Blade Runner 2022, Neo Yokio, and Anime’s Endless Ping-Pong Game of Appropriation

Blade Runner 2022. Photo: Crunchyroll

Is Blade Runner the greatest non-animated anime of all time? The futuristic noir vibe of the 1983 Ridley Scott classic has been incalculably influential in the last three decades of science fiction, but no medium took the ball and ran with it quite like Japanese animation. In a preview for the new animated spinoff short Blade Runner Black Out 2022, Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, says what could probably be echoed by many of his contemporaries: Blade Runner was definitely the movie that influenced me the most as an anime director.”

In this sense, a Blade Runner anime almost feels superfluous at this point; there have effectively been hundreds of Blade Runner animes produced since 1983. It provided a visual template that films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell and shows like Bubblegum Crisis riffed and elaborated on — dark and sprawling megacities, evil corporations or governments, renegade androids. Blade Runner itself was made at the height of American Japanophilia, and both anxiety and excitement about the country’s growing economic and cultural influence is reflected in the film’s design. The fluorescent-lit night market where Deckard stops for some noodles resembles any number of cramped food stalls in Tokyo; an LED Geisha looms over the city’s skyline on a video billboard. It’s as much appropriation as it is speculative design, imagining a future Los Angeles where Eastern influence collided with the city’s Hispanic roots and Art Deco architecture. But the reveal earlier this month that Watanabe would be riffing on this hallowed fictional universe was still something to get excited about, a closing of the loop of sorts for several generations of pop-cultural exchange: If the sometimes cringeworthy, sometimes fruitful process of Asian-American cross-cultural appropriation is a game of ping-pong, Blade Runner is the ball that never seems to get lost.

The short, which premiered yesterday on Crunchyroll and VRV, is visual bliss. But story-wise, it’s not much to write home about. Watanabe seems to choke back his funkier predilections in deference to the mythology, and the new elements he introduces, including two replicants named Iggy and Trixie, are tepidly imagined (The film’s brief 13 minute run time doesn’t help.) Trixie is a pleasure bot of a similar model as Daryl Hannah’s Pris (they have similar backflipping abilities), done up in a subtle Harajuku Lolita style; Iggy is a soldier model with an introspective streak, picking up the baton left by Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. We’ve seen these characters before, and not just in Scott’s film. Their mission is to trigger an EMP that will cause a massive blackout and wipe the replicant registry, a plot point that apparently plays a part in the upcoming live-action sequel Blade Runner 2049. There is some baseline thrill of seeing the flying cars and corporate pyramids of 2022 Los Angeles rendered in Watanabe’s animation style, but because so much of that original iconography is being used, it’s less of a “Yes, and” iteration on the original film and more of a straightforward “Yes.” In a weird way, the short feels more like Blade Runner appropriating the medium and style of anime than the other way around.

Still, it’s refreshing to see the keepers of the Blade Runner IP embrace its legacy in Japanese pop culture, and understand the overlap of its target demo with that of Cowboy Bebop fans. It’s quite a contrast from how this year’s Ghost in the Shell adaptation both cherry-picked from and disavowed its source material, as if its creators were ignorant to the fact that the overt Japanese-ness of the story was part of its international appeal. It’s 2017, and from what I hear, it’s cool to like anime. Anime graduated beyond the realm of dank backrooms of nerd shops at least 20 years ago, and streaming video has made it rapidly ascendant over the last decade. It’s a medium that’s often treated like a genre because of the perceived uniformity of its fan base, but as that fan base grows and becomes less and less cloistered from the mainstream, it’s naturally become less monolithic. There has been anime that has pushed its way into the mainstream (the films of Studio Ghibli, and to a degree, this year’s Your Name) and increasingly, there is anime that’s opened up its windows to a cross-ventilation of influences. Watanabe’s own Samurai Champloo was an earlier example of that, as was Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, whose status as an anime is still a thing people seem to enjoy debating. And now, Netflix’s Neo Yokio has arrived, seemingly on a mission to make anime purists tear out their hair.

The six-episode series is the brainchild of Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig, though it feels strongly influenced by star Jaden Smith, who voices our pink-haired demon-slaying hero Kaz Kaan. The target demo is anyone with an appreciation for jokes about life in New York City, Taylor Swift, Damien Hirst, mecha anime, artisanal cocktails, William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” and Sailor Moon (I’d love to meet the rest of us, all 15 of you.) The aesthetic takes its cues from stark, budget-cut ‘90s anime, i.e. anything that could be used as a cover image for a Vaporwave mix. In other words, it looks like shit to any modern-day anime connoisseur. Koenig has refrained from explicitly referring to Neo Yokio as an anime, despite it being a co-production with Japanese studios Production I.G. and Studio Deen. “Ultimately it’s its own thing: a hybrid collab between people in the US, Japan and Korea,” he tweeted.

I’ve enjoyed, in only an intermittently schadenfreude-tinged way, watching social-media reactions to Neo Yokio from all corners of the internet, from anime news sites to music blogs to 4chan-dwelling anime avatar trolls to fans of Viceland duo Desus and Mero (who are the clear stars of the voice cast.) One review claims they knew the show wasn’t worth watching because Kaz’s robot butler Charles doesn’t look slick enough, another who enjoyed it but ultimately found it didn’t go hard enough on late capitalist satire. There’s a faction of viewers who are calling for a boycott of the show over the alleged transphobia in its episode that references Ranma ½ (Rumiko Takahashi’s series about a boy who turns into a girl every time he is splashed with cold water.) When I say I enjoy observing all this, I’m not being facetious; Neo Yokio, despite whatever faults it may have, is uniquely positioned to attract a diversity of perspectives that rarely talk to each other. I’ll admit I’ve only barely considered how a trans person would feel about the concept of Ranma; thanks to Neo Yokio, now I have. Yes, Takahashi’s story is coming from a culture with entirely different views on gender fluidity than your average woke Twitter user, but these cultures are only going to be speaking to each other more and more, and the conversation is more than valid.

Koenig has created a cultural clusterfuck that is ultimately well-intentioned, if probably too arch for the average viewer. If Watanabe’s Blade Runner short feels like it’s stuck in a feedback loop, Neo Yokio is a highly stylized lightning rod. For me, it passes the cultural borrowing gut-check as articulated by Craig Jenkins in his and Frank Guan’s discussion of cultural borrowing last year: “It looks like collaboration, not costume, like advocacy, not avoidance.” Other viewers’ mileage may vary, but if I know one thing for certain it’s that the question of if Neo Yokio is trash or not is not a simple question of “appropriating anime.” Anime would not be what it is today without a constant flow of cultural appropriation.

The conversation has already evolved significantly from where it was around the releases of this year’s live-action Ghost in the Shell and Death Note adaptations. And it will no doubt flare up again around another upcoming work of animation, Wes Anderson’s Japan-set stop-motion feature Isle of Dogs. There’s already a current of appropriation alarm running through responses to the film’s first trailer, which does not make it immediately clear why “Megasaki City” and its puppet denizens had to be Japanese and not, say, British Columbian. I can feel how mad people are ready to be at this movie (and I don’t necessarily exclude myself from that madness — I’m seeing more costume than collaboration in the trailer, but I’ll try against my better judgment to hold off on any blanket verdicts until March 2018). But despite Anderson’s dodgy track record with this stuff, Isle of Dogs — like Blade Runners past and future and Neo Yokio — should be judged by how it borrows, not just the mere fact that it borrows in the first place. Nothing exists in a vacuum anymore, not anime, not Anderson’s obsessively composed brand of cinema. I mean, they made a Blade Runner anime, for crying out loud. We are truly living in the future.

Blade Runner 2022, Neo Yokio, and Anime’s Appropriation