So, as I said I probably would, I did end up seeing Big Hero 6 this past Tuesday. While I ended up enjoying it a fair amount the problem, if I can call it that and which the post I just linked to addresses, was in the back of my head the entire time. To reiterate it here, the idea that both a city and almost the entire cast of superhero team had to be altered to make it more relatable, presumably to a Western [read: American] audience.
As mentioned I did like it, but during and after the film I was struck by the fact that a balance, if that’s what the creators were truly going for, was never really attained. To start with, San Fransokyo.
Based off of the name one would assume that this would be equal parts American and Japanese city, a blend that encapsulated the best of both worlds. The actual design approach is laid bare when considering the words co-director Don Hall used when describing the setting [emphasis added]:
“an alternate version of San Francisco.”
“I love the Painted ladies. We gave them a Japanese makeover; we put a cafe on the bottom of one. They live above a coffee shop.”
“Where Hiro lives, it feels like the Haight. When you get to the downtown area, that’s when you get the most Tokyo-fied, that pure, layered, dense kind of feeling of the commercial district there. When you get out of there, it becomes more San Francisco with the Japanese aesthetic.”
To put this in more musical terms, this isn’t so much a mashup as it is a remix. The former is a blend of two or more parts with both being displayed prominently, the latter is a modified version of something, the original of which is typically easily identifiable.
While I will admit that there were portions of the film that were set in a decidedly more Japanese-influenced environment, they’re never areas that allow the audience to linger. The city at its most Tokyo-like is depicted either during a fast-paced nighttime chase scene or equally speedy downtown flybys. Contrast that with the protagonist’s home, clearly based on, as Hall said, houses in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco [this was the best image I could find, I know there’s a streetcar in front of it]-
The interior further reaffirms the fact that while there’s clearly the influence of a Japanese aesthetic, the foundation is decidedly American. Seeing how a setting typically determines the cast of characters I suppose it’s no wonder that the city of San Fransokyo would yield exactly two Japanese characters [0.5 from both Hiro and Tadashi Hamada and 1 from GoGo Tomago]. What should really be scrutinized, however, is how there could have been a grand total of three.
EDIT: apparently gogo tomago is korean, meaning this was a movie with a grand total of 1 japanese person stretched between two characters.
In that post I wrote almost a month ago [and which you should read if you haven’t yet] I mentioned the character of Aunt Cass, the existence of whom changes Hiro and Tadashi into half-Japanese half-Caucasian siblings. Here she is again, as she appears in Big Hero 6:
Now here she is again, as she appears in the closing credits of the film:
I understand that the image might be a little small, so let me blow up some concept art so that we can all get a better look at it:
This underscores my original point about as clearly as it can, because here is a clearly Asian woman whose ethnicity was arbitrarily changed because, well . . . can you imagine if the movie had
four three full-blooded Japanese characters? Why, that would mean that roughly half the cast would be Asian, which would match up with the intended design of the setting and we can’t have that–
When considering all of the above characters, excluding Baymax [a robot] and Yokai [a villain whose identity I will not spoil] that’s eight altogether. It’s nine if we want to include shady industrialist Alistair Krei, who would have added yet another Caucasian face to the cast. What’s incredible is that even when considering background characters things don’t exactly add up-
The film begins in a back alley that contains what looks to be predominantly Japanese characters, but once we leave that setting they’re not only never the majority, they don’t even make up half of most group shots. I’m willing to admit that I could be way off base considering I’ve only seen it once, but at the very least almost every one of the minor speaking roles I can remember were given to white characters. What I remember very clearly is that in the wake of the film’s climactic moment every one of the police officers was Caucasian, which is mildly troubling in light of recent events.
Now I know that roughly 800 words in is a little late to introduce and elaborate on the title of this post and that it sounds like a bad episode of The Big Bang Theory [ie. most of them, though there are a few gems every season], but let me do so now. The 50/50 Fallacy is the existence of a world that promises equal opportunities for characters from both America and a predominantly non-white country and delivers on them poorly or not at all. Until the existence of Big Hero 6 there was one other work of fiction that upheld this trope, and it did so masterfully.
I love Firefly almost as much as the next person, and the reason I say “almost” is because Joss Whedon crafted the origins to a world and then did the bare minimum to make it believable. As a little bit of context, here’s a snippet of the memo that prefaces the Serenity visual companion, helpfully titled “A Brief History of the Universe, circa 2507 A. D.” [emphasis once again added by yours truly]:
“On Earth-That-Was, the two ruling powers were once known as America and China. Though their empires remained separate, the two powers worked together throughout the colonization process, their cultures – as so many had – melding at many levels. Londinium, called so after the Roman name for England’s capital (a country long before annexed by America in a somewhat ironic reversal), represented what was once the American Empire. Sinon (‘SEE-non,’ a bastardization of Sino, our word for ‘Chinese’) was the new China, basically. These two powers, still working in harmony, grew at once into the most populous and advanced civilizations in the new galaxy.“
It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that- future Earth is equal parts America and China. I suppose it makes perfect sense then that the cast, in spite of peppering their dialogue with Mandarin profanities, looks like this:
It only gets more disturbing when you consider that siblings Simon and River Tam appear to have been initially planned as being Chinese based on their surname, and that when it came to Kaylee the costume designer “studied up on Japanese and Chinese youth, as originally the character was Asian.” As with Big Hero 6 speaking roles for Asian characters are almost entirely absent, though the aesthetic does appear in certain episodes and certainly does in Serenity, the film meant to act as a second season to the show. I would elaborate on this even further, but Mike Le over at Racebending.com already did so much more thoroughly than I ever could in a piece titled “Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite”.
Over 1,200 words in and the question should no longer be if the 50/50 Fallacy exists, but rather why it does. It’s not hard to fall to the most pessimistic explanation, which is that this is all lip service for the purpose of set dressing. Big Hero 6 producer Roy Conli mentioned that “to do a pure San Francisco or a pure Tokyo, just didn’t seem as enchanting as doing a mash up”. A few paragraphs prior the writer of the article explains that “the decision to divert from the comic’s location of strictly Tokyo stems partly from the fact that the Big Hero 6 movie doesn’t pull from the comic at all, other than the title and names of characters,” so why bother incorporating the the Japanese city at all? For the mere sake of enchantment?
While in Big Hero 6 their decision to create a Japanese/American city appears to fall firmly on the side of pure aesthetics, it’s apparent that decision to create a similar world for Firefly is firmly based in storytelling. It makes sense to have two world powers being the first to leave Earth, and for their respective cultures to meld as the light years and decades passed. The premise is both compelling and logical, so why then wasn’t there a conscious effort made to present, at the very least in secondary character, the existence of Chinese people? How is it that Whedon created a space western set in a futuristic Sino-American universe with less Asians than a western set in the 19th century?
I wish that all films and television shows had more representation, be it racial or sexual or otherwise. That doesn’t mean that every one needs to be split down the middle, or even less if we want to follow the Harvey-Renee Index [if you don’t know what it is read up on it, it’s great]. I don’t think I go too far by saying, however, that creators need to live up to the unspoken promises made in their worldbuilding. You would never have a sitcom in which Pakistan and South Korea co-colonize Mars [hey, a guy can dream] in which the entire cast is from south and not east Asia. It’s only expected that if Cairo and Hamburg somehow found themselves melded together then roughly half of people on the street would be of German descent.
The fact that the 50/50 Fallacy is a thing speaks to the halfheartedness of creators and creatives who are not doing enough to follow through with their ideas. By no means am I saying that they should stop creating these places that have the possibility of fostering diversity, I’m saying they should be populating [and, this is my subjective opinion, designing] them accordingly.