Techno-Orientalism in Western Films
Orientalism is a term coined by Edward Said and is described as the Westerns interpretation of Eastern Culture, specifically Asian countries and those in the Arab/Islamic world. Said’s book is known to be used for open discussion of the imagery of eastern culture through westerners eyes. Techno-orientalism has become a growing term in recent years due to the representations of “futuristic worlds” in films, literature and new media. These worlds are seen as hyper-technological and are “critically examining the stereotype of Asians as both technologically advanced and intellectually primitive (Ueno, T. 1999).”
Western-made films such as Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049 pose as popular examples of techno-orientalism. Typically in western films, a country and culture that is most commonly represented through a techno-orientalist approach is Japan. Japans hugely successful economic developments in the 1980s could be a factor in the western depiction of Japan as a technologically advanced group. With Japan purchasing a large number of American companies during this time, we can easily see how Hollywood may view Japan as a progressively advanced community. There is a conception that the USA fears Japan and its ability for fast technological developments that may ‘take over the world.’ This is easily represented in a lot of science-fiction films, some which contribute to techno-orientalism.
The first film that I want to explore as a case study is Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner which profited USD 5.8 million. This ‘cyberpunk’ aesthetic has a techno-dystopian feel to it. “Blade Runner creates a futuristic noir atmosphere by heavily borrowing from Asian motifs” (Yuen, W. 2000). Scott imitates Asian capitalism with bright flashing billboards in Chinese ideographs and katakana logos on the upper city. Other Asian-representations include pixelated women in kimonos and cheongsam, as well as images of instant ramen and bibimbap bowls. It is presented as a techno-Asian capital that infuses both Asians technological advances and its traditional stereotypes of dress, food and other aesthetic features.
Although set in Los Angeles, the city that Scott creates is lacking any sign of American culture. Poverty and waste dominate the streets despite the highly technological map that aims to alienate the audience. The commercial Japanese presence in the film is almost overwhelming, alluding to the rise of its economic and technological superpower status.
There may be misperception by the audience on whether the futuristic aesthetic science fictions films depict basic futuristic appeal or if they underline “fears of Asian economic hegemony and reverse colonization” (Young, A). This is a form of techno-orientalism where the western picture of the future of Asian culture is based on the perspective of fear, resentment and envy – representing the “alienated and dystopian image of capitalist progress” (Young, A).
So does blade runner express western fear of Asian future dominance? Not undeniably, however, it does give the Western audience a feeling of unease and undesirability towards the future of Asia. This is a clear demonstration of techno-orientalism being used to enforce a stereotype of racial prejudice. On top of the aesthetics that play a part in the display of techno-orientalism, there is also clear racial disparity represented in the film’s world. In the film, Chew – the eye-maker, picks up an eyeball with chopsticks. This is a clear example that highlights the cultural stereotypes of a ‘primitive’ nature. In this scene, the film almost uses Chew as a reflection of eastern culture as an unprogressively ‘third-world’ society as if it was genetically ingrained.
I want to compare Scott’s Blade Runner to the newly released Blade Runner 2049 (2017) directed by Denis Villeneuve because of the controversial lack of Asian characters in the futurist LA city. This is a form of techno-orientalism as despite taking aesthetics from Japanese and Chinese culture, it is completely devoid of Asian people. Like the original, this film is featuring characters in Asian-influenced fashions as they walk between skyscraper-high advertising showcasing Asian iconography. 2049 may be described as “racially homogenized,” (A. D. Janowski et.al. 2018) which could be a tactic that shows the western fear of the eastern world taking over the futuristic world.
A study by Andrew Kim explores this choice of evacuating Asian character from the film as “a deliberate casting decision.” He believes that the stereotypes of the future of Asian culture are represented as “overlords and drones”, rather than “human subjects”. He states that “Villeneuve envisions a dystopia with Asian infrastructure but without Asians because it is not their tools that have become obsolete, but the Asians themselves — their bodies and their voices” (Kim, A. 2017).
“Fredric Jameson once argued that science fiction does not offer us the future, but rather the present: it transforms our present — which is usually too overwhelming and caught up in personal obsessions to access directly — into another future’s past, so we can finally experience it” (Chun, W. 2017). The concept that the USA fears Japan and its ability to take over the world with its fast technological developments is something that science fiction manipulates to craft its future worlds. This contributes to techno-orientalism in Western Films and it is something that we need to address to understand how the collecting Western perspective is affecting individuals with eastern backgrounds. It is not to say that the Western perception of eastern influence is incorrect. These perspectives are drawn from their interactions and understandings of the East. However, it is important in this study to understand and break misconceptions of the east that come across in movies and negatively impact those of eastern cultures.
Communicating through imagery has been an interesting way to communicate effectively to an audience. It gives us a different perspective. As someone who is a visual learner, I believe that having images in projects is important as we can take them subjectively to form our personal opinions on the issues we are discussing. Us, the viewer, and the artist need to project from our own experiences and be open to the perspectives that are shown to us.
I believe that incorporating movie stills into my project gives the audience a different idea on what they seeing as it is no longer something they watch in a second. It is sometimes hard to recognise prejudice or underlying social issues through films as we are not always looking at the same image, but rather a collective of frames throughout different scenes. I believe that we give images more attention and therefore can give that subjective response. For example, even the simplest image of Ryan Gosling, a white male, with the women surrounding him show the lack of representation despite Villeneuve’s use of Japanese aesthetics to create his films. The film still of the eye-ball and the chop-sticks allow the audience to pick up on the use of ‘Asian imagery’ with a primitive take to it and how that gives a negative perspective to the traditional use of chopsticks. These images point out the use of techno-orientalism in western films. I hope that my project shows this through the visual imagery that I had chosen and that the audience understands the impact that Hollywood and the Western World have on the perspective of the Eastern World. That is Orientalism.
Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. 2020. All Snowflakes Must Melt: “Blade Runner 2049”. Los Angeles Review of Books. [ONLINE] Available at: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/all-snowflakes-must-melt-blade-runner-2049/. [Accessed 16 June 2020].
Jankowski, Andrew D. Sachiye, Leigh. 2018. PSU Vanguard. Redefining Reality in ‘Blade Runner 2049’. [ONLINE] Available at: https://psuvanguard.com/redefining-reality-in-blade-runner-2049/. [Accessed 16 June 2020].
Kim, Andrew. Medium. 2017. Evacuasians from the Blade Runner Universe, and Why Vienna Teng is Great. [ONLINE] Available at: https://medium.com/@andrewkim_95002/evacuasians-from-the-blade-runner-universe-and-why-vienna-teng-is-great-c6cc6f35123d. [Accessed 16 June 2020].
Ueno, T 1999. ‘Techno-Orientalism and Media-Tribalism: On Japanese animation and rave culture’. Third Test, Vol 13, no. 47, pp. 95-105
Young, Alexandra. 2020. Skemman.[ONLINE] Available at: https://skemman.is/bitstream/1946/17175/1/pdfflexa.pdf. [Accessed 8 June 2020].
Yuen, W. 2000. On the Edge of Spaces: Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell , and Hong Kong’s Cityscape. Science Fiction Studies, [Online]. 21, 1. Available at: https://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/80/wong80art.htm [Accessed 16 June 2020].