The Dull Ennui of the Cyberpunk Aesthetic

Tai Kwun Contemporary, an art museum in Hong Kong, is a challenging place to visit. I learned quickly that neither my parents, nor visiting students from the University of Tokyo, were willing to interrogate whether there was any meaning behind a long desk strewn with children’s toys, organized by QR code.

Things were a little more accessible at the Hong Kong Art Book Fair, which Tai Kwun Contemporary hosts each year. There was a cool kid’s room where a zine collective had laid out dozens of printed accusations of state-sponsored violence against citizens around the world. A Japanese copywriter turned photographer was giving out postcards of old ladies joining hands around a tree at a Shinto shrine.

Literally elevated above the rest of the booksellers was a room with only the big names in the business. Thames & Hudson was one of them, and their desk were the usual offerings from what one of my friends taught me were ‘blue chip’ artists: Yayoi Kusama, Quentin Blake, Vincent Van Gogh, and the like.

(Am I using the term ‘blue chip’ properly? I’m not really an art person.)

One of Thames & Hudson’s books on sale at the book fair was a new hardcover from a photographer and game designer named Liam Wong. It was a printed compilation of photos he had already posted on Instagram. Or maybe it wasn’t: I wouldn’t know, because a thick filter of neon pink and electric blue drowns all of his photos of Tokyo at night, making all of his works indistinguishable from one another.

Snapshots from Liam Wong’s Instagram, @liamwong.

A few areas of Tokyo seem to particularly enamor Wong: the instantly recognizable red gates to Kabukicho Ichiban-gai, the huge sign itself perhaps a symbol of the city government’s attempts to keep kyakubiki and other undesirable behavior to a minimum; the lanterns hung above the narrow alleys of Golden Gai, now a bucket list item for many North American visitors to Tokyo; umbrella holders on a platform outside Kanda Station, waiting for the last train by themselves after a beer night at the yokocho below the railway tracks; taxi drivers brooding outside love hotels, waiting for their next customer.

People love Wong’s work. They crowdfunded his book. His Instagram account has almost 200,000 followers at this point. The Hideo Kojima, the dude who all the (white male) attendees at E3, a video game conference, look to as a living deity, even wrote a few words for Wong’s new book. This is what people are saying on Goodreads:

“This book is a must for anyone interested in either Japan or photography. It isn’t just a compilation of images, but a collection of actual moments captured by Wongs eye. He focuses mainly on night photography and presents Tokyos infinite alleyways in atmospheric lighting. His skill truly shows when looking at the images in a larger, print format. Taking pictures at night is extremely difficult as you are constantly looking for the perfect exposure, but his images are consistently sharp and clear, showcasing the neon-lit illuminations beautifully.”

Granted, Wong’s night photography skills are great. But what Wong placed his skills towards is not. I find it sad that he had to resort to portraying Tokyo as a cyberpunk hub to get noticed on Instagram’s algorithms. Because contrary to what Wong’s book would want us to believe, hardly anything about Tokyo’s nightlife is pink and blue, or miserable and rainy.

Admittedly, Tokyo is an especially lonely place. Some of my nights there were alienating and melancholy: unsurprising for a place where people from Vietnam or Hokkaido gather to hustle their way into adulthood.

But I remember the electric and the carefree nights. The penguin-like huddles of college students in the plaza outside Takadanobaba Station, huddled for a nijikai, a second round of drinks where laughter and loose lips fly. The sizzle of yakitori and the belch of oily smoke in Shimbashi, the salaryman’s playground after a long day fiddling with one’s corporate lanyards. The muffled speakers from Don Quijote, a psychedelic tourist trap nightmare where Chinese tourists indulge in midnight purchases of hojicha kit kats and rice-based face masks. The sweaty crowds of men thumping aimlessly at EDM from a decade ago in an overpriced Roppongi nightclub. The poor aural rendition of some song from the top 300 list at a karaoke chain marinated in cigarette smoke. The blooming onion of a vomit splatter on the velvet fabric of the seats of a Ginza line subway train.

This page from Matt Goulding’s Rice, Noodles, and Fish beautifully captures a typical night out in Tokyo.

You might say that it’s unfair to expect a photograph to capture the sights and smells of Tokyo’s debauchery. I say that there’s nothing adventurous about the cyberpunk aesthetic.


A little while back, when it was possible to enjoy an after-dinner walk without a complimentary serving of pepper spray and tear gas in the face, I brought a friend from Duke University around Causeway Bay, a major commercial district in Hong Kong. He couldn’t stop looking up, the way I did the first time I went to Midtown Manhattan. “The buildings are so oppressive,” he told me. “They’re packed so close together. You can hardly see the sky.”

I never realized how abnormal Hong Kong’s urban landscape was growing up. Living on the 88th floor in this city is a sign of unimaginable wealth, rather than a constant battle with vertigo. Indeed, Hong Kong’s web of underground tunnels, interconnected pedestrian bridges, and endless escalator systems are a source of endless fascination for city planners and urban architects. But Hong Kong is not alone in engendering efficient urban spaces. The train terminals in Taipei, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, and Nagoya, just to name a few, are all intimidating spaces to navigate for the first-time visitor. And since the Edo period, Tokyo has long identified itself as a city of contrasts between above and below: the shitamachi for the dense residential areas in the valleys by Kanda River, and the yamanote for the spacious highlands reserved for the samurai.

It is an understatement to say that the visual shock of seeing Korean barbecue joints and supermarkets stacked on top of one another, rather than beside each other has left an indelible mark in English-language popular culture. Almost every future representation of the East Asian city I know of in fiction exploits the use of levels. In Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Hengsha, one of the game levels, is a double-decker Chinese city with poverty and crime down below, and health and wealth up up above. In Cloud Atlas, the dark, corporatist nightmare of Neo Seoul, complete with a white actor in modern yellowface to save a Korean woman from her state-sanctioned death, is navigable only on bright blue energy roadways that rise up kilometers from a ground surface polluted by nuclear disaster and ruined by rising sea levels.

Academics have dedicated a label to these representations in the study of our visual culture: techno-Orientalism. It is a relatively nascent area of study, because Hollywood’s attention to the cyberpunk aesthetic was also a product of recent history:

It took the repeal of the immigration acts in 1965, coupled with the entrance of Japanese capital and imports into the U.S. economy in the late seventies, to precipitate a renewed wariness toward all things Asian, onto which the West once again projected agendas of cultural hegemony and technological dominance. Cyberpunk, with its fetishizing gaze upon Japan as a seductive and contradictory space of futuristic innovation and ancient mystique, sharply focused the SF [speculative fiction] critical and creative lenses upon Asia.

Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, edited by David Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta Niu, at page 6

The exotic and the erotic sell. And so Wong’s photography found its way from Instagram to Thames & Hudson’s distribution network. Gizmodo, Kotaku, and the other self-professed geeky men’s sites pump out listicles about what they call the breathtaking artwork of Cloud Atlas and Blade Runner. Indeed, skyscrapers are a testament to the power of the phallus in our image-conscious society (or at least for Keith Haring). The word ‘skyscraper’ itself is no less sensual: perhaps that is why the Subtle Asian Whatevers of Facebook pump out unending streams of white noise about how great and gritty Hong Kong’s neon lights are.

What is most tragic about the cyberpunk aesthetic is that it is a distinctly masculine gaze from above. Photos from the future haunt our attention because everything below is an indiscernible array of chaos. By photographing dark alleyways and and dimly lit one-man bars, we remind ourselves of the pleasures and privileges of living in North America: the (relatively) spacious apartments, the big box Trader Joe’s branches, the historic idea of manifest destiny by conquering Indian lands in the West. Who would want to live in cage homes and matchbox apartments? No wonder the Hong Kong youth are so upset against the freewheeling capitalist government!

When we obsess about the oppression of the skyscrapers above, we miss the very real vibrancy of the streets below. Very real people occupy and inhabit these very real spaces, which are neither dangerous nor undesirable. An interesting byproduct of the unending protests against Carrie Lam’s malicious incompetence is that the Hong Kong Internet as compiled a list of stores that support the pro-democracy movement. Being born into a school system where students faced intense pressures to become doctors, lawyers, or British emigrants, I never knew that the neighborhoods I grew up in had so many cafes and deep dives run by people who wanted to carve out spaces of their own. Spaces that, most importantly, run counter to the narrative that Hong Kong is now a conflict-torn place of smashed-up sushi stores as the Japanese news media would want you to believe.


Cyberpunk as a genre, I would argue, is distinct from the cyberpunk aesthetic. Cyberpunk delivers a message. The cyberpunk aesthetic obscures any meaningful message one may derive from an image.

Akira is to cyberpunk as racism is to the United States. Many people have already unpacked the many layers of Akira, the 1988 Japanese anime film, for what it represents. To borrow Steven Brown’s words: the “technological addiction, social isolation, political corruption, scientific hubris, evolutionary adaptation, religious fanaticism, juvenile delinquency, the disintegration of the family, and the power of the individual to resist the status quo”.

I don’t intend to analyze the film in any level of depth here, but I do want to express my fascination for what Akira doesn’t say about the things it shows. Why has the police requisitioned a school auditorium to interrogate and beat up your arrestees? Who are the two people on a date in the fancy restaurant before a car crashes into them at the start of the movie? Who appointed the senile, chain-smoking men to the city’s governing council? What exactly are the students protesting against? Are ordinary citizens of the city on the students’ side, or the paramilitary government’s side? Why is hosting the Olympics in 2020 even still desirable for a city teetering on the edge of self-destruction?

In my opinion, the 2020 Olympics was far from the most chilling prediction that Akira got right. The film’s ancillary scenes represent the very real dystopia that Hong Kong is in right now. Empty luxury malls that serve no function but to cater to China’s nouveau riche, a footnote to the white people of the world that we are “Asia’s world city”. A religious fascination with Pepe the Frog, once appropriated by American white nationalists, and now an apparent symbol of liberty and resistance. An Instagram story showing people enjoying zumba on the waterfront, while the police tear gas a crowd just under a kilometer away. A government that would choose to close, once a month, a train station where a triad attack on ordinary people was live-streamed around the world, rather than to conduct a proper fact-finding investigation as to what happened. Two dozen masked riot police playing vigilante by trying to spot and grab people escaping arrest at the ferry terminal after an afternoon protest goes sour, while a couple steps away a street performer amuses tourists with tacky electronic jazz. A sad excuse of a chief executive who hates the young generation to her bones, fueled by a toxic cocktail of dictatorial pride, and protected by a circlejerk of failed men wearing jet black outfits that smear the names of actual trained police around the world.

When people divorce cyberpunk’s visual feast from the underlying incisive political commentary it offers by demanding a live-action remake of Akira, or even by merely visiting Tokyo or Hong Kong and trying to recreate the organized neon chaos, they end up with a sad imitation of what cyberpunk could have offered our visual culture. Instead of a call to action to reflect on how to minimize society’s excesses, all cyberpunk aesthetic offers is an eroticization of oppression, an exotic romance of the Orient—not much better than a Twitter tankie’s academic fetishes of the Chinese Communist Party.

Coda

I went back to the art book fair on its last day, looking for discounts and bargains. I found none. Wong’s book had disappeared from the Thames & Hudson booth. I assume it was a popular title.

I found, however, one other zine about Tokyo, which I loved. It was called Tokyo Bits, a compilation of slice-of-life sketches in blank ink and brush by Ewelina Skowronska, a Polish artist who tried to capture the disorientation and isolation she felt moving from Europe to Tokyo. Nominated for the World Illustration Awards, Skowronska told the Association of Illustrators in 2017:

Most people see Tokyo as crazy, strange and colorful place. I wanted to show life there in a bit more personal perspective of the outsider who is not a tourist but actually is trying to live there. That’s why I decided to use black ink and just pink background of the paper. I also wanted to show more personal experiences from everyday Tokyo life that are maybe not so well known.

The Tumblr and Instagram algorithms will gladly fill your feed with disposable neon fantasies of Tokyo and Hong Kong. Much harder to find, and to treasure, are zines like Skowronska’s Tokyo Bits, which remind us that cities are made of an unceasing search for human connections, rather than an unending construction project of penile skyscrapers. As Tokyo takes center stage in the international imaginary this summer, I can only hope that someday the opposite will become true.


Notes and further reading

  1. For a detailed examination of Tokyo’s geography, including an explanation of the yamanote and the shitamachi dynamic, I recommend Tokyo Totem, a uniquely complex English-language book written by architects, topographers, manga artists, anthropologists, and urbanism professors. It’s one of my favorite books on Tokyo.
  2. When I did research for this essay, I revisited an old video feature about Neo Seoul in the Cloud Atlas film from 2012 that I remember watching as a kid. I never watched Cloud Atlas itself, but I do remember being obsessed with the cyberpunk aesthetic that the director had created for the film—the very behavior that I frown upon in this essay. When I rewatched the Neo Seoul featurette, I cringed hard at the commentary.
  3. Tankies are incredibly difficult to explain succinctly. This Reddit thread is probably a good start. But at the end of the day, they and their ideas don’t really matter.
  4. I’m not an expert on visual culture, art history, or the cyberpunk genre. This essay’s primary aim was to illustrate the cyberpunk aesthetic is a living example of contemporary orientalism, and to hopefully draw people to consume and produce more exciting, and most importantly, more human representations of Tokyo and East Asia. All errors are my own.