The cyberpunk city is nocturnal—buildings that skewer the layer of clouds in the sky with their billboards. Neon Chinese characters decorate dark alleyways with splotches of artificial color. Hovercrafts and other extreme feats of technology layer over a dilapidated urban landscape. And the main character loves to wear a leather jacket.
Wait, is everyone Asian?
Oh. Which country?
Doesn’t matter, East Asia blends together in this genre.
Wait, what is Scarlett Johansson doing here?
For the past three years, I have been an avid anime watcher. Though I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on “all-things-anime” in the weeaboo sense, last semester, I enrolled in a course called “Global Anime” out of curiosity to understand the theoretical basis of my favorite cartoons and a (not-so) small desire to watch Studio Ghibli for college credit. For the first time in my life, I watched Ghost in the Shell, an iconic cyberpunk anime film by Mamoru Oshii that left me in awe of its stunning visuals and commentary on life in a world of information technology. The plot follows Makoto Kusanagi, who tracks down “The Puppet Master,” a sentient AI.
But the 2017 Hollywood live action remake starring Scarlett Johansson majorly flopped in box office sales and sparked extreme controversy from the Asian American community for its casting choices. Ghost in the Shell is not the only anime that Hollywood has butchered: Death Note, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and more recently, Cowboy Bebop make up my personal list of Hollywood remake disasters.
Why does this continue to happen? Is it only because film executives couldn’t get into the habit of casting Asian leads until they found it commercially viable, or does it go far deeper than that? Sure, there are huge artistic limitations in place when hand-drawn fantastical worlds are translated into a realistic setting, but as each Hollywood adaptation fails, I can’t help but wonder if there are underlying forces at play.
Western media is no stranger to orientalist tropes. However, with the emergence of a new, digitized world that relies on information technology, the orientalism trope has also evolved, projecting the West’s fear and desire for the future onto Asian people.
It is with the Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell that I particularly think about techno-orientalism: an evolved ideology that projects the West’s simultaneous anxiety and fascination for a technological future onto the Eastern Hemisphere. These sci-fi worlds marrying technological innovation with East Asian aesthetics (for example, the large billboards featuring the faces of smiling Japanese women in Blade Runner) are dreary places to live in. They are a reflection of the present, but “worse…inhospitable, dangerous, and thrilling,” according to Pam Rosenthal’s “Jacked In: Fordism, Cyberpunk, Marxism.”
Cyberpunk also draws from punk culture to visually represent the nihilism of the public. In “The Myth of Cyberspace,” Richard Wise articulates that commercial mass media has resulted in the public “[being] seen as media consumers to be manipulated and delivered to advertisers…the media are no longer agents of empowerment and rationality, but instead…promote the passivity of their audiences.” In a world saturated with choices that are presented as equally important, everything ceases to matter. Cyberpunk expresses this attitude with “cool” punk imagery, such as the leather jackets and black sunglasses in the costumes of The Matrix—the dark outfits projecting a sense of carelessness and lack of conformity. This nihilistic portrayal reveals anxieties about what it means to be human during late-stage capitalism, harboring racial undertones. As commercialization destabilizes the leveling between “good” and “bad,” cyberpunk represents this as the collapse of racial identity levels. Gibson, the aforementioned pioneer of cyberpunk, is quoted as saying, “Modern Japan simply [is] cyberpunk.” This hyper-capitalist, information-saturated, yet thrilling apprehension for the future is cast onto the familiar exoticization of the Far East based in 19th-century orientalism; this associates the dehumanizing nature of information technology with the dehumanization of Asians.
Orientalism is no relic of the past; rather, it continues to exist as the West closely eyes the Asian continent, commenting on its technological superiority and subpar politics and societal structure. Japan is cyberpunk. China is cyberpunk. East Asia is the West’s dystopian nightmare, symbolic of the collapse of white domination.
Techno-orientalism is alive and well today. A quick Google search reveals the ways in which Western journalists use careful word choice to play into this trope (whether consciously or not):
How China Wants to Replace the U.S. Order (The Atlantic, 2022)—a fearmongering title suggesting that East Asian countries threaten Western hegemony and future survival.
Unlocking The K-pop Machine’s Key To International Fame (Jetset Times, 2021)—an implication that the Korean music industry is an efficient and formulaic factory, alluding to the tendency to view Asian people as mechanical.
Robot workers will lead to surge in slavery in south-east Asia, report finds (The Guardian, 2018)—an example of the foreignness of artificial intelligence projected onto a subjugated and foreign people, painting a bleak picture of a region simultaneously far ahead of the United States technologically yet societally “backwards” in relation to the West.
And so, we return to anime adaptations, particularly Ghost in the Shell. When contextualized by concepts like techno-orientalism, it begins to make sense why Hollywood continues to recast the protagonist and reinvent the story, stripping the anime of its original charm and appeal. When films like Ghost in the Shell appropriate the cyberpunk aesthetic, they embrace Japan as a model for the future which causes an uneasy feeling for the Western audience. In response, Hollywood replaces the Japanese female protagonist with a white actress, introducing the comfort of white subjectivity and assuaging their subconscious fears of an Asian future. Thus, the message of the film also mutates. The main character is no longer a symbol for female ethnic minorities who perform exploitative technological labor, and the cyberpunk backdrop is no longer a reclamation. So, the movie flops.
Despite this rather cynical portrayal of Hollywood, I am filled with some feeling in my chest that is taking shape—perhaps, it is a precursor to hope. After all, I am writing this article in the wake of Everything Everywhere All at Once becoming the most awarded film in history. Although it is not an anime, the film is vibrant, artistic, and features Asian faces at the center of imaginative worlds. We are in the middle of a grand paradigm shift, where Asian Americans hold a small but mighty stake in Hollywood. Film executives may realize that the stories of Asia and its diaspora are valuable; perhaps, they will no longer aspire to twist and mutate anime for their own narratives.
Even greater, maybe we will let go of Western validation altogether; ultimately, our best work features the exercise of our own agency, determination, and power.