Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Case Study: Hong Kong’s Influence on Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Cyberpunk Cinema

Throughout the eighties and onward through the 90's, many popular science fiction films such as the famed Hollywood thriller Blade Runner and Japanese anime film Ghost in the Shell have depicted sprawling futuristic cityscapes influenced by the city of Hong Kong. Both films, considered to be landmarks of the cyberpunk film movement, chose to feature distinctly “Asian” motifs as the backdrops for their dark, sprawling metropolis’, with a focus on Hong Kong’s uniquely paradoxical aesthetic. More specifically, the movies choose to present a jarring contrast between the ultra-commercialized, new, and capitalistic side of the city against the dark, erotic, slum-like noir of the urban areas. With the recent rise of science fiction and the cyberpunk movement, Hong Kong occupies a peculiar place in both Hollywood and Japanese cinema, providing an exotic yet strangely familiar backdrop to explore ideas such as social disparity, excessive proliferation of technology, and the evolution of the human condition. In their efforts to reconcile past and present, utopia and dystopia, filmmakers of the modern cyberpunk movement present the city of Hong Kong as a place of nostalgic escapism, a unique futuristic realm that exists and develops differently than the rest of the world. This article will cite Wong Yuen’s On the Edge of Spaces and Mark Player’s Post Human Nightmares — The World of Japanese Cyberpunk to help explore Hong Kong’s influence in science fiction film making.

Hong Kong’s modern skyline
Hong Kong in the late 19th century (via HongWrong)

Before discussing the various ways in which Hong Kong is represented in cinema, it is crucial to detail some of its history for context. Hong Kong, more specifically known as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), is a district of the People’s Republic of China. Before the city was known as a major world financial center and economic powerhouse, it was once a collection of small coastal fishing villages and a port city occupied by China’s Cantonese minority. After the First Opium War, Britain took the city as a colony and leased it from China for 99 years. Following its occupation by the Japanese during World War II, Hong Kong later experienced a period of economic revival and Westernization after its return to British control. In the years leading up to its handover to Mainland China, the city established itself as a world economic powerhouse, or “Asian Tiger”, owing much of its success to high-tech industries such as integrated circuits and consumer electronics manufacturing. However, this period of growth also produced much civil and social unrest, creating a large gap between the rich new generation and the poorer older generation. Nowadays, this divide manifests itself in the distinct culture of ultra-modern and Western placed alongside the traditional and Chinese. Towering skyscrapers, glittering neon signs, fast sports cars, and bright LCD screens, symbols of the “new” are commonly seen juxtaposed against dingy fishing villages, rickshaws, rustic forest trails, and night markets, or representations of the old. It is within this unique environment that many concepts of cyberpunk are realized, and the reason that many science fiction movies draw their artistic inspiration from this city. But what exactly is cyberpunk, and where does the genre stand within science fiction?

“[cyberpunk] is characterized by its exploration of the impact of high-technology on low-lives — people living in squalor; stacked on top of one another within an oppressive metropolis dominated by advanced technologies.”
1951’s Ranger Easy nuclear bomb test (via Wired)

Born in the science fiction literature of the sixties and seventies, cyberpunk began with books such as Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which discussed topics such as empathy in humans, the difference between data and reality (real versus fiction), and the emerging roles of cyborgs and other futuristic technologies in society. Such forward thinking topics emerged naturally from the landscape of the late twentieth century, following the huge leaps mankind made in warfare (specifically with nuclear weaponry) and other areas of science and technology. Mark Player, a film critic and reviewer of Japanese cinema, states that cyberpunk is “characterized by its exploration of the impact of high-technology on low-lives — people living in squalor; stacked on top of one another within an oppressive metropolis dominated by advanced technologies.” Specifically, cyberpunk media explores the dystopian futures of societies consumed by scientific advancements and technology. But why choose to depict a dystopian future instead of a utopian one? Geoff King’s book Science Fiction Cinema: From Outerspace to Cyberspace claims that better movies can be made from the “dark threats and destruction of technological nightmare”. It states that “Any kind of realized utopia might be rather tedious, lacking the tension and conflict often basic to narrative”. In addition, King reasons that the bulk of science fiction cinema has been created after the advent of nuclear weapons, which demonstrated science’s potential for great destructive power. Hong Kong, as a city, embodies the spirit of cyberpunk in its exposition of a rapidly approaching digital future alongside its struggle to hold on to its roots.

Portland Street, Hong Kong
Hong Kong Apartment Buildings

Wong Kin Yuen’s paper On the Edge of Spaces delves into the topic of Hong Kong’s representation in Asian and Western cinema, focusing on films such as Ridley Scott’s iconic thriller Blade Runner and Mamoru Oshii’s masterstroke animated film Ghost in the Shell. Without revealing too much of their respective plot lines, both films are set in a high tech metropolis set some time in the distant future. Cyborgs and cybernetic implants play a large role in both movies, creating tension and conflict between the robots and their human creators. A central topic explored by both films is the struggle to integrate both people and environments into the new high tech world. On the Edge of Spaces explores Hong Kong’s embodiment as a modern day representation of that struggle. Yuen states that “science fiction film critics are less aware, however, that when anime film director Mamoru Oshii was looking for a model of the city of the future in a computerized world, he turned for his primary inspiration to the cityscape of Hong Kong. He posits that directors such as Ridley Scott and Mamoru Oshii chose Hong Kong’s distinctive aesthetic as a major artistic influence for their respective movies due to the city’s unique status as a place of booming capitalism and ultra-modernism juxtaposed against the remnants of its old, post colonialist cultures and traditions. Their decisions to incorporate elements of Hong Kong into their movies could also have been influenced by an attempt to return to the past, while simultaneously existing in the future. Without grounding their respective ideas about encroachment of technology on society in some sort of familiar setting, perhaps both movies would lose their relatability, and thus, lose their credibility when engaging audiences in their philosophies and ethos.

“Any kind of realized utopia might be rather tedious, lacking the tension and conflict often basic to narrative”
Ghost in the Shell (1995)

In his discussion of Blade Runner, Yuen discusses the film’s stylization of a futuristic Los Angeles, modeled after the Hong Kong cityscape. Ridleyville, as he calls it, sustains the film noir tradition through “dark and explosive scenes of riot and chaos”, juxtaposing disparate visual elements and creating “a tone somewhere between eroticism and dreariness. This kind of design, which marks the unmistakable miscellaneity of a metropolis, suggests a near future where centers and peripheries do not hold and where racial conflicts are at the point of explosion”. Yuen suggests that the chaos of a typical Hong Kong street scene represented in the protracted scenes of cityscape in Blade Runner serve to illustrate a society confused about its own identity, about to implode at any moment. In Blade Runner, the conflict and tension between the Replicants, or cyborgs mimicking humans, and people of flesh and blood parallel the modern day consequences of increasingly expansive consumerism and intrusive technology encroaching on people’s lives. Indeed, a look into Hong Kong’s development in the past few decades as well as its present status as a world economic center today lends insight into why directors such as Scott and Oshii chose to represent this city in their films. Yuen asserts that Hong Kong has potential for becoming the “forerunner of what the contemporary capitalist world city will eventually become”, and that its recent re-absorption by mainland China has highlighted the city’s historical struggle between British colonialism and traditional Chinese culture. This is what lends Hong Kong its distinctive “feeling” as a city, differentiates it from other ultra-modern East-Asian cities such as Singapore and Tokyo, and ultimately what led Scott and Oshii to incorporate it into their films.

Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner (1982)

Although similar to Blade Runner in many respects, Ghost in the Shell, incorporates elements of Hong Kong’s visual aesthetics in a much more direct sense. Unlike the setting of Blade Runner, where the fictional representation of a futuristic Los Angeles only suggests an influence from Hong Kong, Ghost in the Shell borrows directly from the city itself. Takeuchi Atsushi, the designer of the film’s art sets, states that Hong Kong was the perfect city for Ghost in the Shell due to its excessive and highly chaotic visual space. In particular, he states that the city “flows with an excess or a flood of information, along with everything this excess brings out. The modern city is swamped with billboards, neon lights and symbols. As people live in this information flood, the street will have to be depicted accordingly”. An excess of information, it seems, is what is necessarily the reasoning behind selecting Hong Kong as an artistic influence. The city’s streets present a huge amount of information; on the LCD screens, in the shopping mall windows, on billboard advertisements, and on glowing neon signs covering every inch of space. In the midst of this information flood, people become numb to stimuli, feelings are replaced by data, and the natural state of being is reduced to artificial constructs. This is essentially the kind of dark, dystopian future that cyberpunk movies strive to present to their viewers. An excellent example of this can be found in Ghost in the Shell, with its frequent cuts to extended city scenes, characterized by this exact form of visual chaos and invasion of information.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell features many scenes of groups of people moving about, shrouded in rain and haze, and lit by neon signs. In one famous scene, Major Kusanagi (the protagonist of the film) tracks down a hostile hacker and traces his location to the ruins of old Hong Kong. As she chases her suspect, the film shifts its tone and becomes deeply contemplative and somber. What the Major sees, abandoned civic buildings and decaying urban constructs, signify a return to an older time, remnants of what was left behind by a rapidly advancing technocratic society. For many in the audience, this protracted chase scene evokes a strong sense of nostalgia, and perhaps even feelings of sorrow, as they come to identify with what they see. Mark Player’s article Post Human Nightmares compares Oshii’s work on Ghost in the Shell to another, older Japanese cyberpunk film called Burst City, stating that their visual aesthetics are “beyond the usual genre trappings” and that they have the “immediacy and atmosphere of a documentary, chronicling both the people and the music, whilst using the surrounding dystopian backdrop as a metaphor for the anxiety, helplessness and alienation as experienced by Japan’s youth at the time.” Here we see the struggle to reconcile a desire for technological utopia and the inevitable dystopia it creates in the form of visual spaces presented to the viewer. It is for this reason Oshii chooses to transfer a high octane crime chase to the calm, dreary, and ruined streets of an abandoned city. The filmmakers, it seems, do not wish for their audiences to forget the implications of ultra-fast development in a city of old culture.

Blade Runner (1982)

Despite the appearance of Hong Kong in both Ghost in the Shell and in Blade Runner, its interpretations in both movies are quite different. For one, Ridley Scott never explicitly stated that Hong Kong was the influence for Ridleyville in Blade Runner. Within his fictional city, elements of the Hong Kong aesthetic exist as abstract concepts, as opposed to Ghost’s very explicit representations of the city. Although a viewer might see the occasional Chinese lettering in a bright neon signboard, the only reasons he or she might connect Ridleyville to the East Asian city is because of the atmospheric elements imbued by the director onto the city. Darkness, smoke, and rain, punctuated by groups of hooded people and chaos are only very loose indicators that the city’s influence might be Hong Kong. Of course, this connection may only be very obvious to people who have lived or visited the city, but that does not prevent the casual audience member from being aware of its East Asian roots. On the other hand, Ghost presents a very obvious signs that it is set in Hong Kong, or at the very least, a clear clone of the city. Traditional Chinese lettering, double decker buses, busy produce marketplaces, and obvious signs of work and activity complete Oshii’s vision of the future city, and although the film never states where it is set, Oshii himself has vocalized Hong Kong’s immense influence on his artistic stylings. What is clear though, is that both filmmakers wish to present a more “real” version of their respective futures, and Hong Kong’s eclectic mix of both past and present create this sort of immersive, relatable environment for the viewers. In this sense, nostalgia is the tool utilized to create immersion in a future that is supposedly alien and unfamiliar.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Hong Kong’s status as a cosmopolitan, cutting edge city of high technology has led to it becoming an artistic influence for many science fiction films. Tracing its history into the modern age as well as into the future highlights many aspects of Hong Kong that are distinct from other major cities in the world. From its hot neon lit shopping malls to its dark, dirty underworld, Hong Kong creates a unique space as a city, existing simultaneously in the past, as well as the present and future. Its visual spaces, filled with chaos, sexuality, violence, peace, and calm exist together in a strange harmony that presents a vision of the past struggling to maintain its identity in an uncertain future. Without even having to visit the city, people can find themselves lost in Hong Kong’s visual assault, and upon seeing its traditional culture, become filled with a strong sense of nostalgia. This is a key element in effectively presenting cyberpunk concepts to audiences, as nostalgia for the past helps to create a more relatable future.