By Will Slater
This conceptual piece explores the cross-cultural flow of cyberpunk by imagining a pen pal exchange between canonical Japanese and American cyberpunk works.
Friends in America,
Ugh, I’m so sick of everything right now! The class divide in Japan is something that cannot be tolerated! The Yakuza crime syndicate runs our communities unimpeded! On top of everything, the police exacerbate these problems by turning a blind eye, or worse, inflicting violence upon the most vulnerable among us!
I hate all of it. The only things keeping me sane right now are the brilliant musicians who are fed up with the slow descent of modern society and reflect it in their music. You would love it. From what I hear of what’s happening in America right now, it’s right up your alley. Especially this band called The Stalin, they’re a group here in Japan that’s reminiscent of the Sex Pistols. Their front man, Michiro Endo, is intolerant of everything society has to offer. Just like that Johnny Rotten. He’s also crazy, once threw a severed pig’s head into the audience. It was awesome.
While we’re on the subject of the intolerable, the rapid escalation of this nuclear arms race pissing contest between you and the Soviet Union needs to end.
I’m sure you could understand why.
Greetings from Cloudy Los Angeles,
How nice to hear from you! It’s been so long since the war, almost 40 years. Can you believe it?
The tone of your recent message really got me thinking. America and Japan have symbiotically influenced each other from a cultural perspective. With the influx of Japanese media and the rising image of Japan as an economic miracle, audiences here in the Western hemisphere have been clamoring for Japanese-inspired content. Maybe this angsty energy is something that we could tap into?
I call it…and hear me out…CYBERPUNK.
A friend named Philip actually planted the idea in my mind a while back, something about robots and sheep? I wasn’t really paying attention, to tell you the truth, but your letter was the spark of inspiration that I needed. Think of it as the space where Eastern cityscapes, Japanese culture, dystopian noir, hyper-advanced technology, and degenerate lowlifes (no offense) intersect. Crazy right?! Combine that aesthetic with a series of humanoid cyborgs called “replicants” that are hell-bent on the destruction of their human creators in the far-off future of 2019, and that’s a recipe for success. Also, it’s perpetually raining in Japan, right?
Figured I would run this new concept by you, let me know what you think of it.
Until next time,
Beware this year of 1984, the year of our digital overlords. George Orwell’s dystopian work provides reason enough to fear what may become of humanity if we ignore the telltale signs of totalitarianism, but I fear that we are looking to the wrong plane of existence in anticipation of our imminent demise.
Steve Jobs over at Apple headquarters seems to want to put people at ease in his own strange way, but I feel as though his line of new Macintosh computers will do little to ease public consciousness in the way that he intends. I mean, it looks like a telescreen, right???
Even if there’s nobody watching on the other side of those screens monitoring our every move, who’s to say that their systems can’t be cracked? Their entire operating system is a matrix in which anything goes, and there are few, if any, Internet regulations that can maintain order in this cyberspace frontier. Then there’s the matter of the dangers of when the artificial intelligence of this technology, which we are programming to think for itself, eventually overcomes our own mental faculties.
What we need is an elite team of hacker-warriors to combat the sinister threats that seek to permeate our systems from all directions. The action of Hong Kong kung fu cinema would translate well to a digital sphere in which rules are meant to be broken. If you’ve seen these flicks, you know what I mean.
This has been all that’s on my mind since the inception of cyberpunk in Blade Runner. I hope it doesn’t seem too…unoriginal in concept. Because there’s a lot to work with here.
Greetings from “Rainy” Tokyo,
While it isn’t always raining, we definitely receive plenty of rainfall here. Anyways, we are so flattered to hear about the affinity for Japanese content on the part of American audiences. And wow, cyberpunk, what a concept!
I do have some pointers that could serve to strengthen the idea even further. On the surface, there seems to be a surprising lack of focus on Asian people as main characters and subjects at the forefront of this new genre, especially given their influence. However, that can be easily remedied.
Additionally, Blade Runner referenced the peaceful post-war period while neglecting to acknowledge the pain of the postwar American Occupation. While it is true that we have reconciled our differences from times of war, there are some scars that reverberate through generations. Within our borders, there are still those who can recall the horrors of the bombs that razed our cities to the ground. From the ashes of chalky pink dust arose entirely different versions of the cities than would have existed otherwise. So perhaps it would be beneficial to envision the events which catalyzed the dystopian elements of this new genre as aiding in the creation of a Neo-Tokyo, Neo-Hiroshima, or Neo-Nagasaki; because in reality, this encapsulates the existence that we Japanese confront every day. Similarly, the call for an end to your nuclear proliferation was very real in its intention.
On a brighter note, there is a wealth of possibility to explore in the resulting aftermath of such awe-inspiring raw power, the likes of which the world has never seen before (and will hopefully never see again). The year 2019 seems like an appropriately futuristic-sounding time, so why change it? Also, the visual aesthetic that Blade Runner and Neuromancer share is incredible, and it lends itself to being
Another thing worth considering is that we Japanese are often stereotyped as being robotic in nature. This stems from the image of stoicism that is attributed to Japanese people by much of the outside world and has resulted in a less-than-flattering caricature of our culture. Admittedly, now that I’m thinking about it, this correspondence does come across as rather formal in tone. Nonetheless, it would be much appreciated if you would refrain from the hyper-technologization of our culture to avoid further spreading this inaccurate portrayal.
Despite my critique, I do hope you keep in touch. It was so nice to hear from you.
I’M LOSING MY MIND!
EVERY PART OF MY BODY FEELS LIKE IT’S ON FIRE!
WHAT HAVE I DONE WRONG IN THIS WORLD?
BESIDES HIT THAT GUY WITH MY CAR?
AND THEN HOOK UP WITH MY GIRL IMMEDIATELY AFTER DISPOSING OF HIS BODY?
AND NOW I HAVE BECOME THE CAR!
WHAT KARMIC RETRIBUTION IS THIS?
MY GIRLFRIEND COULDN’T STAND THE MACHINIZED MONSTER THAT I’VE BECOME SO MUCH THAT SHE LITERALLY DIED!
THE CITY WILL BE DESTORYED TO PAY FOR THIS INSOLENCE!
WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!
Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Sincerest apologies for the outburst in the last letter. That was a horrid bodily experience. Perhaps watching fewer late-night Cronenberg movies would be beneficial.
As you might have noted from that letter, despite Akira’s misgivings, there has been thorough consideration of the hyper-technologization of people in this new genre. However, it must be done tastefully.
To feature a central protagonist with cybernetics that provides unique abilities would make an enormous impact. You have to give the people a loveable character that they have good reason to rally behind.
Given the recent economic downturn here in Japan, the people need something to rally behind. I’ve even heard Tokyo described recently as a “disgusting cesspool of humanity”, and honestly, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Sometimes it feels like this decade will be lost and we’re all living in a scrap iron city.
But there has to be some good left in humanity. There must be good people out there who makes us redeemable as a species. Because if not, the whole world is full of those who will take advantage of others just to make it to a promised land that doesn’t seem to exist. Decency is the real superpower, not cybernetics.
Hopefully things are going much better across the pond. Please do write soon, it’s been far too long.
Dearest Friends in America,
It’s been far too long since the last bit of news from you on this side of the Pacific. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our place in the world, our identities. What does all this mean? Why are we here? And, perhaps most importantly, what defines us as individuals — if anything?
Is our constitution merely defined by what most people would call a soul? Or are we something more? Furthermore, is our identity limited to our physical being? Or could our entire existence be boiled down to the memories that we have acquired and experienced over time, like the waves that the sea carves into the hull of the ship of Theseus, which ultimately drifts in whichever direction the wind cares to take it?
Ugh, sorry, too philosophical for a pen pal conversation. I just can’t get it out of my mind! What if our brains could connect to the Web as a part of the network?! Imagine the possibilities…in addition to the vulnerabilities I suppose.
There’s definitely a grave future on the horizon in which human bodies are merely collections of cybernetic organs that can be pieced together and taken apart. As machine-human hybrids, they could be easily connected to a neural network via wired implants in the central nervous system. Based on the ideas from Neuromancer and Battle Angel, this configuration would naturally provide an advantage in hand-to-hand martial arts as well. Maybe we even throw in an invisible computer hacker to spice things u—
Yeah, this seems like a healthy outlet to explore this existential crisis that I’m currently experiencing. Oh, and on the topic of the network, I’ve been thinking lately; it would actually make a lot of sense if we took these letters online, seeing as
Ghost in the Shell
[Message send error: film unwatchable]
Apologies for the delay in correspondence, I was so shell-shocked by Akira’s impact that it was difficult to comprehend where to go next. There were also some…technical issues on this end. But Ghost in the Shell’s message was so fascinating that it demanded a follow-up. There’s so much to catch up on.
It’s impressive how you’ve made this genre your own. Who else would have known that the elements of cyberpunk would translate so well to an anime format? There’s been something ruminating in my mind for some time now, and the contents of Ghost in the Shell might just be the right source material to get the ball rolling. Frankly, I wouldn’t know how else to begin explaining it.
Maybe it’s the impending doom of Y2K in the air, but in the same vein as your identity crisis, I can’t for the life of me stop thinking about the fabric of our reality. Sometimes it just seems as though everyone is running through the motions of a computer simulation at the discretion of greater powers. Hell, yesterday I could have sworn that I saw the vague outline of green characters descending around me like digital rain. That can’t be right though, I should just go back to my desk and continue working.
But what if I’m wrong? I can’t lie, my desk job is getting to be such a drag that becoming a computer hacker like you mentioned honestly doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Now to come up with a clever alias. Going back through our past letters for inspiration. Hmmm…Neo…(hyperlink back to Akira letter)
I suppose for now I must be content in this sad reality until someone comes along and offers me a way out. My only hope is that I’m brave enough to take it, since I’ve
Anyway, back to what I was saying. What if we went beyond the network as a collection of neural pathways, but rather explored it as a separate reality entirely? Like an alternate reality, but virtual. But what would it be called? Something that high concept needs a compelling name. Ugh, think I need to unplug.
Hopefully from here on out we won’t go so long in between correspondences! It would actually make a lot of sense if these letters were to become digital, seeing as though our lives are progressively migrating into the digital realm. I’ll catch you on the flip side with my AIM username.
Wait, that’s it! That’s the name! Matrix! Thanks, Neuromancer.
About the Author
Will Slater is a graduate student studying Global Media & Cultures at Georgia Tech with a concentration in Spanish. His interests include cross-cultural communication as it relates to the development of creative industries with a Latin American focus. Specifically, he is currently examining Latina documentary filmmaking in Puerto Rico and why feminist Puerto Rican cinema should be utilized as a lens through which to examine some of the societal issues that have stemmed from the colonial framework that defines the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. As much as he’s fallen in love with the writings of short story authors such as Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, and Jorge Luis Borges, his favorite piece(s) of speculative fiction will always be his first exposure to the broad genre, the Star Wars franchise.