Why Japanese Cyberpunk is Different

Cyberpunk, the anxieties of the nineties traced in neon and thrown across billboards. It appeared as it was all too late to believe the lies of high modernist science worship and all too early to know just what the rising society of control would look like. Fear that the human subject would soon become a useless category, hesitation over the seeming impossibility of meaningful revolutionary change in the face of an increasingly wedded state and capital possessing nigh-omniscient insight, and worry about globalization and the coming domination of Japan and the Orient all made up cyberpunk, which more than any other genre from its time, was, as Jameson might describe it, a “demonstrat[ion] and … dramatiz[ation] [of] our incapacity to imagine the future,” an attempt to work through the ongoing problems of the day by extrapolating them to a fitting conclusion, one which we have, in some perverse sense, stumbled into face-first. The fears of cyberpunk hold little sway as the technological innovations which have occupied our daily lives continue to offer a paradoxical combination of eternal freedom and limitless control. Our organically 21st century concerns have turned to climate change above all else. Yet can the story of cyberpunk be told so simply? From Blade Runner forward, the mere sight of kanji on the walls of an American building aroused fear in some deep corner of the viewer’s heart, one which knew the nation’s hegemony was not long for this world, and that end of unipolarity on the global stage is finally come to pass. Yet, if we are content to see that techno-orientalism as an in-built aspect of the genre, utterly inextricable, how do we explain the nation which, arguably, embraced cyberpunk the most: Japan?

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Cyberpunk in Japan is different. The classic history of the genre, its Western history, goes like this: the works of Philip K Dick, with their questioning of the nature of truth and identity, exposed the nature of post-war society as fundamentally estranged from anything that could be called real, revealing all of us to be cave dwellers, and expressed the resulting fears that accompany that revelation. Absorbed into the stream of science fiction, the not-quite-adaptation known as Blade Runner presented many of these questions in a new form, one accompanied by a supposedly clearer vision of the future, a vision best shown by the image of a cyber-geisha, advertising a piece of candy. It continued with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which abstracted questions about reality and simulacra into computerized interfaces and worlds, grounded in a setting full of street samurai and ultra-powerful yakuza. And after Gibson, the sky was the limit, until cyberpunk inevitably, irresistibly, fell apart by the 2000s, its aesthetic trappings continuing to walk, zombie-like, as its prescience and importance to the time was no longer there to feed it. Its influence lives on, but as counter-culture, it is dead.

Of course, to whatever extent these texts served as oracles, they were certainly blind ones, producing the future rather than projecting it, providing a framework under which following innovations could be understood. Jameson is right in claiming that sci-fi reveals our inability to truly visualize what’s to come, but that sci-fi can teach us to call the internet ‘cyberspace’ once it’s been born. Proof of this is in the dreams of Japanese domination these works portrayed: while Neuromancer may showcase a static-colored Chiba, vat-frozen ninjas, and Japanese capital as hegemonic in international relations, the real Japan buckled under its own weight only seven years later, remaining a key player in global trade but losing its shot at dominance, at a rebirth of empire through the mode of soft power.

Yet in Japan itself, this prophecy never fell through, or at least, it did so differently. See, Japan, for fairly intuitive reasons, was not afraid of American decline allowed by Japanese rise; such a result was, of course, a positive one in the eyes of the archipelago’s state, and where the bubble burst was an encouraging sign for worried American manufacturers—who’ve since turned their eyes towards China as the true threat—it was anything but for the unfortunate population about to succumb to the Lost Decade. So, to finally get around to the point, what was Japanese cyberpunk like at its peak, what anxieties did it speak to, and what can be gleaned by looking at what was preserved from the genre’s Western origins and what was cast aside?

Akira, Bubblegum Crisis, Ghost in the Shell, all of these works fit comfortably, if slightly ajar, in the cyberpunk tradition, and yet all of them diverge from its Western standards. Let’s begin with the state of Japan itself. For Akira, Japan is far from an economic superpower, or rather, to whatever extent it is, that does little for the people living there. Gibson hardly portrayed the nation as a utopia, full of yaks as it was, and yet its capital, at the very least, was remarkably successful, proliferating all across the globe. Resistance in Akira, on the other hand, is common, the poor state of domestic welfare policies pushing many onto the streets, necessitating not systems of control, which offer a certain dispersed sort of freedom in the exertion of power, a freedom contained only to what power allows, but more classical discipline, limits set out through punishment and regimentation, with riot police forced to come in and bear their might on the local populace.

This different relation to Japan’s hegemony is true for the other works as well. In Bubblegum Crisis, Japanese capital is clearly important, and yet the globalization inherent to its growth has ruined any veneer of Japanese homogeneity, with none of the characters bearing entirely Japanese names. In fact, the title of the series itself seems to point to a knowledge that even this period of power for Japan is temporary; the bubble is in crisis, and as the sequel shows, it’s soon to crash, with disastrous effects. In Ghost in the Shell, as a slight exception, Japan is, if not totally dominant, certainly the foremost power, yet even here, there’s little fear. Rather, some works, such as Oshii’s films, use the aesthetics of other Eastern regions, such as Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia, to demonstrate that even as Japan takes the centermost position on the global stage, it does so through a blending and diffusal of anything essentially Japanese. Even where the state survives, its quote-unquote ‘character’ vanishes.

Across these works, a new fear is presented: Japan may or may not gain dominance, and its capitalists might well profit, but this means nothing for the working masses. Where Western cyberpunk relies on this implicitly, “of course Oriental capital cares little for the human bodies it uses in the United States,” they say, Japanese works must directly spell out the fact that capital accumulation and imperial jockeying does little for the local working classes. To whatever extent the fear of the Orient remains, it’s a fear of a less-developed Asia invading, showcased directly in the refugee crises disaplayed in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex’s second season, although admittedly that arrived past cyberpunk’s prime, and takes a post-cyberpunk approach heavily influenced by the terrorism of Aum Shinrikyo and 9/11.

This relation to Japanese hegemony ties into Japanese cyberpunk’s alternate treatment of the state and capital. When Astral Chain released this year, a number of people asked: why, if this is cyberpunk, are the leads cops? While Western examples of the genre occasionally overlap with the law—Deckard is, of course, a Blade Runner—its protagonists are generally counter-hegemonic; not revolutionary, certainly, but unwilling to work alongside the state either. Neuromancer’s Case spends time on the run, after all, and is opposed to his world’s so-called “Turing Police”.

For Japanese cyberpunk, this isn’t necessarily the case. Ghost in the Shell is led by the skilled Section 9, and while they often oppose plots by other factions of the state apparatus, their loyalty to the state as a whole cannot be questioned, as an organization if not personally. Even when the main characters aren’t literally cops, there’s a differing relation at play. In Bubblegum Crisis, Priss hates the pigs, and yet the AD Police, especially Leon, often serve as allies to the Knight Sabers in their fight against out-of-control Boomers, the name for robots in that series. It’s hardly a perfect organization, and the broader state as a whole isn’t presented as ideal, what with the Genom conglomeration practically taking up power as the dominant state in itself, complete with having its own goddamn Department of Defense, but the remote willingness to get this cozy with the law may be surprising to those new to the genre’s Japanese rendition.

It’s Akira, however, that truly clarifies this. In it, the state is, without a doubt, often a bad actor, penalizing protest and experimenting on children. When Tetsuo, a regular boy, is arrested for what is, in all seriousness, a fairly routine offense, if a notable one, he’s whisked away and used for their bizarre attempts at recreating the titular Akira. However, in spite of this not all organs of the state are bad. The colonel, in his opposition to the capitalists who truly rule, is, if not a heroic character, at least a sympathetic one. His actions at the end of the film are devoted to preventing disaster, and he self-evidently disdains the present conditions and the bourgeoisie who made it that way.

And this is all possible because of the refusal to engage in Japanese or Oriental hegemony in the same manner. The state in these works is bad, sort of. Whereas Western cyberpunk often portrays the state under capital and capital under the state as one and the same, as a unified totality against the people, these Japanese works show a fractured state: part of it exists purely to serve capital’s aims, and yet part of it maintains some sense of genuine social welfare, struggling to live up to its subjects even against parts of itself.

This is, simply put, an entirely different way of viewing things. In this seemingly minor shift, the state goes from a purely oppressive apparatus, indistinguishable from capital in any meaningful way, to a battleground, fought between actors who represent capital and those who represent some nebulous notion of the people, and at its most radical, of the working class in specific. Where Western cyberpunk, often deriving from America, projected an image of the already hands-off state, imagining a further Reaganization of the economy as was so easy at the time, Japanese works dwelled on the idea of their at least theoretically more attentive state being split, with the factions in it already clearly more concerned with capital than the masses gaining an upper hand in the battle taking place behind closed doors. Frankly, this might be more common in other nations’ cyberpunk than I’m aware of, but unfortunately I’ve read little that’s emerged from social democracies or socialist states.

I have, of course, spoken in generalities here, as I am usually loathe to do. There are more differences within the realm of Japanese cyberpunk than there is between it and its Western counterparts, though there are also differences between the two I didn’t see fit to cover, such as their specific portrayals of certain technologies. Yet, while both forms arose from late capitalism and the effect its had on human subjectivity, the local conditions in each nation, in every locale, would inevitably alter the interpretation and production of this futuristic vision. Today, living in the actuality of technologically-powered systems of control, with climate change breathing down our necks, I can only hope that we can develop a new aesthetic for envisioning our present moment and take the lessons learned from cyberpunk to a fuller conclusion.

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One thought on “Why Japanese Cyberpunk is Different

  1. I dont think I ever thought of the differences. Thanks for making me think. From this point foward I’ll have a different perspective every time I see cyberpunk on either side of The Pacific.

    Like

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