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If the future is Asian, where are the Asian people?


(This is inspired in part by the talk about the Avril Lavigne video)

The above is one of the most iconic images in the movie Blade Runner. In addition to being stunningly beautiful, it shows how the movie introduced Asian culture into North American futurism.


There are definite Asian cultural signifiers in Blade Runner. In addition to the constant advertising, Rick Deckard eats at a noodle bar and drinks Tsang Tao beer, and the "cityspeak" spoken by Gaff (who according to Edward James Olmos was supposed to be of part Japanese background) was a mix of several languages including Japanese.

The Asian cultural influence had many sources. Manga and anime had begun to make their way to Europe and North America by the late 70s. Japan in particular was seen as an "exotic", almost futuristic place (the Ginza in Tokyo is as close as you can get to a real life version of Blade Runner's Los Angeles)

more troubling was the growing fear of Japan's economy overtaking the US, resulting in a racist rejection of imported cars and electronics.


Blade Runner was on the avante garde of the new interest in all things Asian, including Frank Miller's graphic novel Ronin and the success of anime in translation. Later futuristic movies like the Fifth Element took the Asian influence for granted. William Gibson's Neuromancer introduced this trope to literature.

There's a problem: few of these futuristic visions included actual people of Asian descent. Blade Runner has a few speaking roles for Asian actors, including a noodle bar chef and a technician who examines a clue. The most prominent role is the genetic designer Chew, a small role played by the legendary James Hong.


The Fifth Element has a sushi chef (sigh), and the Matrix movies had Marcus Chong as the pilot Tank and Randall Duk Kim as the mystical Keymaker. (The Wachowskis did less good with Speed Racer and the unfortunate racebending Cloud Atlas.) While it took place "a long time ago," the futuristic-looking star Wars borrowed wholesale from Asian philosophy and religion, but the closest there were to "Asian" characters were the stereotypical trade federation aliens. Then there's a certain beloved cult series and movie that posits a future where everyone curses in Chinese but no Chinese people appear onscreen...

Even the most famous example of an Asian character from the future is not without problems. Sulu, as played by either George Takei or John Cho is pretty badass, but he's never been allowed an onscreen romance and Takei had to beg to get a bigger part in the show and the movies.


To be fair, it's not like Asian countries aren't creating their own future visions - there's a lot of great sci fi coming out of Japan, China and Korea. But it's still weird that our visions of the future looks so "Asian" with few Asian people in it.

ETA: this is not so much a focused thought but a WTF: I realized that there are *zero* black people with speaking roles in Blade Runner. Holy shit.

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