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Traditional and Modern Techno-Orientalism in Big Hero 6 26 May, 2020   

Big Hero 6, an American 3D computer-animated superhero film, is based on a Marvel comic book series set in Japan. A brilliant 14-year-old robotics Hiro Hamada discovers an inflatable health care robot Baymax created in the past by his brother, Tadashi. Baymax is designed to be non-threatening, and with the sole purpose of healing. After a devastating event occurs, Hiro and Baymax team up with four other high-tech superheroes, to save their hometown San Fransokyo from an evil supervillain, Professor Callaghan, who was going to become Hiro’s mentor in school. Hiro and his team take down Callaghan who is trying to avenge his daughter from a tech CEO with the help of Hiro's invention. San Fransokyo which is the combination of San Francisco and Tokyo city is a fictional city. (Kelts, 2016, pp 16-18) “The city is a visual astonishment: meticulously detailed renderings of San Francisco’s hilly neighborhoods with Tokyo’s Odaiba Rainbow Bridge spanning its bay and Shibuya skyscrapers hugging the iconic Transamerica Pyramid”.

Despite their names in Japanese, the movie does not manifest any kind of strong stereotype except for the fact that the film is centered on Japan’s reputation for being technologically advanced. Even though a 14-year-old kid named Hiro already had his high school diploma. Other than that, the Japanese portrayed here only speak English and there is no stereotyping of their physical appearance. For instance, no one is seen wearing glasses nor are they short-limbed. The characters can be seen embracing a wide range of body shapes and sizes like the difference between the tall and thin Honey Lemon and the shorter and rounder Gogo. Besides that, there is no sign of them eating any kind of Japanese food. However, their obsession, innovation, and skill towards robotics can be sensed in the film. Hence, I could feel the cyberpunk culture while watching the movie. Talking about the cyberpunk genre, it is not always the male who plays an important role in portraying differences. For example, there are cyberpunk anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell in which the female characters are associated with an exploration of belief.  In Akira, it was Kei who developed her telekinetic power to help restore the chaos released by Tetsuo, the male lead. Similarly in Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi played the role of cyborg lead protagonist. This cyberpunk culture which is often related to techno orientalism is widespread in science-fiction films. The west depicts a future world in which everyone has turned Japanese and paints a picture in which all people of all ethnic groups or nationalities and Japanese people are replaceable. They also portray East Asians as cyborgs or replicants and the futuristic city as a network of both high and low technologies. Despite exhibiting unconventional storytelling and hardly establishing an emotional connection with the lifeless characters, the cyberpunk culture is still out there because there are people who love this genre. And if it sells to the audience, then films with such storylines would come in the market. People ignore the fact of how some of the extreme cyberpunk films have been portraying coldness of the worldview and giving birth to techno orientalism. However, films like Big Hero 6 avoid this and have a more positive outlook. So, here I think there some kind of shift or change in the cyberpunk genre of films not only visually but also ideologically. Also, there are not only west scholars and writers who have a vision of Japan as their fantasy. Takayuki Tatsumi is one of the Japanese scholars who had used the name of the Japanese city, “Chiba”, in his first novel without knowing the actual geographical location of it. Ueno (1999) Techno-orientalism is set up for the Western countries to maintain its image as the imaginative idea of the futuristic world. Techno orientalism is also a perception when western societies see eastern societies fear that Eastern nations will take over the economy and surpass the West especially in the technological realms. This fear of western society which is described above is called “yellow peril”. For instance, even if the parts of the cars or mobile phones are made in the west but many of the components are coming from Asian companies especially Japan. Without the technology sector of Japan, the products couldn’t have been developed. Therefore, Japan dares to be able to adapt and transform western technology into one of its kind. So, western society might view Japan as the future that replaces and transcend the west. One of the most notable techno orientalist evidence in this film is Baymax’s appearance i.e. round and irregular shape. Sawada (1998) this might be a reference to the ancient Japanese value of shibusaan aesthetic appreciation of simplicity and nature. This augmented the techno-orientalist perception that no matter up to what extent Japan progresses with technological innovation, they will be always attached to their cultural past. Apart from Big Hero 6, there are other numerous anime and films such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner whose storylines portray a disillusioned view of real-life Japan. Akira which is placed in Japan itself but the story shifts to supernatural things leaving the plot no longer focus on real life. But, I think that big hero 6 has a bit more positive approach compared to the above-mentioned anime and films. It certainly enforces the idea of techno orientalism but the story is not talking about Japan or Japanese style but about the technological innovation in the form of robotics that gave rise to humanity. Moreover, the world in Big Hero 6 was not a total dystopian one and it still retained a small amount of humanity. Additionally, there were fewer apocalyptic scenarios compared to other techno orientalist films. For example, I think in Big Hero 6, there is equality shown between the east and west and there is a more respectful approach of attempts depicting East-Asian influenced futures. The film’s look tries to combine Western and Eastern aesthetics without any of the societies looking inferior or superior. (Claudia, 2015, pp 34-36) “Despite being high-tech, San Fransokyo references the traditional techno-orientalist notion of the East’s preservation of tradition by merging the ultra-modern city with traditional Japanese imagery and symbols”. Also, Hiro being an Asian protagonist concerted effort to further show heroes of all kinds because earlier heroes were projected an image of whites. Not just Asian but non-Asian are also shown intelligent and into robotics in Big Hero 6. Leaving the stereotype behind only Asians are brainy, this movie shows how everyone is so enthusiastic about developing technology. However, in movies like Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell, no cast looked the way the real world does or did and had used Asian culture to denote the future of mankind. Ghost in the Shell begins in cyberspace and then quickly morphs into real life. It follows the adventure of the female protagonist-Major who leads section 9 filled with cyborgs as she chases Puppet Master. Personally, this anime immersed immediately into action and in cyberspace so I did not know exactly where the story was going to.  The level of cyberization varied from simple minimal interfaces to almost complete replacement of the brain with cybernetic parts like ghost hacks people, inserting false memories, controlling their actions, and reducing them to puppets. It has been said that this anime depicts high tech orientalism because of the merge of Puppet Master and the Major at the end of the anime. This offered a vision of Japan dominating the futuristic world through its technological innovation merging with the dying west. The focus is also less in relationships between the main characters and the interactions are more on the visual and visceral spaces. In other words, the technological innovation and effects in the movie have overwhelmed the story more than the character itself. It had set extraordinary fantasies that the real future world would never look like. The lack of nature and constant dominance of machines and technology has eliminated all the warmth and life out to such a point that you can no longer feel any human presence and only group of buildings, skyscrapers, and machines without feeling any emotional connection with any of the characters. Whereas in Big Hero 6; the storyline indeed got less exciting than the one it started with after the characters turn into an Avengers-style superhero but still kept me entertained because things weren’t shown complicatedly.  One of the books concerning techno orientalism i.e. “Techno-orientalism: imagining Asia in speculative fiction, history, and media” has also stated how movies like blade runner show that the future will be full of cities that resemble Tokyo, Shanghai, and it will be populated mainly by cold, unfeeling citizens who act like robots. It also discusses about Neoliberalism that has been a dominant ideology since the 1980s. It is an economy whereby increased competition achieved through deregulation and freedom of domestic markets and through privatization and limited government ability to run a budget deficit and debt. It mentions that the growth of neoliberal ideology has contributed to a greater flow of capital and knowledge about each other between the East and the West-leading to conjecture of an Asianized future. This free-market economy had led the Asianized future to become more prevalent. West position Japanese body itself as a technology and has been affecting Japanese self-image. So, not only has the West been misunderstanding the Japanese through techno-Oriental images it projects, but the Japanese also misunderstand themselves due to this circulation of multinational superiority image. This book sums up that Techno-orientalism' is everywhere. It emphasizes how essential critical category has it become for modern thought and any attempt to think about globalization or neo-liberalism cannot ignore this term.

When comparing these films, I think it shows the changing of mindset of the people and how at present the Asian cultures have been treated as a less absurd depiction of the future. The reasons for this change may be because the film industries have become more sensitive towards the audience or the fear of getting accused of orientalism. Orientalist view is when we then take values and place them together into our perception or picture of the Orient and take an idealized perspective and viewing the other culture as just the other, without deep knowledge. Likewise, the orientalist view of Japan is seen in anime and these anime sticks to orientalist expectations portraying Japan as hyper technified, dehumanized, and materialized society. However, this techno orientalist view towards Japan not necessarily means that it remains inferior to the West. (Jablonski, 2012, p89) “Japan operates in non-productive relations as a mysterious, unpredictable, and surprising place, ideal for locating unlikely stories. In a country so perceived, anything can happen. Even when something terrible happens, you cannot take it seriously.” Cyberpunk fiction, cinema, comics, and manga deals with ideas related to capitalism and commoditization. When analyzing animated films or series which not only consist of science fiction ones but also fantasy-themed and historical ones, the role played by technology in the worlds of anime has drifted on identity issues. Japan’s association with technology has perhaps garnered what has most characterized the perception of Japan or Japanese people in the West during the last decades. Despite such modernization and technological development in Japan, it is still being depicted Orientalist mirror not just through Western Orientalization of Japan and but also Japan’s self-Orientalization which has been based on the Western definition. This techno orientalist view gives a wrong view of real Japan and it indicates how the Japanese people identify or see themselves depending on the west’s perception of Japan.  Thus, techno-orientalism integrates and gives a new turn to prejudices and misjudgments and has specifically promoted an array of stereotypes and deformations about Japan assuming that technology emerging as one of the central components of Japanese culture.

 

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References

1.      Kelts, R. (2014, October 24). Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’ animates a bridging of cultures. The Japan Times Culture. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2014/10/24/general/disneys-big-hero-6-animates-bridging-cultures/#.XGi06OhKjIV

2.      Ueno, T. (1999). Techno‐Orientalism and media‐tribalism: On Japanese animation and rave culture. Third Text, Vol 13, no. 47, pp. 95-105.

3.      Sawada, D. (1989). Aesthetics in post-modern education: the Japanese concept of Shibusa. ERIC-education resources information center. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED312184&gt

4.      Claudia (2015, April 8). Techno orientalism: The orientalism of computer-age. Word express. Retrieved from https://claudiajb.wordpress.com/2015/04/08/techno-orientalism-the-orientalism-of-the-computer-age/

5.      Roh, D., Huang, B., & Niu, G. (Eds.). (2015). Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Rutgers University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1647cqh

Jabłoński, A. (2012). Stereotypes, exotica, concrete. Media game in a menacing Japan after the tragic events of March 2011. Homo Ludens, 1(4), pp.87-96.

#BigHero6 #CulturalStudies #SocialScience #TechnoOrientalism

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