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Blade Runner

Cyberpunk Cities Fetishize Asian Culture But Have No Asians

The "Blade Runner" universe is visually Asian, so where are the Asian people?

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Blade Runner

The grimy, glitched-out world we saw in Blade Runner is back and beautifully remastered. As the title conveys, Blade Runner 2049 picks up decades after the original film—a sort of post-post-apocalypse, more vividly, and terrifyingly imagined than 1980s cinematography could ever allow.

We're back in Los Angeles, and it's still irradiated and miserable. Home to the dregs of humanity, atoning for the blight their forefathers wrought upon the earth. Replicants hiding in plain sight. Megalithic ziggurats keeping watch over the city, like a pantheon of new corporate gods. Each scene is a self-contained work of art, and I'd have loved it even more if it weren't for one thing.

Like the original, 2049 uses Asianness as a visual cue for the future. You might have missed it, since the film wholly lacks Asian characters. Save for Dave Bautista, who is part-Filipino and played the Replicant Sapper (spoiler: he is promptly killed off), there are zero. I've seen it twice now, and spotted one or two others in passing; none with speaking roles.

Image: Warner Bros.

The neon kanji billboards. Neander Wallace's yukata, and Joi's cheongsam. The busy Chinatown. The interactive wall of anime apps. K's rice-filled bento box. The dual Japanese-English text on everything. All signs that point to a vibrant, multicultural city, but somehow devoid of non-white characters.

If Asians shaped this cyberpunk future, where are they?

Blade Runner and 2049 are like Orientalist art. Gorgeous, albeit skewed, depictions of "other" cultures meant to justify colonialism with their backwardness. Only, in these inverted futures, the colonists are invisible megacorps—Japanese, Chinese, Korean—whose temples we see looming over Los Angeles. The reason why signs are bilingual; a future so outlandish that Japanese could be a lingua franca. Where communities are ghettoized beneath Asian-branded skyscrapers, and the enslaved population, Replicants, are overwhelmingly white.

Images: Warner Bros.

Cyberpunk gained popularity, in part, thanks to Blade Runner and William Gibson's Neuromancer, which was heavily inspired by Japan. This was during the 1980s, amid Japan's technological revolution. At the time, computer manufacturing was being propelled by the new information age, and a global desire for consumer electronics. Brands like Sony and Nintendo became household names. American kids became versed in anime. Japan's economy swelled into the world's second-largest by the turn of the century.

Gibson, after visiting Tokyo, once said that "modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it."

Some Asian cities did look futuristic, even then. Tokyo, for example, with its urban mosaic of fluorescent laneways. The impossibly new juxtaposed with the old. There's a reason why holographic geisha are a common motif in cyberpunk films.

Blade Runner

But Cold War anxieties, which were a popular muse for 20th century sci-fi, coupled with Japan's economic ascension, only stoked the West's dystopian fears. It's important to remember that Blade Runner's vision is solidly tethered to the 1980s. The omnipotence of its corporate monoliths was no accident. Creeping globalization is what kept Americans awake at night.

Modern cyberpunk circles, too, can perpetuate these stereotypes. Images uploaded to Reddit's r/cyberpunk as canon often mimic the aesthetic of these films. That's not to say there aren't people pushing the envelope—Neill Blomkamp's District 9 helped to popularize African cyberpunk, for instance—but the genre has been slow to diversify.

"Since the late 1970s, a key idea in Western science fiction has been that Japan represents the future. Japan's 'weird' culture is a figure for an incomprehensible tomorrow," wrote Annalee Newitz about our fetishization of Japan's idiosyncrasies.

The set of Blade Runner.

Today, there's no excuse for imagining a world that's so regressively homogenous. I won't believe the argument that Blade Runner is largely white because most humans left for off-world colonies. That's just silly. This is a film that figured out hologram-on-Replicant sex.

When persons of color can't see themselves in speculative futures, that sends a depressing message about the path of human progress. Thankfully, the pendulum is finally swinging toward a more diverse sci-fi universe. But first Hollywood had to fail miserably at it.

The road to representation has been especially hard for Asian-Americans. They are, perhaps, the most neglected demographic in film. Often typecast or whitewashed, as we've seen countless times in recent years.

"People of color have always been here," said novelist N.K. Jemisin, describing sci-fi as a genre that prides itself on "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," but has yet to equally recognize its non-white authors.

Together, Blade Runner and 2049 represent the best of cyberpunk film. But imagine how much better, richer they could've been with a cast that looked the way the real world does, now and in the future. For a universe that's so preoccupied with the soul, in this regard, Blade Runner is utterly devoid of one.