We, as impressionable humans, tend to fetishize the cultures that fascinate us. All it takes is one quick jaunt through downtown Tokyo to become convinced that its style, architecture, and mood is a peek into the future of the rest of the world, which is part of what led to it being associated with the “cyberpunk” aesthetic.
Author Sarah Emerson writes:
The neon kanji billboards. Neander Wallace’s yukata, and Joi’s cheongsam. The busy Chinatown. The interactive wall of anime apps. K’s rice-filled bento box. The dual Japanese-English text on everything. All signs that point to a vibrant, multicultural city, but somehow devoid of non-white characters.
Blade Runner and 2049 are like Orientalist art. Gorgeous, albeit skewed, depictions of “other” cultures meant to justify colonialism with their backwardness. Only, in these inverted futures, the colonists are invisible megacorps—Japanese, Chinese, Korean—whose temples we see looming over Los Angeles. The reason why signs are bilingual; a future so outlandish that Japanese could be a lingua franca. Where communities are ghettoized beneath Asian-branded skyscrapers, and the enslaved population, Replicants, are overwhelmingly white.
Whitewashing is a persistent concern in Hollywood, whether it be in the grafting of foreign touchstones onto primarily white milieus, or by ignoring history’s racially complex intricacies entirely, as happened earlier this year with the also-great Dunkirk.
And while these oversights don’t hobble these films, they do represent a curious willingness to not acknowledge the broadness and texture of their worlds. Looking at all the kanji on those signs, one has to wonder how the film’s primarily white cast didn’t raise at least a few eyebrows.