Tokyo, Blade Runner, and 2049
I first came across this lovely video montage of Tokyo cityscape footage set to the mournful tones of the Blade Runner score while writing this post about Ghost In The Shell; with the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, about to be released, the gods of the Youtube algorithm just (perhaps not so) randomly served it up again as part of my morning Youtube spiral (recommend hitting play and listening while you read):
The footage is great, the buildings standing like sentinels with their winking red lights, the trains and motor vehicles pulsing along the arteries like the lifeblood of some sentient being; and Vangelis’ Blade Runner Blues is just the perfect track for looking out over and down into a vast cityscape like that, and pondering what it all means. It’s a perfect match really, and whoever made that video did a great job.
Watching it again just now, it got me thinking (once again) about how Blade Runner seems to have influenced so many people to want to visit Tokyo – despite actually having very little to do with Japan. The scenes that people want to find in real life, so to speak, when they visit Tokyo are the cityscapes of Blade Runner’s dystopian future (2019!) Los Angeles, and the street-level scenes in that LA’s undercity. The only clearly Japanese elements are the Japanese background signage and advertising (including the prominent Coca-Cola geisha billboard the car flies past), and the old Japanese guy running the noodle stand Deckard eats at:
…and yet, for most Blade Runner fans Tokyo is the city that seems most closely to evoke director Ridley Scott’s vision; hence all the videos people post on Youtube of Tokyo set to the Blade Runner score – the one above is just my favourite among many, here’s an awesome time-lapse on the same theme:
…and hence articles like this about photography like this. Richard Corliss (film critic for Time) describes Blade Runner as being “set in the year 2019, in a big city that suggests a Tokyo gone daft.”
I guess it’s the combination of Tokyo’s top-down immensity and its mostly bland and monolithic architecture, with the bottom-up neon and noise of its shopping & entertainment districts and the nitty gritty of the street-level details, the alleyways with their steam-billowing soba stands and fog-windowed ramen joints, that invites the sensory comparison. But there’s also something altogether more difficult to put your finger on… perhaps I can describe it as the soulful alienation one can sometimes feel in Tokyo – the biggest aggregation of humanity on Earth which yet somehow often feels like the loneliest place on Earth.
Pop a plastic umbrella and go for a lone wander in Shinjuku on a rainy day with Vangelis on your earphones, and that’s about as close as you can get to recreating the atmosphere of the film without actually going jumping across rooftops in a storm while monologuing about moments “lost, in time, like… tears… in rain.”
And that brings me to the point of this post; where to go in Tokyo if you’re a Blade Runner fan hoping to catch some Blade Runner-esque top-down cityscape visuals and bottom-up street scenes during your visit.
For the former, heading up to one of the city’s various skyscraper viewing decks at night should do the job nicely. Take your pick from Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower, Roppongi Hills, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (in Shinjuku), and Sunshine 60 (in Ikebukuro). They all have great views of Tokyo’s urban sprawl, and you see the major hubs lit up like the synapses of some huge bioelectrical organism, all those countless red lights winking away from the buildings as though the city itself is making some sort of chromatophoric display, relaying some mysterious message in a pattern of light that can only start to be grasped from on high.
On the other hand, to find something akin to the street scenes in Blade Runner, consider this quote attributed (in the On the Edge of Blade Runner documentary) to Ridley Scott: “The future is old.” When he and his team were designing the sets and props for their future city, they concocted something that looked simultaneously futuristic and worn; there are in fact many locales in Tokyo that capture this layered and textured feel of new built upon old, but there are three spots in particular that I’d recommend visiting – all conveniently located a short walk from Shinjuku station.
As noted above, a solo wander under an umbrella in the drizzle through Shinjuku is the best way to ‘feel’ Blade Runner in Tokyo – to be more precise, the specific part of Shinjuku I’d suggest doing this is the Kabukicho red light district. It’s hardly an exact match to anything in the movie, but the onslaught of neon and the dense gathering of shady characters makes it about as edgy as Tokyo gets, kind of futuristic yet most definitely grimy and dirty under the nails.
But the two places that really nail it for me are Golden Gai (Golden Street) and, most of all, Omoide Yokocho (Memory Alley), the latter better known as Shomben Yokocho, or Piss Alley. Click the links to read about them in more detail in separate posts, but essentially they’re two small alleyway areas that have survived intact through the decades of rampant development around them, retaining the character of Tokyo immediately post-war while the rest of Shinjuku sprouted skyscrapers, heavy infrastructure, and department stores galore; the future is old, and Golden Gai and Shomben Yokocho are what’s left of old Shinjuku.
Golden Gai is a few alleys packed full of tiny little bars (only big enough for a handful of patrons at a time) each with their own unique styling, and it’s a great place for a beer or two after a wander through Kabukicho. Shomben Yokocho is a pair of intersecting alleys running through a small city block nestled right next to the Japan Rail train tracks outside Shinjuku Station, both of which are lined with small eateries. At the intersection of the two alleys, right in the middle, there’s an awesome little noodle joint which serves absolutely killer soba and udon; they have seven seats and you wait in line until a seat becomes available, and once it does you’ll be expected to sit, order, pay, and leave with an absolute minimum of messing around – someone will usually be waiting for your seat, so don’t sit there photographing your food, just eat it! The gruff blokes behind the counter, and the way the customers call out their orders as they sit, all with minimal airs & graces, means a bowl of noodles here should scratch your Blade Runner noodle scene itch (my usual order is the ten-tama udon, though the ten-tama soba is their most famous).
Given the location of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in West Shinjuku, you could hit that first for the cityscape night view, then find your way to Shomben Yokocho for a bowl of noodles, followed by a wander through Kabukicho to Golden Gai for a drink; this little Shinjuku walking itinerary should be satisfying to any Blade Runner fan visiting Tokyo, and even if you’re not a Blade Runner fan it’s still a cool way to spend a few hours on an evening! Wait for it to rain, grab your umbrella and your camera, and hit the streets of Shinjuku… after first watching this:
(or just go for the full movie on Amazon!)
Any questions about any of the places mentioned above? Give me a shout below!
Update: Tokyo 2049
Well, I thought the new film was great, and was greatly relieved that it managed to continue the story while fully respecting the original and without re-writing, re-interpreting, or re-booting anything. It doesn’t change anything in terms of visiting Tokyo as a Blade Runner fan, either, as the film doesn’t spend so much time fleshing out LA 2049. We do see a bit more of the wider world – the protein farms & solar arrays beyond the urban limits, the waste dump of San Diego, the wasteland of Vegas – but the city itself is less of a feature. There’s also a less Japanese, more pan-Asian influence – K does have a scene with a Japanese-speaking AI, but we also see him talking to an Arabic-speaking street fixer; in addition to Japanese background signage there’s also prominent use of the Korean Hangeul script and some Chinese, plus a little Russian (the Korean 행운 above the entrance of the building where K finds Deckard reads haengun which means ‘good fortune’ – the building’s a ruined casino). Interestingly it was mostly filmed in Budapest – see here for a run down of the locations.
As for how Tokyo itself will actually look in 2049, given the rate at which that city reinvents itself it’s hard to say – but I’m guessing it won’t look like either of the Blade Runner films!
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