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Andrew Osmond leaves his heart in San Fransokyo

You know Tokyo; you know Neo-Tokyo. Now welcome to San Fransokyo, the mashup metropolis imagined by Disney’s CG cartoon Big Hero 6, released in British cinemas today. It’s a city where the Golden Gate Bridge sports Shinto gates, where ramen bars and lucky cats are as common as Victorian residences and hill-climbing trams. All this is the stage for a team-superhero adventure, which is itself window-dressing for the tale of a grieving boy and a gentle, huggable, cushion-soft robot.

At a Guardian masterclass on the film at London’s Curzon Cinema, producer Ray Conli and co-director Don Hall made clear the project did not start as a Japanese crossover. Rather, it originated with Disney’s acquisition of Marvel in 2009. Hall had loved Marvel comics since childhood, and Disney’s CCO John Lasseter encouraged him to look at potential properties which might be turned into animated films. Hall had directed the 2011 film of Winnie the Pooh. In the class’s oddest moment, he showed a tongue-in-cheek drawing of the Winnie cast – yes, even Piglet! – as Marvel-style superheroes.

One property which Hall happened upon was a Marvel comic called Big Hero 6, created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau in 1998. It was one of Marvel’s more obscure titles, to the point that the company had forgotten they’d published it. Hall thinks Lasseter picked out Big Hero 6 from his several pitches because of the emotional potential of a story between a boy and a robot. It was only then that the world-building began. In making a Disney animation, Hall explained, the story can go through huge changes in development, but the world must be a fixed baseline.

The original Big Hero 6 comic was set in Japan. However, the film-makers chose to apply a Japanese aesthetic, a patina, to a ‘recognisable city.’ The town’s basic shape is San Francisco – the bay, the hills, the buildings – though both hills and buildings were ‘pumped up’ compared to their real-life models. Although the comparison wasn’t made, SF fans may be reminded of the live-action Blade Runner, set in a Los Angeles of Chinese markets and giant screen geishas.

As for Tokyo, Hall and his fellow researchers paid intensive research visits to the city, prowling from morning to late night. One of Hall’s chief impressions was of the density of Tokyo, both in terms of the visual details and signage, and in cramming so much into a space. When Big Hero 6 was shown in Tokyo, Hall recalled, one screen detail picked up by delighted journalists was the inclusion of milk-crates. In Japan, recycled bottles are put out in small crates, visible in the film. If you’re looking for them, pay attention in the scene where the robot Baymax takes his first walk outdoors.

Tokyo, of course, is represented in hundreds of anime – see Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers for an especially dense portrayal. Hall himself has acknowledged the 2006 anime film Tekkonkinkreet. He told Comic Book Resources that early on in production, the filmmakers looked at its ‘dense, detailed world.’ San Fransokyo took shape through concept art by the half-Japanese Scott Watanabe, credited as art director of environments.

The city was created as a vast computer model, with eighty-three thousand buildings and a quarter of a million trees. The virtual camera was free to range over it at will. In terms of computing power, Big Hero 6’s world was bigger than those of the last three CG Disneys – Frozen, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled – all put together.

The film makes a fresh bid to make convincingly individuated CG crowds, using a system called Denizen to create thousands of variants on hundreds of character models. The intent was to avoid a film full of computer-generated doubles. It certainly makes for an impressively populous city… though there’s an artificiality to the extras, compared to the bogglingly hand-drawn crowds of Disney’s Pinocchio or Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Asked if Big Hero 6 could have been hand-drawn rather than CG, Hall said that it could, but then it would not have pushed the cinematography and light techniques which he wanted to explore. Conli added it was possible that Disney might make another hand-drawn feature in the future. However, it would need ‘a totally fresh approach,’ and not resemble Disney’s toons of the 1980s and 1990s. (This would seem to rule out a film like 2009’s Princess and the Frog.)

As for anime influences, Hall encountered them not through cartoons but toys – specifically a toy line called Shogun Warriors licensed by Mattel in the 1970s, which united vintage anime robots including Raideen, Grendizer and Gaiking. Hall has said that one of those robots had a ‘rocket punch’ fist – an idea going back to Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, and crucial in Big Hero 6.

Naturally, Miyazaki was an influence too. Hero’s climax (slight spoiler) involves a boy clutching a wire for a dear life. Hall told Today Online that the film-makers consulted Laputa. “It isn’t a shot-by-shot retelling of a scene, but we did watch (Laputa) to get the feeling. It was supposed to be just a five-minute thing to watch that scene, but we ended up watching the whole movie!” Laputa had influenced a rescue in Pixar’s A Bug’s Life more than a decade earlier.

Hall’s co-director Williams told the Times of India that, “In anime films… the action scenes are really pushed and dynamic, and on the other hand, they have scenes that are so quiet and still and sweet… So we try to capture that spirit, those two opposing forces.”

One such scene comes after a thrilling Astro Boy-style flight over the city. The boy and his robot have a tranquil sojourn sitting on an aerial turbine, gently rocking their feet in unison. In earlier drafts, the scene would have involved their friends as well, but the directors realised a quieter moment was needed. Later in the class, Conli stressed the virtues of restraint in animation; of not over-animating characters, even funny ones.

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Big Hero 6 premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October, and was marketed in Japan in distinctive ways. The dramatic Japanese trailer (shown here) for the film was in striking contrast to the more comedic American one. (There was a similar contrast between the Japanese and American trailers for Frozen.) I asked the producer Conli about this after the masterclass.

“Japanese trailers are always different,” Comli told me. “Japanese marketing goes for emotion, whereas marketing in Britain and America go for comedy… The interesting thing is that British and American audiences go to the film for the comedy, but then they are surprised by the emotional content.” Ask anyone who was suckered into Bambi.

If you’ve been to a Japanese cinema, you’ll know the audience tends to wait to the end of the closing credits. This isn’t the custom in Britain or America – with the exception of Marvel superhero movies, where audiences are primed to expect a post-credits scene. Big Hero’s filmmakers only realised this late in production, and hastily made a postscript with a small staff, as most of the animators were gone by that time. We won’t spoil it, but the scene features a giant ham.

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Big Hero 6 was promoted in Japan by a special animation of its own, a flipbook-style music video. Like the trailer, the video is heavy on emotion, summarising the arc of the boy character Hiro. The short was drawn by a Japanese comedian, Tekken. His previous film ‘Pendulum,’ was adopted by the British rock group MUSE as the video for their song, ‘Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3 (Redemption).” Hero also had a manga version, which set a precedent in being published before the film’s cinema release.

However, there’s been no tie-in reissue for the original Marvel comic, which was substantially different from the film. For one thing, the comic took place in Japan, not San Fransokyo, and its principals were all Japanese. One of them, for example, is named Fred; he’s Caucasian in the film, whereas his Marvel counterpart was Ainu, descended from Japan’s original inhabitants. The lead boy, called Hiro, was Japanese in the comic and half-Japanese, half-American in the film. (Ryan Potter, Hiro’s voice-actor, has the same ethnicity, growing up in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward.)

This raises interesting questions about adapting a product from a niche comic to a film for world consumption. As noted above, the city is fundamentally American, not Japanese; even its crisp blue light was based on San Francisco’s. An article on the Herocomplex site mentions San Fransokyo’s assumed backstory, never mentioned on screen. According to this, San Fransokyo is indeed a parallel San Francisco, rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake with the help of Japanese immigrants.

The film’s other hero characters are multiracial. One of the girls, Gogo Tomago is wholly Japanese, though her English-language voice is provided by Jamie Chung, a second-generation Korean American. The other girl, nicknamed Honey Lemon, is a Latina character, voiced by Venezuelan/Cuban-American actress Genesis Rodriguez. The boy Wasabi is African-American, voiced by Damon Wayans Jr, son of the eponymous comedian.

Certainly you can argue that swapping a monocultural Japanese setting for an imaginary multicultural one is a progressive step. However, readers interested in geek activism are recommended to this online polemic which argues the opposite. It has a treasurable irony for anime fans. The piece argues that Hiro’s eyes are much too round, with the effect of diluting his Asian identity on screen. Would anyone care to suggest which country’s animation could have encouraged this trend?

In Japan, Big Hero 6 – renamed Baymax after its robot character – is a hit, though unlikely to do anywhere near the sensational business of Frozen – now the third highest grossing Japanese release of all time, behind only Titanic and Spirited Away. The song ‘Let it Go’ or ‘Ari No Mama De’ is so ubiquitous in Tokyo that you feel like screaming when it starts again. Baymax, though, must contend with a homegrown hit, the anime film of the huge Yokai Watch game-manga-toy-TV kids’ franchise. Even a cuddly nursing robot can’t capture everyone’s hearts…

Big Hero 6 opens in UK cinemas today.

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