Neon Origami

K. Adam White '08, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Much of the visual style of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and other cyberpunk works like William Gibson's Neuromancer derives from '70s heavy metal art magazines, publications that included many of the film noir elements that found their way into Blade Runner. Grafted onto this base, however, is an aesthetic environment heavily influenced by Asian culture, particularly Japanese. Blade Runner's Los Angeles of 2019 has a number of cultural districts, from the middle eastern district where Deckard finds the snake maker to the vast, distinctively American (though dilapidated) unpopulated areas where J.F. Sebastian and Deckard have their apartments. Most striking are Chinatown and Japanese districts. We first encounter Deckard as he sits down at a Japanese streetside restaurant; the original voice-over of the scene mentions sushi. Chew, a scientist for the Tyrell Corporation, is Chinese, and even the enigmatic LAPD officer Gaff uses origami figures to comment on Deckard's motives. The sprawling night-market environment is the direct Asian cultural equivalent of Gibson's urban Sprawl, a neon-packed cityscape.

Recalling the rapidity of Japanese capitalist development after World War II, the presence of such a strong environment in Blade Runner envokes the fears of a Japanese technological takeover. Before the breakdown of the Japanese banking system halted growth, Japan flooded the US with cars and media products. There was a distinct fear that America could keep up, an ironic twist of the outcome of the second World War. Despite the presence of high-level workers like Chew, Ridley Scott's vision of the future shows Americans back in control of large corporations; nevertheless, an Asian cast has spread over the lives of the earthbound. The aesthetic created is twofold. On the one hand is the advertising and neon over-stimulus of the street-level vendors; on the other, the understatedness and complexity of the origami figures. Combined with the corporate ziggurat of the Tyrell corporation, the film noir attitude, and the post-apocalyptic environment, the Japanese influences give a credible complexity to the film while not distracting from the Caucasian (and synthetic Caucasian) main characters.

Discussion Questions

1. While Blade Runner contains large amounts of Asian influences, Max Headroom has virtually none. Which of the worlds is the more balanced? Does Max Headroom feel more distinctly ours -- that is to say, American--as a result?

2. While they incorporated Japanese elements, the pioneering works of 1980s Cyberpunk were produced by North Americans. Bubblegum Crisis jump-started cyberpunk in Japan starting in the late 80's, and now cyberpunk elements are incorporated into many other series. Are Japanese and North American cyberpunk evolving along different lines?

3. Despite the economic problems in modern Japan, the culture has begun exporting a distinctive style in much the same way it started producing cars, flooding foreign countries. This has lead some to describe Japan as having a "Gross National Cool" (see a related radio interview). While the extrapolated ubiquitousness and power of Asian culture and technology in Gibson and Blade Runner is less of a threat in the current economy, will the rising popularity of Japanese cyberpunk maintain the connection even in American-produced material?

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Last modified 24 March 2005