an American character appear as a cowboy.

    And as far as the "culture washing" in the Disney film . . .well, I agree with you on that. Totally unnecessary.

  2. Thanks for writing this, it gave my brother and I some good discussion points. :)

  3. Hate to break it to you but in the original big hero six honey lemon's powers turned her into a blond haired blue eyed doesn't look japanese super heroine, so it would've been worse if they had her be japanese and turn into blond Wonder Woman instead of just being blond Wonder Woman to begin with. As for Fred if they didn't whitewash him then the airy personality and role as the unintelligent person of the group they gave him in the movie would've been poor representation of the oppressed Ainu group. Does this mean it's okay to whitewash people? No. But sometimes it's better than poorly representing a discriminated ethnic group or saying that you have to turn into an aesthetically pleasing blonde if you're a super heroine of a different race. Not only that but San Fransokyo was called San Fransokyo because people know San fransisco pretty well but not many people in America know what tokyo is really like. They took the opportunity to blend in something known and something new together and honestly they did a pretty decent job with it. In fact, if you watch the film the Golden Gate Bridge is the only real recognizable thing about San Fransisco. Making Hiro half American was unnecessary but honestly that's pretty much it.

  4. Your point about Fred is quite valid, however, the whitewashing of him in particular was most likely unintentional. The producers only read a couple of issues of the comic, as they had deliberately wanted to make it their own, hence the choosing of a relatively unknown title. So it's quite probable they didn't actually know about his ethnic background.

    San Fransokyo? The filmmakers' idea was that San Fransokyo is an alternate universe in which San Francisco was rebuilt by Japanese immigrants in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, although it was never actually stated in the film. (And I agree with Ester Hu, they did a pretty good job of it.)

    And personally, I loved the fact that Hiro was half American half Japanese. I myself am mixed race, Chinese Australian, and while it's true we don't really face racism or anything, our existence is kind of ignored, mostly because of whitewashing accusations. And so Hiro was very relateable for me. Was it slightly unnecessary? Maybe. But I actually think they did a really good job of making sure there was someone everyone could relate to among the characters.

  5. I don't know if whitewashing is a fair assessment of the film since, while Fred's comic book race is oppressed IRL having them represented without comment would be redundant IMO since visual cues alone wouldn't register with Western audiences so he may as well be generic Asian guy as much as generic white guy.

    Moreover, Honey Lemon isn't white. I don't know what her ethnic background is suppose to be but she has a subtly darker skin tone then white and you can clearly hear traces of an accent in her lines. That might just be the VA's accent slipping through though since I don't know her ethnic background either. I get the impression she's at least mixed race.

    As for San Frantokyo...well actually setting it in Tokyo would end up the same anyway since cultural bleed and audience recognition devices render pretty much all representations of foreign (to the creators) cities America (or anywhere) with (insert country here)'s base visual affectations. This even occurs in cities from the same country from time to time if enough distance and subcultural elements exist between the place the creator is familiar with and the city they are reproducing.

    1. Yes, white people never have tans.

      Southern Europe doesn't exist.

      Tom Jones is a collective hallucination.

      'Subtly darker than white' isn't really a thing. Grow up.

    2. Actually, 'subtly darker than white' is a thing. As an Indonesian Australian, I full-heartedly agree with az-amon-ra. I have blonde hair, blonder than honey lemon's even, and green eyes. Unless you knew I was of asian descent, there's no way you could pick out my darker skin and 5"1 height as asian. It is darker than your typical "white kid's" skin would be, but it is subtly darker than white. So maybe you need to grow up.

  6. I thought this film was actually pretty well done race-wise. I don't think having Honey Lemon and Fred be white is a problem, to be honest. I feel like you just don't like to see any white characters at all in movies from what I read in this review. As another commenter said, the producers only read a couple issues so they could make it their own, and they probably didn't get to see much of Fred's original race. Plus, Honey Lemon's voice seemed like it had just a hint of a foreign accent. And San Fransokyo was done nicely as well to me. I didn't find it racist that they combined two cities together?

  7. Im surprised nobodys said 'but the Ainus are Caucasian anyway'...or have they.

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  9. Marvel is an american company like Disney. The film is marketed mainly for american audiences. So they tried to make it totally diverse and appealling to that audiance, which does include, hate to break it to you, a lot of white people. The film did not co opt some classic Japanese story but was a comic writen probably by white guys amongst others for an american publisher, and they can agree with Disney to do any damn thing they want with thier own original story. So this not racist, not whitewashing, not any of the things you claim.

  10. Marvel is an american company like Disney. The film is marketed mainly for american audiences. So they tried to make it totally diverse and appealling to that audiance, which does include, hate to break it to you, a lot of white people. The film did not co opt some classic Japanese story but was a comic writen probably by white guys amongst others for an american publisher, and they can agree with Disney to do any damn thing they want with thier own original story. So this not racist, not whitewashing, not any of the things you claim.