Light trails in Hong Kong

Cyberpunk’s Asian Influences

Blade Runner 2049‘s official US release is this Friday, October 6. As not all of us can see the movie in its opening weekend, I’m offering a distraction from the wait.

Director Denis Villeneuve said the Blade Runner sequel “definitely has its roots in the first movie.” Nerdist agrees:

Blade Runner 2049 seems to take the look of the original and expand upon it.

What was the look?

Street for BLADE RUNNER
Film set for BLADE RUNNER (1982)

The future version of Los Angeles in the original Blade Runner movie was a big part of its aesthetic. Rumor is that the mix of Chinese and Western design elements was inspired by Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City.

From Wong Kin Yuen’s “On the Edge of Spaces” essay:

It is now widely acknowledged that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982/ 1992) initiated a whole tradition of cult movies later grouped under the label “cyberpunk.” Blade Runner‘s style draws its images from urban spaces all over the world, including such Asian cities as Tokyo and Hong Kong.

While the label is relatively old these days, new works continue to develop from the most iconic examples of cyberpunk. That got me thinking about how common Asian influences are in the English-speaking areas of the genre.

Here are several other works I’ve noticed mixing Western and Asian cultures in their near future worlds.

Novels by William Gibson

NEUROMANCER hardcoverMany of the American-Canadian author’s novels from the 1980s to today blend Western and Asian cultures, with Japanese elements the most common in the background.

For example, Gibson‘s well-known Neuromancer opens in an expatriates bar in an real-life Japanese prefecture, and it quickly drops a reference to Kirin (the Japanese beer), compares fictional Japanese and Chinese technology, then introduces New Yen as “the old paper currency that circulated endlessly through the closed circuit of the world’s black markets”.

The Kowloon Walled City that influenced LA’s appearance in Blade Runner? It also appears as a virtual reality environment in Gibson’s Bridge trilogy.

Johnny Mnemonic

The Canadian-American movie is based on William Gibson’s short story of the same name. What sticks out to me the most is that the bad guys are Yakuza against a title character played by Keanu Reeves of mixed ethnicity (Chinese and Hawaiian on his father’s side).

SNOW CRASH hardcoverSnow Crash (novel)

This novel by American author Neal Stephenson is what I first think of whenever the genre is mentioned.

Hiro Protagonist (whose role is exactly you’d assume from a name like that) is a Japanese-American hacker who fights with katanas in both Real Life and virtual reality. His family’s war history, representing the clash of Japan and The Allied Nations, plays a part in the main storyline, as well.

Much of the story takes place in Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong–within former Los Angeles, because apparently, LA survives earthquakes but not government buyouts in this genre.

The Matrix seriesTHE MATRIX theaterical poster © 1999 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Though Neuromancer features The Matrix, the movies followed another hacker in a different system–but not the same hacker Keanu Reeves played in 1995.

The Wachowskis famously stated their directing intentions for the first movie of The Matrix series by showing the producer Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell animated movie (see below) and saying,

We wanna do that for real.

Predictably, The Wachowskis’ movies blended cultures and genre tropes to make their gritty mindbenders.

SERENITY movie posterSerenity

“Can’t stop the signal,” said the hacker with an android lover to a rebel fighter.

The culture of this cyberpunk-esque movie sequel to the Space Western show, Firefly, is based on the believable premise that China dominated space development in our future. When the characters have cause to swear, they do it in Chinese. The psychic warrior fights with kung fu. Meanwhile, the urban backgrounds and costume incorporate pan-Asian elements.

Popular works originating from Japan

Western creators have obviously been inspired by something other than real human cultures these past forty years. The most popular cyberpunk works from Japan are nearly impossible to summarize here, so you get a simple list for illustration.

What else?

While I’ve seen mention of French science fiction that might belong here as mentions, I’m not familiar enough with any of them to include with any confidence. What am I missing? Go ahead and comment below.


Not Done Reading About These Influences?

Choose your white rabbit:

When Did Japan Stop Being the Future? (2009) on io9
Why is the future LA full of chinese in Blade Runner? (2011) on SciFi & Fantasy Stack Exchange
Why are so many ‘cyberpunk cities’ Asian? (2012) on reddit
Also, Cyberpunk Reddit members answered, Why is cyberpunk so heavily influenced by Japanese culture? (2015)
Art of Kowloon Walled City on Hong Kong Free Press

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Ghost in the Shell (2017) movie poster

GitS Live Action: A Pretty Shell Lacking Heart and Smarts

Hollywood has a reputation for taking a well-loved franchise, digesting it, and vomiting out a movie that their confused producers think will look close enough to the original to appease audiences.

They did it again with the latest Ghost in the Shell movie.

In this particular take on one of the most influential fiction franchises* to come out of any country, Hollywood made a movie whose storyline I’ll summarize as:

Zombie kids rebel against a disorganized police force and an evil businessman.

This summary, however, might make the movie sound better than it was. This movie wasn’t only a huge disappointment, it made me feel ill similarly to how I felt in November. I felt the theater wondering how the producers were fine with taking an intelligent, well-loved collection of stories and making into a work that (as far as I can tell) could only appeal to fans of mindless action.

Here were a few of the big issues with the live action version of Ghost in the Shell (GitS):

  • The violence necessary in previous versions of GitS* went unjustified and even glorified by the emotionless action scenes. Even as characters talked about the importance of retaining their humanity, they demonstrated no concern for other humans outside of they could be used to serve individual goals.
  • While it looks like a mashup of cyberpunk tropes, it become a copy of copies that can replace none of the originals. Nothing in the setting surprised me.
  • Technology and culture presented as far-future at times appeared outdated. The text introduction read like something out of the 1980s.
  • The story failed to take advantage of the medium.
    • We’re supposed to care about memories that are never shown. A few flashes of Major’s family could have established an emotional connection.
    • The lack of people in public places is never explained, is counter to the crowded city in the animated versions, and contributed to the sense that humanity is absent in the movie. A seconds-long explanation could have taken the form of clips of average-looking people hooked up to their homes.
    • The settings too often looked fake–especially the vehicles, which looked like moving stage props. Again, the absence of people in the background contributed to this. So did the inexplicably clean home interiors.
  • Characters, who are supposed to be a part of an elite policing team, repeatedly made rash decisions that unnecessarily endanger their lives. Section 9 often feels disjointed, unprofessional, and dangerous to the general public, especially in light of Major’s tendency to disobey orders without any negative consequences.

The praise I can give this movie:

  • most of the actors did a good job,
  • the writers pulled together elements from previous versions with their own twist in the second half, and
  • the directing allowed me to focus on the prettier shots.

In particular, Michael Pitt as a broken cyborg was lovely enough that I cringed when his character complained of being ugly, and all of the closeups of Scar-Jo provided welcome distractions from the story.

*For a relatively brief overview of the GitS franchise:


Have you seen the movie? What did you think?