This is a two part critique, because I have a lot to say about Blade Runner 2049.
Part 1: Blade Runner 2049 and cyberpunk’s obsession with Asian culture without the Asians
I enjoyed Blade Runner 2049 and breathed a sigh of relief, as the slow, gorgeous cyberscapes unfolded before me, but the more I think about it, the more it disappoints me. It’s a beautiful film that honours the original’s commitment to big ideas and continues Blade Runner’s rejection of snappy editing in a bid to cater to ‘modern’ audiences. Director, Denis Villeneuve brings us a film that respects its audience’s ability to think beyond the last explosion or action set piece. This makes it all the more disappointing that the same respect wasn’t given to the Asian cultures it borrows so heavily from, instead choosing to erase them from future-L.A.’s streets. the female characters in Blade Runner 2049, which is ironic considering its main theme is the miracle of birth and reproduction.
It’s been over 30 years since Blade Runner was released, so we can forgive its cyberpunk sex workers and appropriation of Asian culture to offer an exotic backdrop to a largely white world. When Blade Runner 2049 was announced, it was a chance to create a contemporary vision of an albeit 80s imagined cyberpunk world. Sure, we still want the pink neon, old school brands and retro-future styling, but we can do without the dated gender politics and representation of people of colour.
The trouble with Blade Runner is that it has adopted the worst aspects of cyberpunk as a genre. Cyberpunk’s dystopian vision creates a new world order, often where Japan is the dominant culture. It was the 80s, afterall, when Japan was the world’s second superpower and led the surge in consumer electronics, with products like Sony Walkman. Ridley Scott’s vision of a cyberpunk, neon-drenched, Asian-inspired city reflected and influenced real life Japan. Mamoru Oshii, the man behind seminal cyberpunk, Ghost in the Shell, cited Blade Runner as an influence. In 2017, Oshii’s masterpiece had a live action rehash, which was criticised for casting Scarlett Johansson as the lead and whitewashing an Asian world.
Thirty years on from Blade Runner and Japan hasn’t usurped America’s position as the world’s top superpower. In fact, Japan isn’t even at the cutting edge of technology anymore. All the brands threatening to become omnicorp are American, yet Villeneuve’s film doesn’t reflect this, apart from a nod to Russia’s new dominance on the world stage. So why does Blade Runner 2049 still rely on Asian culture to signal the future? Sadly, I suspect it’s just an excuse to include cyber geishas, kanji neon signs, noodle bars and other aspects of east Asian culture to create an exotic future world.
The people in these worlds flit between speaking and reading English and Japanese, depicting a multicultural society. The original Blade Runner was particularly great at portraying this melting pot of East and West, as Harrison Ford’s Deckard slurped noodles in L.A.’s Chinatown. Blade Runner 2049 is less successful. Thirty years on and 2049’s world is even more overwhelmingly white than the Ridley Scott film.
For a film universe that draws so heavily from the idea of a neo-Tokyo, the characters populating that world are nearly all white. There are almost no Asian characters, even in background parts. As Ryan Gosling’s K strolls through downtown future L.A. we see holographic kawaii-style girls, their faces gazing blankly from the side of buildings. For no reason at all, Wallace is in a kimono style jacket. And when Joi, K’s holographic companion, is seducing him she appears in a traditional Chinese cheongsam, leaning on tropes of the subservient Asian courtesan.
The only black people featured are criminals – a black, female prostitute, one black market trader and another black man engaging in child slave labour. This is a story that grapples with ideas of oppression and slavery and yet it’s the white lead characters who shoulder the injustices experienced by minorities in the real world.
If cyberpunk really wants to portray a post-racial future, then writers need to remember to include non-white characters. 2049 is worse, not better than the original Blade Runner, when it comes to depicting a white world that fetishises Asian culture. It has fewer Asian characters in crowd scenes and no Asian actors get speaking parts. In short, it really is time cyberpunk did better.
Part 2 discusses gender in Blade Runner 2049.