Mention ‘cyberpunk’ and you’ll probably envision a scene out of Blade Runner or Akira – it’s a dystopian vision of the future perpetuated by sci-fi writers, blending “high tech and low life”. The years 2019 and 2020 are very significant to cyberpunk, because many original cyberpunk novels, games, and movies written decades before were set in a time we’re currently living. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is set in 2019, Akira took place in 2019, and there’s the 80s game Cyberpunk 2020.
Cyberpunk is a rich cultural movement spanning film, fashion, and architecture—all born from a sci-fi sub genre. So what makes something “cyberpunk”?
Scene in film & animation
Let’s start with what cyberpunk looks like. Classic films like Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984), and The Matrix (1999) are often credited for bringing the cyberpunk visual to the masses. In them, we see a dystopian future with film noir aesthetic elements: neon lights, rain, night scenes, cramped cities with dark alleys.
The cyberpunk setting ranges from the colourful, rough-around-the-edges urban jungles of Akira (1988), to the hyper-futuristic, neon cityscapes of Altered Carbon (2018) and Ghost in the Shell (2017); and bleak wastelands of Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Alita Battle Angel (2019). They take us into a gritty, future world of neon lights, holograms, and touchscreens filled with unsavoury characters.
Another popular medium for cyberpunk is anime – titles like Ghost in the Shell (1998~), Ergo Proxy (2006), and Psycho Pass (2012~) all portray a dark world where AI coexists with humans.
Androids and AI are commonplace in cyberpunk; the AI in Altered Carbon is a hotel owner, while Alita and Major are fighting machines. The technology isn’t presented as a revolution, but a rather common, necessary existence – much like how children these days are attached to iPads.
The inspiration for these worlds were inspired by Philip Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Set in the 21st century, cyberpunk plots often feature AI, hackers, and megacorporations, set in post-industrial dystopias where technology meant to advance humanity is misused (either by AI or other humans).
Interestingly, a common element in cyberpunk aesthetic is the heavy use of Asian elements – Japanese and Chinese characters on signboards, for instance, portraying Asians as both technologically advanced and intellectually primitive, in dire need of Western consciousness-raising, according to Techno-Orientalism.
Real life cyberpunk
There’s no shortage of real life ‘dystopian’ cyberpunk settings to be inspired by. All you need are neon lights and cramped, crowded cities with dark alleys.
With its famously tiny apartments and proliferation of overhanging neon signs, the Hong Kong of today has no shortage of that cyberpunk aesthetic: Quarry Bay’s “Monster Building” is a collection of 5 incredibly densely-stacked tenements – including Yik Cheong Building and Montane Mansion – that have served as backdrops to many dystopian films.
Singapore’s Golden Mile Complex also embodies this aesthetic – dubbed a “vertical slum”, the residential portion comprises a ramshackle collection of apartments stacked on top of each other, each with unregulated extensions to their balconies. A less chaotic version of cyberpunk can be seen in The Interlace and Reflections at Keppel Bay – high-end condos that seem ripped straight out of sci-fi art.
Many other cities and metropolises also possess that cyberpunk aesthetic. The multicoloured signboards and giant TV commercials illuminating pedestrian streets coupled with neon-lit office buildings in Osaka’s Dotonbori or Tokyo’s Kabukicho districts evoke a cyberpunk feel. China’s self-dubbed “cyberpunk city” of Chongqing is a vertical jungle of skyscrapers illuminated by giant screens of commercials interspersed with neon-lit highways and monorails that weave between these structures.
Cyberpunk also translates into fashion, which is dubbed “futuristic gothic”. It’s heavily influenced by films like Blade Runner and The Matrix, and incorporates trench coats, boots, black clothing, some form of head cover, and the use of leather. Cyberpunk also influences contemporary graphic design, with loud contrasting colour schemes, unconventional layouts and digitally-enhanced typography.
The cyberpunk look also lends itself perfectly to some Kpop MVs – like VIXX’s Error, Big Bang’s Fantastic Baby, Alexa’s Bomb, 2NE1’s Come Back Home – with their futuristic neon dystopian settings, futuristic gothic outfits, and commentary on society.
More than just a look to describe a film, place or fashion, the cyberpunk aesthetic is often used to comment on modern society and sometimes predict our future society. As a rebellion to the status quo of the 1980’s, it’s about the people and how their surroundings are affected by technology outpacing morality.