It's no secret that some of the most acclaimed cyberpunk works, on page and on screen, are imbued with overtly Asian imagery and embellishments. Take Neuromancer for example, arguably the most important literary work of the subgenre, which is set in the urban-decayed dark underbelly of futuristic Chiba in Japan. William Gibson, the author of the novel, is even quoted as saying:
"Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it."
On the cinematic scene, the initially unsolicited but warmly received sequel Blade Runner 2049 and the 1982 original both feature Eastern motifs. But this hasn't always been the case from the get go. While Asia — Japan and Hong Kong specifically — has been recurrently depicted in this gritty and unsettlingly prescient corner of science fiction, the milieu was different in its early days.
The American Origins Of Cyberpunk
The term "cyberpunk" first appeared on the pop-cultural lexicon in an 1980 short story, written by Bruce Bethke, eponymously titled Cyberpunk. It revolves around a hacker who uses his skills to make a nuisance of himself online. Bethke might have taken coining credit, but several proto-versions of the genre existed before his story. Two of its signature antecedents were John Brunner’s 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962), which pitted renegades against authoritarian governments of dystopian futures.
As cyberpunk blossomed, the villains changed from political juggernauts to economic ones, often in the form of giant multi-national conglomerates whose influence pervaded and controlled the lives of its plebeian antagonists. Blade Runner, following in the footsteps of its 1968 inspiration Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, helped popularize this reinvention, along with the novels Neuromancer (1984), Hardwired (1986), about an ex-fighter pilot with cybernetic implants who teams up with a cyborg to take down an autocratic corporation, and Vacuum Flowers (1987) that tells the story of a deceased woman's recorded personality on the run from her corporate owners.
During this uptick, the juxtaposition of American film noir traits, featuring stylized violence and the lonesome trench coat-clad hero trope, with the signature highly technologized neon-drenched cityscapes of the genre begun to take form.
Concurrently, Eastern-inspired aesthetics and their cues to socio-economic issues of inequality and change wrought by rapid scientific advancements started to creep their way into this burgeoning cinematic art style — again starting with Blade Runner, then hemorrhaging into Neuromancer and much later into Total Recall and its 2012 remake.
But why did Western writers and directors suddenly abandon familiarity for something foreign and distant? To understand that, you'll have to look no further than the Japanese economic boom of the '80s.
The Japanese Resurgence
Rising from the ashes of their cataclysmic World War II defeat, Japan managed to claw its way back into relevance, and even scale heights it hadn’t surmounted before, when it became the second largest economy in the world. This was largely fueled by the fact that they were the leading manufacturer of electronics in the '80s, churning out era-defining products such as Sony's iconic Walkman. The US, on the other hand, was in a tailspin. An energy crisis, a stagnated economy and the Cold War escalated anxieties about the future of the world’s superpower.
Consequently, the collective consciousness — among both American and Japanese writers and directors — posited Japan as the eventual usurper of the struggling US. It was predicted the archipelago nation would become the technological hub of the world, where juggernaut corporations would exert asphyxiating influence over its citizens, leaving the impoverished majority gasping for air at the fringes.
However, Japan isn't the only inspiration for these dystopian backdrops. Hong Kong, too, is the other metropolitan influence of the vast capitalist-controlled cosmopolises of cyberpunk universes. Ray Zhu, via Medium, explains why it was chosen as a Homeric muse:
“…Both films, [Blade Runner and Ghost In The Shell (1995)], considered to be landmarks of the cyberpunk film movement, chose to feature distinctly ‘Asian’ motifs as the backdrops for their dark, sprawling metropolis’, with a focus on Hong Kong’s uniquely paradoxical aesthetic. More specifically, the movies choose to present a jarring contrast between the ultra-commercialized, new, and capitalistic side of the city against the dark, erotic, slum-like noir of the urban areas. With the recent rise of science fiction and the cyberpunk movement, Hong Kong occupies a peculiar place in both Hollywood and Japanese cinema, providing an exotic yet strangely familiar backdrop to explore ideas such as social disparity, excessive proliferation of technology, and the evolution of the human condition.”
While the Japanese had their own version of the iconic genre which, according to Japanese movies critic Mark Player, was "raw and primal by nature, and characterized by attitude rather than high-concept" — it was markedly different from what we see today in cyberpunk.
Akira, released in 1982, broke the mold, adopting a Westernized approach to cyberpunk. Like cyberpunk precursor Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it highlights anti-capitalism themes, examines the effects of technocratic overlords on the hoi polloi of society and is set in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world. Another venerated manga Ghost in the Shell came out seven years later, essentially christening Japan as the world's uber-power — at least in the cyberpunk scene — so much so that the memory of contemporary cyberpunk ever being an American innovation has been thoroughly effaced.
A Return To The Former Days?
But does it still make sense to employ these Eastern backdrops? The halcyon days of Japan are long gone, and the shadow of thermonuclear annihilation looms precariously close over it. Meanwhile, America still reigns supreme economically, and has a far higher income inequality (the recipe for inter-strata tensions common in cyberpunk) than Japan. Most of the world's faceless behemoth organizations that will shape our technology-driven future are in the US. It would make sense if future cyberpunk creations were set in America. Mind-bending thriller Mr. Robot seems to be aware of this, not only discarding cyberpunk's distinct Asian-inspired visuals, but also going back to the genre's primal form pre-Blade Runner.
For now, all we're left with is to wonder whether the whitewashing plague that culturally depersonalized Ghost in the Shell (2017) — and potentially the upcoming live-action Akira — can be attributed to the West seizing control of what was originally their genre of depravity.
What do you think of the use of Asian imagery in cyberpunk? Let me know in the comments down below.