From Blade Runner to Cloud Atlas, The BTS of Sci-Fi Movies
Sci-fi movies have adopted East Asian symbolism to visually designate a more globalized society. Movies like 'Blade Runner' and classic cyberpunk novels like 'Neuromancer' are OGs of the cyberpunk genre which have helped transform science fiction by imagining what a new world can look like. This specific genre of sci-fi films where we picture the future in East-Asian countries is referred to as Techno-Orientalism, but this term is much more than just that and with it comes along its history (Cue the Marvel intro music).
But before jumping into Techno Orientalism, let's understand what Orientalism is. The term was coined in 1979 by Edward Said to describe the Western tradition in both academic and artistic, of fabricating a prejudiced image of the Eastern World, molded by imperialistic attitudes in the 18th to 19th centuries. Exactly how the Western gaze identifies India as a country where people's main profession is snake charming and gushing on hot spices.
Edward Said rightly criticizes the term for fetishizing Asian people and their culture for their primitiveness in order to depict the refinement of white people’s culture and religious scientific ideologies in contrast. Techno Orientalism then was later coined in 1995 by media researchers Morely & Robbins as “the phenomenon of imagining Asia and Asians in hypo or hyper-technological terms in cultural production and political discourse.”
It’s essentially a branch of Orientalism that intersects technology and race, describing how the representation of Asia by the West has evolved in light of the shifts happening in the balance of global powers, the global economy, and even cultural globalization. Techno Orientalism now uses the Orient as a visual cue for the future instead of the primitive world it's stereotyped as.
Now, what’s Orient? It’s a concept fabricated by Europeans with the purpose of giving Asia a sense of “otherness” and order for Europe to clearly define itself as quintessential. Yeah, just like how people buy ugly shoes (Crocs x Balenciaga represent) to look different, ahead of everyone and with the sole purpose to grab “attention”.
In Techno-orientalism, media aspects of various Asian cultures are utilised to create the obvious literal look and perception of the hi-tech asianised future. Techno-orientalist entertainment was popularized in the 1980s due to Western fears of Japan’s economic success, aka the “Japan Panic."
Japanese companies Sony and Matsushita bought out some well-known American companies like Colombia Pictures, CBS Records and MCA Universal. These events heightened the worries of Japanese domination and yellow peril, which refers to Western fears of East Asians taking over/corrupting Western societies.
Essentially, the emergence of Japan as an economic superpower and its rapid modernization pace tarnished the pride of American society. Thus, inspiring a new wave of Techno-orientalist books & films.
The era of Techno-orientalist media
Ridley Scott pioneered the movement with 'Blade Runner' (1982), which drew from the burgeoning Tokyo and Hong Kong metropolises of the time and the rapid globalization of Japan’s in the '80s. 'Cloud Atlas' written and directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer is based on 2004 novel by David Mitchell, portraying an East Asian imagery and qualifies our list of Techno orientalist movies.
The protagonists in these stories are usually white, portrayed as heroic characters, while Asians represent an all-knowing, ominous, terrible force that is hyper-mechanised or are shown as weak characters, waiting to be rescued by the white American protagonist. (Aka their version of India's 'Abla Naari')
That brings us to the topic of Cyborgs. Not every Cyborg character is Asian, but those who are Asian usually feature techno-orientalist traits. Reduced to emotionless machines, Asians are massively dehumanized. Moreover, there is the fetishization and over-sexualization of Asian women as cyborgs, and how their main purpose is to take care of the emotional needs of the male characters. For example, Sonmi-451 from 'Cloud Atlas', who is a type of cyborg, simply designed to obey the orders and acts as a sex slave. The character is also sexually harassed multiple times throughout the movie and later is executed for treason.
Cyberpunk blew up in the '90s, with fims from 'The Matrix', to 'Total Recall', and to anime too. 'Ghost in the Shell', 'Akira', 'Cowboy Bepop' and more all portrayed Neo-Tokyo's futuristic, grimy vision whose visuals can be traced back to 'Blade Runner' and 'Neuromancer.' It's a cyclical nature of inspiration, from Tokyo to America, back to Tokyo again.
But while these sci-fi films depict a future free from cultural boundaries, they have been critiqued for lacking authentic Asian representation.
Blade Runner 2049
Denis Villeneuve’s 'Blade Runner' sequel which released in 2017 didn’t ape the original, but offered a similar take of the neoscape LA setting with holograms of dancing women in anime-inspired outfits, cute Hello Kitty-style machines, Chinese characters and Japanese kanji galore.
Netflix launched a sci-fi thriller in 2018 “Altered Carbon” created by Laeta Kalogridis based on a 2002 novel by Richard K. Morgan which beautifully captures all elements of modern-day cyberpunk series and captures the main cast as East-Asians. The series offers a Blade Runner-tinged aesthetic that many people adore.
Now-days, Techno Orientalism in the science fiction genre is less prominent than it was in 80’s and 90’s. However, the dehumanisation of Asian people and the appropriation of Asian culture used in the designs of dystopian worlds in techno-orientalist works perpetuates negative stereotypes about the Asian community and must be recognised as xenophobia.
Having said that, since the stereotype is now set, Japanese creatives are now embracing Techno-Orientalist ideas and are trying to make the best of it to fit their own narratives in their own science fiction media with movies like 'Blade Runner 2049' and 'Altered Carbon.'