It’s the distant future, and Los Angeles is overrun by cyborgs. Japanese neon signs line the streets and ominously nondescript skyscrapers define the skyline, an ad for Coca-Cola covers a building and another features a geisha popping a pill into her mouth and smiling coyly. There’s a marketplace of exotic goods and exotic people, but the only person you really care about is Harrison Ford, walking down a dark, drenched street. It’s the seminal cyberpunk film Blade Runner.
When I first watched Blade Runner, I didn’t realise it was set in LA—the Chinese graffiti, bustling streets and Asian extras made me feel as though I was watching a story set in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Tokyo. Hollywood likes to use and reuse this aesthetic to signify a distant, dystopian future, yet these images are already a staple of Asian cities—so, why?
Speculative science fiction has used this trope of “techno-orientalism” for decades. Movies use a cut-and-paste formula that perhaps isn’t as modern as their settings: a white protagonist alone in an exotic, oriental world, facing a foreign people. Except now, the foreign people are cyborgs rather than people of colour.
Angelica Jade Bastien from Vulture points out science fiction’s uncomfortable history with Asian cultures, describing the way these cultures get “mined” for visual inspiration to create an “otherness”. Graffiti and signs in Asian languages signal to the audience, “Hey! This isn’t an important detail,” and really only function to tell us that the white protagonist exists in a scary, foreign landscape. Lisa Nakamura describes techno-orientalism as a “high-tech variety of stereotyping”—“cybertyping”, if you like. Japanese culture is reduced to window-dressing, and its people relegated to background roles of cyborgs and extras, while white protagonists are handed trite storylines of action and revenge. Just as Edward Said’s work on “orientalism” suggests, there is a dichotomy created—white protagonist against a Japanese or Chinese or Korean background (doesn’t matter since they’re all interchangeable).
Orientalism at its heart is not about the culture it appropriates: it’s about projecting your own desires and fears onto a racial other. Thus, one theory is that these stories have emerged from a post-colonial paranoia. The cultures appropriated and fetishised are almost always East Asian, possibly because of technological and economic advances by countries like China, Korea, and Japan. The rise of corporate monoliths like Samsung mean they are now able to match companies from Silicon Valley like Apple, and the West is no longer alone at the front lines.
Perhaps most significant to this conversation is Japan and its history. In the 1980s, post-war technological research—in the absence of any military development—propelled Japan’s economy. However, Japan also suffered devastating losses in WWII. The shock of the atomic bomb hitting civilian areas not once but twice caused a huge hit to Japanese cultural identity. Writer Jon Tsuei argues Japan’s technological revolution was simply an effect of this shock to Japanese cultural identity—the nation was so desperately grasping for identity that the lines between technology and culture began to blur. And thus cyberpunk emerged as a genre suitable for an exploration of what identity is in a high-tech environment—something perhaps best encapsulated by Masamune Shirow’s original Ghost in the Shell. Ghost in the Shell asks: what is identity, if society is so evolved to a point where you can trade your body parts out for cybernetic parts?
Japan’s complicated relationship with its technology industry echoes throughout science fiction works, its culture being replaced in Western representations with one that is cold, impersonal and machine-like. The post-colonial paranoia resonates, with Japan’s booming economy overtaking Western ones, and its culture refusing to bend to Western exploitation. It is non-Western, but also resists fitting the West’s mould of “oriental”—Japan’s leading role breaks all standards of modernity being a Western value.
In filmmakers’ efforts to orientalise and exoticise technology and new techniques, they lose much of what is the heart of cyberpunk. Take the 2017 live-action Ghost in the Shell, and let’s put the whitewashing aside for a moment. It’s set in an unspecified megalopolis that has skylines filled with skyscrapers and holograms of geishas and folding fans—but none of this imagery means anything. The film essentially attempts to appropriate Asian cyberpunk stories by preserving the aesthetic—but not actually doing any of the legwork and exploring the themes that made Shirow’s original manga so compelling, themes about identity and technology and government and human agency.
It’s not news that the 2017 Ghost in the Shell has been criticised to pieces. But the biggest issue is that stories like the original are not meant to be universal. These stories are confined to the countries and groups they emerge from. Divorced from that specificity, and you get a flashy setting without substance—a shell without its ghost.