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Big Hero 6

When Disney bought Marvel a few years ago one of the first things fans wanted to know was when we’d get a Marvel property animated by Disney. It’s not that people don’t love the live action films but moving into animation grants a much wider and grander canvas to play with and would allow for properties that would be difficult, or at the very least expensive, to do in live action (Eternals, Warlock and a decent Silver Surfer for example).

I do not think anyone thought that the first Disney/Marvel animated film was going to be  Big Hero 6.

Since approximately 10 people know who Big Hero 6 are here’s a brief explanation. Initially spinning out of Alpha Flight (yes, these guys are less famous and popular than Alpha Flight, the super-hero team whose high concept is, we’re Canadian) and a 3 issue mini in the late 90’s; Big Hero 6 are the national super-hero team of Japan. The team is composed of a mix of established Japanese characters like Sunfire and the Silver Samurai and some newer oddball creations like Go-Go Tomago. They later got a mini by Chris Claremont in 2008 and bar a few cameos that’s it. That’s pretty much all you need to know.

Why then would Disney want to make a film of this?

Well because Disney is very interested in Japan right now. Japan wasn’t as badly affected by the recession as America and Europe (don’t get me wrong, it was affected, the but the economy was still fairly flat from the mid-90’s Japanese recession and so it was a smaller dip than experienced in the west) making Japan the largest and most attractive non-China market out there. And since there are plenty of reasons Disney expanding in China is a problem (that we won’t go into today) it makes sense that they want to expand into Japan. It also helps that Disney is already huge there, in fact it’s easily the biggest non-native cultural force in the country, with two Disney theme parks and merchandise is as seemingly omni-present as it is in Orlando. Licenses for things like Stitch and Winnie the Pooh are huge.

And if you know anything about Japanese culture you’ve probably spotted some attempts to make Disney products more palatable to Japanese consumers recently. Take Wreck-it-Ralph. As well as including numerous cameos from Japanese characters (Bowser, Sonic, Pac-Man) it prominently featured the mascot of a Japanese cream puff company, Beard Papa, and even a song by idol group AKB48. This is the most Japanese film Disney has yet released.

And yet Wreck-it-Raph wasn’t so Japanese that it alienated domestic audiences either. Partly that’s because guys like Sonic are well known to U.S. audiences already but also it’s because Japanese culture is more widely known in America these days anyway. Disney may have missed the anime and manga bubble by a few years but Japanese culture has impacted western culture in a way that isn’t going away any time soon. You only have to look at Transformers or Pacific Rim or the upcoming Godzilla to see that Hollywood still sees a lot of potential in repurposing Japanese ideas.

So coming out with a super-hero animated movie with a distinctly Japanese feel makes a lot of sense. It has the potential to sell well back home, sell hugely in Japan and leave a licensing legacy Disney can exploit for years to come.

But.

Big Hero 6 may not be the best characters to do this with.

And it’s not because they’re lesser known characters. Iron Man was widely considered a second string super-hero prior to the first Robert Downey Junior film and he’s now one of the biggest and most popular supes in the wider pop culture consciousness. And let’s not forget Blade, the film that started off the current Super-Hero movie era. Nobody outside of comics, and most people who do read comics, had heard of Blade, and for those that had he wasn’t exactly their favourite character. But there was enough potential there to make a very competent action film and the rest is history.

No, Big Hero 6 has the potential to be a great film, but there’s also the strong potential to be an offensive one. That’s because the characters in Big Hero 6 walk a very thin line between affectionate homage to Japanese icons and a patronising joke about how stupid and silly those characters are.

Discounting Sunfire and the Silver Samurai, because they’re mutants and so tied up with the X-Men rights and setting and probably won’t make it into the Big Hero 6 film, you’re left with Hiro, Baymax, Honey Lemon, Go-Go Tomago, Wasabi-no-Ginger and Fred.

Big Hero 6 2

Hiro and Baymax are clearly affectionate homages to a number of Japanese characters. Hiro is a super-genius kid who builds a robot protector for himself. That’s an idea that mixes bits of Getter Robo, Tetsujin 28 and even the Kenny’s from Godzilla. However it’s also a strong idea without the Japanese elements.  A boy and his pet robot? You can easily imagine that as an animated film *cough* Iron Giant *cough*

Big Hero 6 3

And then there’s Go-Go Tomago who, aside from Hiro, is the only character to have much of a personality. She’s a former biker gang member and criminal given a second lease on life by volunteering to pilot a suit of armour that lets her bounce around like a human pachinko ball (a kind of Japanese version of pinball that is the most mind numbingly boring activity a human being can possibly engage in) and makes her look a little bit like a Power Ranger. Again she’s a combination of Japanese concepts but one that is played straight and still works as a straight super-hero.

Unfortunately her name is wrong. She’s called Tomago because she’s supposed to resemble an egg but the Japanese word for egg is tAmago, not tOmago as the Official Hand Book to the Marvel Universe would have you believe.

And then with Honey Lemon it starts to get silly.

Big Hero 6 4

Honey Lemon (a play on long running Japanese superhero Cutie Honey) has a purse that allows her to draw weapons and devices from other dimensions (shades of Doraemon) which is really pushing what you can get away with in a straight super-hero story and is verging on parody territory.

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Fred is just some guy in a t-shirt and hat, but when he fights he manifests his ki, or spirit energy, in the form of a giant ghostly dinosaur that’s not unlike Godzilla. It’s kind of a silly concept but I like Fred for just how oddball he is and the interesting visual he offers.

Big Hero 6 6

Finally there’s Wasabi-no-Ginger which is a name that is simply unacceptable. Honey Lemon’s stretching it but Wasabi-no-Ginger isn’t a clever pun so much as it is the equivalent of a Japanese comic introducing a morbidly obese character in a cowboy hat called Burger McRanchdressing. Try and count the stereotypes in this short character description guys. He’s a sushi chef (1) but also a samurai (2) who fights by using katana (3) and sushi knives (4) that he makes from his body whilst wearing wooden sandals (5) and a Hawaiian shirt (6?). Whilst the other characters are a spin on existing Japanese characters Wasabi-no-Ginger is the result of throwing everything Chris Claremont knows about Japan (sushi, samurais…Hawaiian shirts?) into a blender and calling the result a character. You know in the Super Friends how the Native American guy who grew got called Apache Chief rather than something that described his powers like Giant Man, or Gigantor. That is the level of patronising we’re dealing with here in Wasabi-no-Ginger.

So it’s a concept that can easily go either way. Played straight it can be an affectionate pastiche of Japanese super-heroes but one that also functions as a proper super-hero narrative with good strong character hooks such as boy and his robot or former criminal seeks redemption. Play it for laughs though and it could quickly lapse into a series of embarrassing stereotypes.

What we’ve     heard so far from Disney doesn’t really help us know much either way. The concept art looks amazing but the setting, San-Frantokyo, sounds fairly hokey.

Oh, and for those that might be interested in tracking down the original comics, don’t bother. The original 3 issue mini has never been collected and whilst it’s okay it isn’t worth the effort to find it. The later Chris Claremont mini is aggressively terrible. Not only does it feature trademark tedious Chris Claremont mind control (editors, please, please stop letting Chris Claremont write mind control stories) but the characters all get turned into his stock types too, that’s if they’re not reduced to boring ciphers. The plot is so thin as to be barely there and it spends most of two out of its 5 issue run focused on our heroes infiltrating an American high school and taking part in an American football game for absolutely no reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey gang. Fair warning to you that this article is a little bit out of date as it has been sitting on my desk at school for a week. However it’s something I feel really strongly about and my thoughts still stand.

Those who know me know that among my many passions in life one that rates more highly than my interest in Japanese culture is my interest in comics. Specifically my interest in super-hero comics. So I was very excited recently when not only one of my favourite comic authors (Grant Morrison) but one of my favourite artists (Cliff Chiang) debuted mash-ups between western super-hero archetypes the Justice League and Japanese culture.

And I feel it necessary to talk about them and judge, as someone who kniows both a fair bit about Japan and Super-heroes, how successful they were.

Firstly let’s look at Grant Morrison’s efforts. Morrison, for those unfamiliar with comics, is one of my favourite writers. He is generally famed for his big concept ideas, use of philosophy and bleeding edge physics in otherwise straightforward super-hero work and a sort of joyous surrealism. He is presently writing an enormous story for DC Comics called Final Crisis; a cross-over event story that ties up a lot of plot developments in the D.C. Universe over the last 5 – 10 years. Morrison has invented 2 super-hero teams for Japan that he has retroactively added into the continuity. By continuity I mean the general storyline of the D.C. Universe. So for example, whilst neither of these teams existed until a few weeks ago everyone in the D.C. Universe is pretending they’ve been around since the 1970’s. Wakarimasu ka?

Anyway, nicked from Scans Daily, who in turn nicked them from the Final Crisis Sketchbook here they are.

First lets start with the “original” Japanese super-team i.e. the JLA spliced with some of the bigger and more famous manga genres.

First up we have the team itself known as “Big Science Action.” An attempt at Engrish which isn’t hugely convincing but it works for me.

Ultimon.
So far so good. Here we have Super-man crossed with Ultraman. This works perfectly fine for me since Ultraman, bar possibly Astro Boy, is the most super-heroic of all the Japanese Super Sentai (basically their version of super-heroes) mostly due to his secret identity, costume and the fact that his name ends in man.

Morrison also has this to say about Ultimon.

Together in the ruins of Tokyo, young Dai Yokohama and his master fought the three COLONIZERS (all the monsters we see him fight look like “real” versions of POKEMON creatures, as if nature had actually created Pokemon horrors to run around causing real devastation):

SCARRBA the PROTECTOR leads the charge — a multi-headed Hydra thing spitting a different death ray from each head. Eyes of one head fire lasers. Mouth of another shoots fire. Horns on the third launch electrical bolts, etc. KRY-TORR the BURROWER digs up the streets, and the rubble of fallen buildings flies from his hellish, centipedal multi-legs. LORLOXX the LAYER squats and releases fuming glass eggs from rows of pipes in its sides, all filled with squirming monstrosities.

Making him fight monsters also works since a) this is what Ultraman does and b) you can’t do a Japanese pop-culture pastiche without having some kaiju in there. They may not be the most popular thing in Japan but they’re emblematic of Japanese pop-culture to the west. Although Pokemon as real monsters is very, very Grant Morrison-ish I think it works. It sends up the differences in style between Western and Asian comics, that there is a greater tradition of cartooning here whereas in America art has gotten progressively more realistic. Oh and there’s a King Ghidorah pastiche in there too which I approve of because King Ghidorah is my favourite Kaiju.

Cosmo Racer
Not a brilliant name (but oh my god is there worse to come) but not a bad mash-up either. Silver Surfer with Atom/Astro Boy. Morrison says Silver Surfer with Pinocchio but considering Atom Boy was/is basically Pinocchio if Pinocchio was an atomic robot in underpants it’s Astro Boy. The problem with that mash-up is that Atom Boy was already in part a mash-up of East and West, with Tezuka openly borrowing from many famous western sources such as Pinocchio, Superman and Walt Disney.

I’m not a huge fan of the design either which is a little bit too much silver surfer, except with roller skating instead of surfing. As far as I can detect there’s nothing overtly Japanese in this design. At least nothing that isn’t already largely incorporated into Western comics.

Boss Bosouko
Akira plus the Human Torch plus Ghost Rider. Again like with Ultraman or Kaiju Akira is such a visible example of the history of manga that you would be silly to pass it up. Kaneda (the hero of Akira) maps so perfectly onto the human torch (plus the borrowed visual from ghost rider because, let’s be honest flaming heads on bikes look awesome) too. Both are young impetuous hot headed heroes but with their hearts in the right place. In fact the elements Morrison has chosen to join together here gel so well that it doesn’t feel like a pastiche, I can actually see Boss Bosozuku working as a legitimate character. He does have a rubbish name but I love the nuclear warning symbol motorbike jacket.

Hammersuit Zero-X
I like the “spunky young girl” creating a giant robot. What’s actually working here is less of an East/West pastiche and more of a combination of Japanese elements. So we have the spunky school girl from Magical Girl Manga with the small boy has big robot friend stuff from Gigantor or Giant Robo. The design is appalling though. Morrison sights Gundam and Gigantor but this doesn’t look anything like either of those. Gundam suits look blocky and militaristic (or like fish and windmills) and Gigantor looks like clean 1950’s sci-fi. Nor does it look like any modern mecha series which have all followed the Evangelion template of organic mecha. It basically doesn’t look like any mecha series I’m familiar with. What it looks like is a mid-90’s Iron Man villain crossed with an X-box. The concept is fine but the suit needs work.

Junior Waveman
Spot on basically. Junior Waveman is Aquaman crossed with the classic Sentai super-team (think Science Ninja Team Gatchaman or Power Rangers). Sentai teams are characterized by matching outfits/powers and the notion of a junior member. His costume is a bit lifeless though although his name works quite well.

Those are our heroes that we’re meant to take seriously “Big Science Action Team.” Now I’d complain about the name but considering my favourite Japanese super-hero team is called “Science Ninja Team Gatchaman” I think it’s largely appropriate. Especially since these are meant to be a 1970’s style team both in the Justice League members they ape and the Japanese characters chosen and the 70’s were really the era for the silly/badly translated names.

The next set are all summarized from the opening text in Morrison’s introduction. These are wannabes. Mindless and inane fashion drones with no real desire for heroism but rather are emblematic of the inane/superficial/random elements of Japanese culture (i.e. the bits I love so much).

For starters we have “Most Excellent Super-bat.” Now this may be the finest name I have ever heard for a super-hero ever. Just try saying it to yourself, most excellent super-bat, most excellent super-bat. Does it or does it not just make the day seem that much brighter? Most Excellent Super-Bat is Batman and Superman blitzed together with bright colours, cute accessories and the post-apocalyptic/nihilist psychedelic/mass-consumerist philosophy of Shibuya denizens. He is meant to be utterly bizarre and stupid beyond all possible words and he is masterfully successful in it. Morrison gets this one right, there are guys exactly like this on TV in Japan already, except less super-heroey.

The problem is Morrison kind of makes his point with Most Excellent Super-Bat and then has nothing left to say. Most of the other characters in the Super Young Team (which isn’t Engrish enough to sound fun like Big Action Team and is too stupid to work as something a Japanese teenager would actually call themselves) are just the same joke again, take a Justice League member and re-arrange them plus add in some bright colours and mad fashion accessories to point out the inane superficiality of some Japanese teens. Big Atomic Lantern Boy is a fine example of the problem. There isn’t much pastiche here or thought going into it, it’s a ridiculous looking guy with a silly name and some Green Lantern elements nicked from a proper super-hero. He doesn’t map onto a Japanese fashion or sub-culture nor does he directly reference any manga or anime he’s just a goofy looking idiot with a silly name.

Shy Crazy Lolita Canary would work a bit better because she actually maps onto a Japanese sub-culture, Gothic Lolita. Except she doesn’t because Morrison gets every single element of her character wrong. For starters if she’s a Lolita canary why is she in a school girl outfit and not a Gothic Lolita costume? Secondly why does she shout sumimasen? Sumimasen means sorry in Japanese and although they’re not exactly the crowd I move with Gothic Lolita aren’t known for yelling sorry very loudly. I think that what Morrison wants her to be saying is “Irrashaimasen” since he mentions shop girls and shop girls in Japan say this. It means welcome and shop keepers yell it at you when they see you in their shop. HwoevEr again, why is a Gothic Lolita yelling irrashaimasen? Unless Morrison is thinking of maid cafes because maid costume is quite similar to Gothic Lolita fashion but again why isn’t she in a maid/Lolita outfit? And why is she shy crazy Lolita canary? Lolita are amongst the most extroverted Japanese people around, unless that’s why she’s yelling sorry (but then there’s something weirdly inverted about yelling sorry, not really a shy action). I’ll give him making a black canary analogue winged is quite a nice touch considering the fetish-isation of angelic imagery in this country but generally shy crazy Lolita canary doesn’t work at all.

Shiny Happy Aquazon is a bit better again. We’ve reverted from trying to say anything about Japanese subculture and have gone back to fusing manga characters with super-heroes. In this case we’ve got Aquaman, Wonder Woman (an amazon) and the sort of happy bright but dumb and clumsy characters that populate a wide swathe of manga (i.e. Sailor Moon, Lum, belldandy). Her outfit is quite nice too, very super-hero but still looking like something Lum would wear. Her name is rubbish though, mostly because shiny happy sounds less like engrish than it does an R.E.M. song. Engrish works when you have two words that we don’t regularly combine in colloquial English (science ninja being a good example of words that would never meet each other in normal English) but we’re all used to hearing shiny and happy next to each other so it doesn’t work as Engrish and just sounds dumb as a standard super-hero name.

Well Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash
Well spoken? What? Okay so the description is sonic the hedgehog meets Impulse. So for those that don’t know Impulse was a super-fast scatter brained teenager raised inside a virtual reality computer game like world whereas sonic the hedgehog is a….super fast scatter brained hedgehog that actually is a computer game character. Yeah, that’s less sonic meets Impulse than Impulse meets the character that inspired Impulse in the first place. Oh but it’s okay because he has a ridiculous top heavy anime inspired design….y’know, like Impulse. Oh and he’s living for the now…a bit like Impulse and.

Basically the problem with Well Spoken Lightning Flash is that he’s EXACTLY the same character as Impulse but with a more ridiculous design and a name that I cannot begin to fathom the joke behind.

I realise that the whole point behind the Super Young Team is that we’re meant to dislike them as shallow poseurs and they contrast with the heroic and noble Big Action Team. I get the point Morrison is trying to make and I love the joke behind Most Excellent Super-bat but none of the other characters work in the slightest bit. Shy Crazy Lolita Canary and Well Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash in particular entirely fail as jokes or pastiches because they don’t reflect anything Japanese, either in real life or in manga.

So ultimately I think Morrison ahs failed here. Potentially Big Action Team could work as a real comic with some tweaking but Super Young Team fail entirely as jokes and were never meant to be real characters.

However, Cliff Chiang also recently showed off some Super-hero manga mash-ups, although he created his nearly 10 years ago. Chiang’s gone for a more direct pastiche approach, simply taking one character and re-imagining them in the form of an existing Japanese manga. These are all specific homages but some of them work excellently and really draw parallels between the western characters and the eastern characters.

To start with we have science ninja hero Batman and his partner Robin. Robin’s costume is a little bit too on the nose and looks exactly like a Gatchaman costume only re-coloured. I’m a big fan of Batman’s Gatchaman inspired look though. It’s still recognizably a bat but with the clean lines associated with 1960’s Japanese sci-fi. Visual Kei joker is fun too, observe this photo of Gackt…

…and now look at the Joker. And yet it’s still recognisably the Joker, and it works better for a Japanese joker since it incorporates the androgyny and attractiveness that Japan likes to instill its villains with.

Superman as Gigantor is hilarious. He really is a man of steel. The Super-man robot looks like an anime super-robot (actually a genre of anime) and the shorts wearing kid who commands it with a signal watch is spot on. Unfortunately it wouldn’t quite let you translate stories as easily as the science ninja batman would. Batchaman would still fight super-villains and could still have the same origin but Super-Robot would have a vastly different origin without all the Christ/immigrant imagery in the original character.

Aquaman as a Kanren runner/Ultraman type is just genius though. Kanren Runner or Ultraman are the most obviously super-heroic of any Japanese super-heroes and Kanren Runners design works well for an alien being that lives in the sea. And having him grow to enormous size to fight sea monsters (Kaiju actually does translate as sea monster) is a spot of brilliance. I would happily read the adventures of a king of the seas protecting his civilization and the surface world from marauding giant monsters. It would be an infinitely better character than Aquaman.

Flash Go Go Go is just speed racer with a red car. The homage is spot on but there isn’t much to say about it. Green Lantern I sadly cannot place and Wonder Woman as Princess Luda from Starblazers doesn’t work too well because the character is no longer recognizably Wonder Woman. The homage is fine since both are princesses but the design needs a little work to bring out the super-hero sides more.

Overall then I vastly prefer Chiang’s mash-ups but sadly there isn’t as much to say about them.

And finally let’s take a look at what happens when it occurs in the other direction and Japan does the mashing. Well you end up with this.

That was the Japanese Spider-man show from the 1970’s (Supaidaman). You may have noticed, as I did, that there is a giant robot. Moreso there is a giant robot that Spider-man summons by yelling “change me lepardomon!” Why spider-man has a giant robot is an easy mystery to figure out.

Japanese Scriptwriter: Well boss you know how you bought the rights to that American super-hero Spider-man?

Japanese TV Exec: I did, well what about it?

JS: Well I worked out a story concept for you.

JTVE: Oh cool,. So what does this supaidaman do?

JS: Well he shoots webs, climbs walls, does flips and martial arts and beats up bad guys.

JTVE: Hmm, sounds good. Kind like Gatchaman but with a spider instead of birds.

JS: Right boss.

JTVE: So how does he fight giant monsters?
JS: Sorry?

JTVE: How does he fight giant monsters?

JS: Um….. he doesn’t?

JTVE: Well that’s no good. You’ve gotta have giant monsters so you can sell toys. Tell you what why doesn’t he have a giant robot?

JS: Genius sir.

Why he has A LEOPARD ROBOT rather than say a spider one is a mystery that may never be unsolved.
And I have it on good authority that in a later episode he gains a car with machine gun lamps.
Catchy theme tune though.

Hello everyone, good news, I can hear again.

Saw the ear doctor today who strapped me down and roughly abused me, aurally. He had his wicked way with my ears and left them sore and aching but vastly improved. Yesterday I couldn’t hear a thing out of my left ear. The doctor strapped me to a chair and cleaned out my ears and now I can hear better than I ever remember being able to. I had no idea I was so deaf before! And you should have seen the amount of crap he pulled out of my ears, I had no idea ear canals were so big! It was truly disgusting.

He diagnosed an ear infection which I have to take an absolute ton of drugs for. 9 a day!

Anyway the only reason I bring this up is because I have now experienced something new in Japan, I have been to a Japanese doctor. How do they compare to western doctors I hear you ask, well largely it’s the same. The waiting time was a bit shorter than what I’m used to and the nurses had sexier uniforms than back home but generally they’re just as brusque and no nonsense as English doctors.

Anyway I’m still in recovery mode largely so it’s a quick one today. Tomorrow I should have a full post all about a recent confectionary convention I attended in Himeji.

So let’s talk about Caramel-Salt Kit-Kats.

One of the things that ex-pats notice a lot and that for me is indelibly linked with Japan is the staggering variety of forms the humble kit-kat can achieve. I have mentioned this before on the site and I have always intended to start cataloguing the different kinds of kit-kat available. Well there’s no time to start like the present so here is kit-kat entry number one, caramel salt.

The combination of caramel and salt sounds odd (it is after all just sugar and salt effectively) but not too odd. I can conceivably see this flavour working but I do wonder why not just go with caramel on its own, what does the salt add?

As it happens not much. The kit-kat has a definite caramel flavour although disappointingly it’s still quite chocolatey whereas I was hoping for something close to a caramac. The effect of the salt is to make it taste more like a burnt caramel than something overtly sweet. Presumably this is meant to compliment the bitterness of Japanese tea.

Finally I want to show everyone this.

Yup, it’s a bag. Crucially it’s a backpacking bag, one designed for the purpose of doing some travelling. What it signifies is a little adventure I intend to go on.

Since I first arrived in Japan people have been telling me that the great thing about Japan is that you can sleep anywhere. If you miss your last train you can always sleep in a capsule hotel, a love hotel (basically a hotel where you can buy rooms by the night or the hour) or failing that in a karaoke box, a manga café (much more than a mere manga destination. For an hourly rate a manga café will let you read manga, drink coffee, use the internet, watch films, play computer games and sleep in big comfy chairs. They stay open all night and people are employed to look after sleeping customers and see that they are safe) or failing this just in a train station. I have tested this theory by sleeping in a nightclub unmolested but now I am going to really put it to the test. I aim to head out to Hiroshima during Golden Week and see if I can spend 3 days there and in its environs without using a hotel, mostly because during golden week most of the hotels are booked up anyway. I will sleep in manga cafes and wash in onsens and sentos. If I succeed I will be endeavouring to use this method of travel again in the summer.

By the way the title of today’s post is a pun on the famous manga and anime series Deathnote. Deathnote is about a boy who discovers a notebook left on Earth by a shinigami (a death god). If he writes a name in the book, that person dies. I haven’t read much Deathnote but at the moment it is an insanely popular manga in Japan.

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