Asian Worldbuilding in Western Animation
by Nikhil Misra, Josephine Ota, Amanda Zhang, and Denada Permatasari
View the Graphics for this post @animasians on Instagram!
Asia & Worldbuilding
Asia is an enormous continent spanning from Turkey to Indonesia, with an assortment of proud countries in between. However, western media’s Asian representation and worldbuilding draw disproportionately from Eastern Asia - specifically, China, Japan, and Korea. This hardly makes a ripple in Asia’s vast reservoir of worldbuilding inspiration, nor does it do its regional diversity justice.
While picking and choosing references or generalizing from multiple cultures may be easier than precise research, it ultimately alienates audiences. Asian worldbuilding is most effective when specific, authentic, and relevant to the characters and story.
We’ll be exploring prominent examples of Asian worldbuilding in western animation to understand how we can create fictional worlds that tell the most compelling stories. We’ll discuss do’s and don’ts and examine worldbuilding influences from major regions of Asia: East, Southeast, South, and West.
What is Worldbuilding?
We define worldbuilding as the process of creating settings for the characters and story. Great worldbuilding implements both geography (flora, fauna, weather, terrain, food materials) and culture (customs, politics, religion, ideologies, etc). Developing worlds around characters and narratives helps create more rewarding stories. Let’s take a look at worldbuilding in animated media that draw from Asian cultures and aesthetics.
Over the Moon (2020)
The worldbuilding in Over the Moon speaks authentically to the shared experience of many Chinese-Americans. Details like household seasonings, architecture, respect toward family members, and myths being passed down from relatives to children, remind many Chinese diaspora of their own experience growing up in a similar household. The film incorporates several specific elements of Chinese culture, but two stood out in particular: the portrayal of food and its impact on family, and the cultural detail in the environments.
In many Eastern cultures, preparing and eating food is an expression of love that is sometimes more common than verbal affection. Over the Moon captures this with intricate sequences of Fei Fei making mooncakes with her parents, offering food at her mother’s altar, refusing Mrs. Zhong’s mooncakes, and ultimately dining with her new family. The audience never hears the words “I love you,” but when Fei Fei’s family cooks and eats together, that love is apparent and resonates with Asian audiences in a way that deepens the emotional impact of Fei Fei’s journey.
The environmental details - like those seen in Fei Fei’s kitchen - also add to the cultural worldbuilding. Things like an analog kitchen scale, Chinese rice wine, fish sauce, and soy sauce are often found in Chinese kitchens. The rabbit on the door curtain is a nod to the moon rabbit in Chinese mythology, and the shelf features a design seen in traditional Chinese wooden architecture. Specific details like these allow viewers to draw parallels to their own lives and bring a grounded authenticity to the film.
Kung Fu Panda (media franchise)
East Asia heavily influences the worldbuilding of the Kung Fu Panda films as well. The creators were enamored with Chinese culture and viewed Kung Fu Panda as a love letter to classic kung fu films. From research in Chengdu, they incorporated Chinese culture and philosophy within Po’s story arc. This included details East Asian audiences can appreciate, such as dan dan noodles, Shaolin kung fu, Mount Qingcheng, and more.
Subtle specifics indicate the precise research done on eastern customs, such as the taboo around wasting food. In a sequence from the first film when a dumpling was thrown away, the filmmakers ensured that it could be heard rattling into a bowl offscreen as opposed to falling on the floor.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) sought to branch out to new regions of China and looked to the country’s former banking capital of Pingyao for inspiration. In the same way Pingyao– the walled city– juts out of the surrounding landscape, Gongmen City serves as a fortress for the film’s antagonist, Lord Shen. The intimidating and symmetrical city mirrors the villain’s character and stands in contrast to Po’s disorderliness. Overall, these films are thoughtfully executed stories in appreciation of East Asia.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Big Hero 6 is another showcase of worldbuilding sparked by East Asia, showcasing a hybrid city based on Japan and San Francisco: San Fransokyo. Filmmakers began with data of every single building in San Francisco and added Japanese elements to them. They include noticeable details like Japanese signage, a Maneki-Neko cat figurine, signature cherry blossom trees, as well as more subtle elements like Japanese manhole covers, vending machines, and electrical wiring. The city refrains from generalizing East Asian culture by building from specificity in its overall design, effectively creating a futuristic world that equally reflects the lived-in experience of our Japanese-American protagonist, Hiro. However, its design also raises concerns around techno-orientalism: the use of East Asian (usually Japanese) technology in Western media to create an “otherworldly” setting. While Big Hero 6’s worldbuilding is not as egregious or demeaning as seen in other media, San Fransokyo’s surface level inspiration does not necessarily impact the character’s philosophies or hero’s journey.
Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
The best fantasy worlds make their cultural specificity essential to the hero’s journey. In Raya’s Kumandra, a fictional land composed of five tribes based on cultures from Southeast Asia (SEA), specific details shine through in the clothing, food, buildings, and even the weather. However, Kumandra lumps together influences from over eleven SEA countries' distinct cultures. By pulling aesthetics from multiple regions without making them essential to the narrative, the details intended to enrich Kumandra only serve its surface level.
Raya herself could be from any culture, and her character and story may not necessarily change. She sports a Philippine salakót and Cambodian sampot, fights in varied martial arts styles from Muay Thai to Pencak Silat, and eats foods ranging from Vietnamese Bánh tét to Thai Tom yum. Similar mixtures of SEA detail are found in the settings and ‘Five Kingdoms’ of Kumandra. While these details are meant to create a singular character and story, they are also a form of generalization. SEA cultures do affect one another, but using their separate cultural details interchangeably can imply they are the same and portray the diverse region reductively.
Yet, while the lack of specificity in the narrative may create a rift between Raya and SEA audiences; the detail, artistry, and level of research put into accurately portraying the rich histories of different SEA cultures is valued and commendable.
Mira, Royal Detective (2020)
Mira, Royal Detective’s fictional port city of Jalpur walks the fine line of unabashedly presenting Desi culture in a way that audiences can relate to while avoiding stereotypes. Rather than generalizing South Asia’s varied cultures, religions, and people, Jalpur adopts specific details in service of story beats.
According to Shagorika Ghosh Perkins, one of the show’s cultural consultants, inspiration for Jalpur’s palace came directly from the Lake Palace of Udaipur. The world around Mira draws from India’s textile expertise, regional clothing, wildlife, and even Indian folk illustration. Paisley patterns, mandalas, white marble, ogee arches, and vibrant color schemes influenced by India’s own colorful cities (i.e. the blue city of Jodphur) depict the rich tapestry of South Asian culture in an accessible way for young western viewers.
Beyond Mira, there is room for improvement in western animation’s South Asian worldbuilding due to the lack of South Asian stories being told. South Asia’s rich and diverse cultural history is a wellspring of inspiration for fresh narratives.
Aladdin is the most prominent reference to West Asia in western animation, and the clearest example of what not to do when it comes to Asian worldbuilding. The Disney classic unfortunately highlights the important distinction between cultural appreciation versus appropriation.
Appreciation is a desire to understand and explore another culture with the goal of broadening perspective and building connection. In contrast, appropriation is cherry-picking aspects of a different culture for personal interest. Aladdin unfortunately appropriates from a variety of West and South Asian cultures, mixing-and-matching cultural references and resorting to racist stereotypes.
Instead of pulling from one region, Aladdin defines its unique setting by picking and choosing cultural references, politics, and identities from a variety of West and South Asian cultures. Palace architecture draws from the Taj Mahal in India as well as Arabesque cupolas. Arabian culture is referred to as “barbaric,” referencing ear-chopping in the opening theme. Antagonist characters are depicted with darker skin tones and thicker accents while the protagonists have fair skin and American accents.
This disparagement and appropriation of multiple cultures, claiming they’re all the same, creates an inauthentic world that is distracting in today’s modern landscape.
Defining Success in Asian Worldbuilding
Animated stories with Asian influence are at their best when clearly and identifiably using traits from a specific culture.
Over the Moon exemplifies compelling worldbuilding through a diligent and grounded approach. By authentically representing China and Chinese culture at the beginning of the film, the fantastical Moon kingdom amplifies the emotional stakes of Fei Fei’s journey. Kung Fu Panda’s fictionalized version of China translates historic East Asian landmarks and customs into novel but familiar settings and relatable behaviors that drive the story beats. Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo reflects the Japanese-American experience of the film’s lead character, meticulously drawing from two specific cultures. The fictional city raises concerns around techno-orientalism by creating a futuristic Japanified version of San Francisco, but it does create a high-tech playground for a technological genius, serving the story.
Raya and Aladdin’s worldbuilding drew criticism for fusing independent cultures and regions together, appropriating from those cultures rather than appreciating their nuances. While there are accurate details from SEA’s different regions in Raya’s Kumandra, their interchangeable application minimizes SEA’s regional diversity and creates an ornamental world, rather than driving Raya’s character or story arc. Aladdin’s similar pan-regional approach of picking and choosing architectural influences, politics, and cultural values from numerous West and South Asian countries also generalizes those distinct regions.
In contrast, Mira, Royal Detective utilizes specific South Asian themes, designs, and locations to create a vibrant, substantive world that augments her adventures. Without Jalpur’s specific cultural inspiration and story integration, Mira’s mystery-solving quests may not be as engaging.
As each example demonstrates, Asian worldbuilding is most effective when specific, authentic, and integral to the character’s story. The creative potential for Asian inspired worlds in animation is boundless. Expanding western media to tap into that potential can change how western audiences see those parts of the world and themselves. Overall, successful Asian worldbuilding develops more impactful stories that create empathy and appreciation in all viewers, Asian or otherwise.
Looking for visuals? Check out our Asian Worldbuilding graphics @animasians on Instagram for the fully illustrated breakdown.
A Guide to Worldbuilding Do’s
Over The Moon
My name is Susan Huang and I am a concept artist and background painter working as a freelancer. I was born in Taiwan— fondly known as the kid who always doodled on her textbook but was not interested in studying. As a child, I loved reading manga and even learned to draw human figures from it, but I still struggled with my studies and college applications during my high school years.
Luckily, I got accepted into a design major where I could still draw as part of my curriculum. I didn’t know animation was an actual career and thought I would become a designer: designing all the cool products like laptops or mobile phones, but my passion for 2D art led me to become an illustrator.
After years of drawing cute images, in the summer of 2014, I watched the movie The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Studio Ghibli and I knew that that was what I wanted to do. After applying for an animation major, I began my journey through the entertainment industry.
In animation school, I had the chance to go through the entire animation pipeline, from story to the final editing. Compared to the production work or creating the story, I found myself more and more interested in designing the characters and imagining the worlds they inhabit. I enjoy figuring out the relationship between the environment and the characters, using the smallest of details to show their personalities.
Animation is a unique medium where paintings come to life. There is a wide range of animation techniques and styles that can be used to create different looks and feels, including 2D hand-drawn animation, stop-motion, and 3D animation. People have a lot of freedom to create their imaginary worlds.
I can decide the look of the characters and build the sets right from my head through my art. Every time I see my drawings acting on the screen like real people, I remember why I became an animator.
I get inspiration for my animated worlds from when I travel to different countries. I learn about their cultures and sketch whenever I see something interesting.
Through traveling, I have learned to appreciate what I have. The more countries I visit, the more in awe I am of the beauty of Taiwan. I hadn’t noticed it before because I am surrounded by it every day, but it is truly beautiful.
It can be challenging explaining it to people on the other side of the world, but I want to share my culture with others. Specifically, I want people to know about Taiwan's Democracy Movement. Many people suffered during that time and they sacrificed so much for freedom. They had families; they were someone’s father, husband, and child. I hope people today will not forget that our democracy and freedom now required the courage, determination, and sacrifice of many people who came before us. We may be able to forgive, but we should never forget.
It is a heavy topic, but I hope to tell this story through animation or images to raise awareness in the world.
Currently, the biggest challenge for me is balancing my work and my life. When I graduated from school, I struggled to get my foot in the animation industry. I worked on my portfolio every day and applied for as many jobs as I could. I believed that if I couldn't succeed in my career, it meant I hadn't spent enough time on my work.
Even today, I feel guilty when I take a break. After I finish a job, I prepare for personal work and get ready for the next project. I feel the same even on weekends. But I've learned that I need breaks to improve the quality of my art. Working for 12 hours a day won't make my art look better or help me succeed in my career. Instead, the quality of my work suffers when I'm tired.
What advice would you give to someone pursuing animation?
1. Have some hobby that is not related to animation or film. Art comes from life. People who make amazing films are inspired by their daily life. Little mice in the kitchen, toys from childhood, pets, birds, video games, and so on. Those little moments from your life will make your art unique. Enjoy your life, and share those stories your way.
2. Do your best in every assignment. No matter how small the assignments are or how short the contract is, you will always learn something from the project you get. Every assignment is an opportunity to show yourself to others, which will bring you to the next one.
3. Try your best to have personal work. This is hard, I'm also still working on it. But I feel personal work is a good way to keep my passion for art and show people who I really am.
4. Figure out what you really want to do, and go for it! You can do storyboarding, design, animation, modeling…etc. People play different roles in the animation pipeline. Find your passion and don’t give up!
WRITTEN BY: Shay Santos