Los Angeles, 2019 > Hong Kong, 2029
20th-century American poet, Joseph Brodsky, once mused, “What I like about cities is that everything is king size, the beauty and the ugliness” (www.famous-quotes.com), and how right he was. It’s this hyperbolized duality of excess that makes the city an electrifying, tempestuous organism—an organism conceived and birthed by countless generations of humanity, bearing the animistic marks of both child prodigy and enfant terrible. And much like the inhabitants who occupy its congested, multi-level buildings and skyscrapers, the city, as a Hobbesian leviathan, embraces and devours its constituents in its modular, seductive sleeplessness; often, leaving fate to decide the identities, destinies, and destinations of those who constitute its concrete viscera. It’s this same dichotomous allure and disgust that motivates creative types to envision the varied paths the city may or may not take—whether the enormity of future cities will overwhelm the individual for the sake of the to-and-from masses and erected spires that shine life into this greater urban entity—leading one to ask what the urban environment of tomorrow will look like and how will its inhabitants interact with it. Questions that Science-fiction writers, producers, and directors must ask themselves in order to imagine and actualize these futuristic cityscapes (and their citizens) in approaching their works. In Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, the viewer is offered glimpses of these potential environs of tomorrow—the same environments that the viewers might find themselves in awe of, lost in or consumed by in their lifetimes.
This looming potentiality of the future urban space manifests its dystopian excesses most strikingly in Blade Runner. Here, the viewer is both instantly and visually assaulted by an over-industrialized, asphyxiating landscape of a future Los Angeles. As the camera thrusts forward through the bellowing, infernal plumes that belch skyward, lightning pummels the city spires from the smog-filled heavens; thereby, creating a semiotic clash between technology and the elements and signifying to its viewer ‘ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!’ This urgency is echoed in the skittish rapidity of the flying cars—or ‘spinners’—as they hurry through the California haze, avoiding as much contact with the rainless maelstrom that awaits them in their trek through this architectural travesty of tomorrow. Resembling the brimstone depths of Hell more so than L.A., the chthonic metropolis of Blade Runner lacks a fixed spatiotemporal tactility yet still feels familiar in its towering otherness; this is, in part, due to nuances of recognizability that blotch the landscape and mobilizes the city’s inhabitants to maneuver through the exposed industrial sprawl of this Los Angeles of 2019. Slowly, the camera hones in on a towering complex in the distance that resembles a ziggurat or step-pyramid, evoking both the familiar via testaments to the potency of previous civilizations and the otherness via their foreign origins and exo-European historical decrepitude.
This evocation of melding humanity’s past with its future is continued in the film during the viewer’s first introduction to Rick Deckard who leans cavalierly against the city’s structure, reading his newspaper and occasionally espying indifferent peaks at the multi-sensory surplus of inner-city commercialization and skyscraping advertisements replete with: massive, flashing Coca-Cola signs; smiling kabuki-faced women enjoying the stylized pleasures of the products they’re pushing; throngs of window-displayed television sets streaming neon images similar to video works of artist, Nam Jun Paik; an overwhelming barrage of brand-names and logos overpowering the urbanized drear appear everywhere the eye can see; and catch-phrases and buzzwords radiate in katakana and hiragana under radioactive skies…all lending to the familiar yet inflated into otherness. Not to mention, Scott has found an inventive way to include those often-annoying product placements that plague most films into his.
Perhaps, it’s then fitting that the rarely-used dirigible nowadays is overtly utilized in this possible future as a means for conveying a percentage of this hyperbolic, commercialized duality into his dystopian cityscape. Several times throughout the film, Scott intersperses these leering zephyrs floating alongside the thick of pollutants and the choking populace, selling the idea to escape the caustic environs of L.A. and escape to the stars. The confident, masculine voice reverberating from the blimps announces, “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure”, while yet another blimp appears to be selling the populace “the custom-tailored, genetically-engineered humanoid replicant designed especially for your needs.”
Remarkably similar to the overt commercialization in Blade Runner—yet distinctly poles apart in its approach and appearance—Ghost in the Shell incorporates overt commercialization into its urban landscape of 2029’s Hong Kong that is neither utopian nor dystopian in its imagistic prognostications of future urban expanses. Of course, the irony in this statement: not only is the Hong Kong of Ghost in the Shell set ten years after the events in Blade Runner are to occur but also in the fact that the nightmarish Los Angeles of Blade Runner is in part based on Hong Kong. As Wong Kin Yuen notes in his essay “On the Edge of Spaces”: “Blade Runner’s style draws its images from urban spaces all over the world, including such Asian cities as Tokyo and Hong Kong” (p.98). Irony aside, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell offers the viewer a future city that has grown exponentially due to overpopulation and succumb to the exponential growth of technological advancement, but still retains a sense of the familiar and accommodation even in its otherness.
This is alien yet hospitable environment is best observed by the viewer through the cybernetic eyes of Major Motoko Kusanagi—lead operator of Section 9 and main protagonist of Ghost in the Shell—during her excursion through the canals of Hong Kong via mass-transit boat. Brightly-colored banners in Chinese characters stream across the waterway system which flow through the byroads and backways of this future Hong Kong. Unlike Blade Runner’s choking over-pollution, Ghost in the Shell, still has azure skies and sunny days; however, this city isn’t absolved of pollution. As the floating bus, wades its way around skyscraping corners, Kusanagi stares into the waters below her and the murk and filth polluting the deep. Similar to the dirigibles in Blade Runner, this Hong Kong of tomorrow has overtly commercialized floatation devices soliciting brand-names and logos to passersby as it meanders through the city canals. It is also in this scene from Ghost in the Shell that the viewer can find another parallel to Blade Runner.
As Major Kusanagi stares into window displays lining the waterways, she catches a glimpse of a mannequin that looks exactly like her; thereby, appropriating the film’s protagonist from her external, subjective view and supplanting her into the objectified lens of the inner city. Kusanagi is no longer a separate entity from the city but is now part of its ‘window dressing’, so to speak. This parallels the death scene of Zhora in Blade Runner. As Zhora desperately runs for her life from Rick Deckard who, as part of the Blade Runner unit, has been assigned to ‘retire’ the female Replicant, she crashes through a window display housing statuary of gestured mannequins lit in parti-colored neon lights. As Deckard takes aim, fires, and hits his target, the audience watches helplessly as the injured Zhora perilously flees for her life like a wounded animal. She crashes through a series of display windows semiotically juxtaposing her own trapped feelings as a genetically-engineered Replicant—a flesh, blood, and bone paradigm of perfection—to the immobile, emotionless mannequins lining the streets of Los Angeles. Thus, Zhora, in her struggle for individuality…to be apart from and not part of the city itself…meets her fate on the city sidewalk as she crashes through one last window display to her death and lands on the rain-soaked pavement below; a reflection of the neon commercialization surround her corpse, suggesting that her attempt to be apart from the other window-dressed menagerie of mannequins was ultimately futile.
Yet another parallel between the two films appears away from the iridescent, commercialized decadence of Hong Kong’s and L.A.’s sleepless downtowns and in the abandoned, dilapidated sections of the cities…and, I might add, both episodes occur in each film’s finales. In Blade Runner, this interaction between individual and environment transpires in the Bradbury Building where genetic designer, J.F. Sebastian, is its sole tenant. Sebastian who has given shelter to Replicants Roy Batty and Pris, has met his demise at the hands of Batty. His murder then leads Deckard to the Bradbury, where he ‘retires’ Pris amongst the genetically-modified ‘toys’ of the newly-deceased Sebastian. Pris’s desire to be liberated from her objectified role as ‘pleasure model’ Replicant has been extinguished with her last hysterical gasps of life. This echoes Zhora’s attempt to separate herself from cityscape only to be met by her demise. Furthermore, both female Replicants’ final moments are inverted by Major Kusanagi’s uneasy revelation that she may not be as separated and from her surroundings as she perhaps once thought, while staring at the lifeless, objectified mannequin that looks uncannily like her in Ghost in the Shell.
Later, Deckard comes face to face with Roy Batty who has returned to the Bradbury after his murder of Sebastian and Dr. Eldon Tyrrell, head of the Tyrell Corporation (manufacturer of the Replicants). Batty, mad with vengeance over the deaths of his fellow Replicants, hunts down Deckard through the drenched decrepitude of the abandoned rooms of the Bradbury. Flashing spotlights from the commercialized dirigibles hovering overhead shine down through the boarded windows of the building, creating an ambience of confusion and discomfiture. Deckard attempts to hide himself in the shadowy disrepair of the Bradbury; however, his attempts are fruitless. Batty—appropriating Deckard’s role as predator—has no trouble blending in with the decay of the building. Batty’s chameleonic embrace of his environment is oppositional to the other Replicants’ desire to escape it, and is, no doubt, a visual signifier that Batty is aware of and embraced his demise as well.
Similarly in Ghost in the Shell, a metamorphic fate awaits Major Kusanagi in an abandoned floating museum on the outskirts of Hong Kong. Kusanagi who has been in pursuit of members from Section 6 (aka –the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) who have raided Section 9 and made off with the Puppet Master, an artificial intelligence created by Section 6 to hack into any cyborg body the Ministry of Foreign Affairs desires. As Kusanagi exchanges fire with a cyborg ‘spider-tank’, she is chased by gunfire up a flight of stairs that ironically leads her cyborg acrobatics to a Tree of Life exhibit that once showcased the evolution of man. The exhibit is itself etched and painted into the museum’s wall, symbolizing yet again, Kusanagi’s inseparability from the overarching environment since she is, quite arguably, the next paradigmatic step in human evolution. After unsuccessfully attempting to destroy the spider-tank, Kusanagi—like Roy Batty from Blade Runner—is now aware that her efforts are fruitless and her end is near as her cyborg body is torn to pieces by the cybernetic tank. Much like Zhora’s corpse lying in a puddle of water, Kusanagi’s bodiless head lies in one on the Floating Museum’s floor as well.
Luckily, Kusanagi’s second in command at Section 9, Batou, saves her long enough to hook her up to the cybernetic remains of the Puppet Master in order to meld her dying mind with its artificial consciousness. This all occurs from perspective angle of Kusanagi’s decapitated head and the viewer is overwhelmed by the slowly-swirling overarching glass roof overhead—the same roof that she had originally crashed into to meet her transformative fate is now the last thing she sees before her mind is interfused with the Puppet Master’s and is released from her cyborg head to become an entity apart from and a part of an entirely separate world: that of the internet. Thus, Kusanagi—unlike the Replicants of Blade Runner—has managed to transcend her physical environment to become a part of an entirely ‘other’ landscape.
I began this paper by quoting poet Joseph Brodsky and will end it with yet another. This time around: Brave New World author, Aldous Huxley, who once remarked, “A large city cannot be experientially known; its life is too manifold for any individual to be able to participate in it” (www.famous-quotes.com). I find his thoughts resonant in both Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, since both films skew the lines between citizen and city and call into question whether escape from the objectified and liberation from the whole are possible in both contemporary and potential urban landscapes or whether the overarching environment of tomorrow’s city will engorge individuality from its occupants and assimilate them into nameless, faceless oblivion. As 2019 approaches, ask yourself whether you feel like a mannequin today.
Blade Runner - the Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Sean Young. Warner Bros. Home Video, 2007. DVD.
Book of Famous Quotes - The One Stop for Quotations Lovers. Web. 24 June 2011. <http://www.famous-quotes.com>.
Ghost in the Shell. Dir. Mamoru Oshii. Manga Video, 1998. DVD.
Yuen, Wong Kin. "On the Edge of Spaces." Liquid Metal: the Science Fiction Film Reader. Ed. Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower, 2007. 98-112. Print