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August 9, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Cultural Appropriation: That Fluoro Green Digital Rain Shit

When the ever-blank expression of Keanu Reeves was broken momentarily to utter the line “I know kung fu,” he was doing more than just acknowledging his readiness to take on Laurence Fishburne in a mind- and gravity-bending fistfight. He was also stating a truism. Neo knows kung fu because we all know kung fu. From Bruce Lee to Chow Yun-Fat, from Jackie Chan to Jet Li, Asian martial arts maestros have become as familiar a part of the movie going experience as popcorn and Kevin Bacon. Heck, some of us even really know kung fu; you’d be hard-pressed to find a sizeable Western city that wasn’t home to some kind of Dojo—a term which apparently refers to any arts training hall, and not necessarily one devoted to martial arts. The sight of non-Asian dudes doing crane kicks in The Matrix can therefore function as a perfect example of cultural appropriation at work. Here, the Chinese martial art tradition, as well as its representation in countless kung fu flicks, has been adopted to further the designs of Hollywood, the quintessential producer of western culture.

Of course, this kind of appropriation has a long, storied, and at times highly controversial history. “There’s long been an interest [in Asian culture] in the West. You could trace it back to the Greco-Roman world, with exotic products coming overland from the Silk Road,” says Professor Stephen Epstein, Director of Victoria University’s Asian Studies Programme.

Appropriation can occur in a variety of ways, and can be as simple as purchasing a piece of kitsch from Iko Iko, getting a tattoo of a Kanji character on your wrist, or even preparing a plate of sushi for dinner. Although these examples may seem trivial, the processes of appropriation, which extends to the ownership of artefacts from a foreign culture, can at times be problematic.

A Brief History of Orientalism

To explain, Epstein points to Edward Said’s book, Orientalism. Here, Said traced the history of western fascination with eastern cultures, and their depiction as an exotic “Other” with promises of the unknown, mystical properties and distinct aesthetic qualities. “The East,” Epstein says, “was positioned in binary opposition to the West. It was a mirror image, an inferior image, and a feminised image.” Throughout the ages then, western travellers have returned from the East bearing exotic artefacts, which showcased these oriental qualities, and in turn began to influence western culture. And, as Epstein explains, these processes continue today.

“You still see a lot of orientalist tropes in action, particularly in mainstream western culture, emphasising the mysterious East, as it were. Take Lost in Translation, which really polarises people. It’s both critiquing Bill Murray’s character, but also making fun of ‘wacky’ Japan, and presenting Japan as unknowable. Remember tall Bill Murray in the elevator scene, where he’s towering over all the ‘identical’ Japanese? So there definitely still is a lot of orientalism going on.”

Burger Fuel, Star Wars and the Zen Masters

Films like Lost in Translation and The Matrix can be seen as a continuation of this Orientalist process, producing an idealised image of Japanese and pan-Asian culture which does not necessarily reflect their contemporary cultural makeup. For instance, when we think of Japanese television, our minds might instantly jump to the clips of bizarre gameshows featuring slippery obstacle courses, human Tetris and Matrix-style ping pong that Burger Fuel seems to be so obsessed with playing on those wall-sized LCD screens of theirs. But does this really represent the makeup of terrestrial Japanese programming? In fact, the most popular genre on Japanese screens turns out to be the light serial drama, which receives more airtime than either the madcap gameshows or the even more familiar export, anime.

The figure of the venerable Asian spiritual master, at one with the world via some kind of Zen mind conditioning, is equally stereotypical and familiar to us. I need only mention the words Star Wars, Yoda and the order of the Jedi to remind you of just one example of the sorts of pseudo-mystical philosophising that is constantly dredged up in mass-media depictions of Asian or Asian-inspired spirituality. These kinds of depictions are often superficial, if not downright wrong, and may draw as much on western new-age wish-wash or bastardised Freudian theory as on any genuine eastern spiritual practice.

Re-Appropriation and Lolita Fashion

However, cultural appropriation does not necessarily have to be harmful, or stereotyping. It can also be playful, curious or thought-provoking, and it can often be multi-directional. At the same time teenagers across the world don Sailor Moon outfits and upload cosplay (an abbreviation of costume roleplay) videos to YouTube, the Japanese have been engaging in Lolita fashion. An incredibly popular subculture, Lolita fashion draws on Victorian-era clothing (think frilly blouses and petticoats) and updates it by applying gothic-era aesthetic tweaks. Naturally, this style has since produced a veritable cornucopia of offshoots, some of which incorporate traditional Japanese (Wa Lolita) or even Chinese (Qi Lolita) styles into the Victorian outfit. And if that somehow wasn’t culturally complex enough for you then there are plenty of videos to be found on YouTube featuring westerners showing off their finest Lolita threads to the invisible hoards that frequent the internet.

As Epstein notes, “appropriation involves increasing interconnection, movement of people, and cross-fertilisation”. The result is an increasingly blurred set of notions of cultural ownership. Does Lolita fashion encapsulate something quintessentially Japanese? Or is it really just an appropriation of an anachronistic mode of dress? Is it a dead culture, which has become fair game for appropriation by anyone, anywhere, or an unfortunate revival of an oppressive mode of dress? Is an English teenager wearing a Lolita outfit more or less authentic than a Japanese teenager doing the same? At some point these kinds of questions simply stop becoming interesting. It might sound banal, but at the end of the day culture is just culture.

That Fluoro Green Digital Rain Shit

What we do want to be aware of though is the moment where appropriation becomes more troublesome. Commoditisation of culture, where one group gains monetary benefits by mining the culture of another, is particularly problematic, especially when it occurs in a manner that fails to engage in any kind of dialogue or exchange with the source culture and its heritage. Think of those descending Katanaka characters in The Matrix. Their usage in the film serves little purpose other than to function as a bit of extra window-dressing, or as a sprinkling of what Epstein calls Japan’s “Gross National Cool” to make the Nebuchadnezzar and its crew seem that much more multi-cultural. Japan, and therefore anything vaguely ‘Japanese’, become signifiers for the cool, the edgy and the high-tech. Call it Neo-Orientalism if you will. Sigh. Oh, and did I mention that they ripped the ‘digital rain’ directly from the opening credits from the anime feature Ghost in the Shell?

Samurai Code +Hip Hop + Chess

In spite of all this, some of the more wonderful exponents of cultural appropriation and re-appropriation should not be disregarded. Think of the Wu-Tang clan, and in particular GZA’s three-way mashup of hip-hop, Samurai philosophy and chess in Liquid Swords. In the words of the man himself:

Liquid Swords comes from a kung-fu flick… But the title was just… perfect. I was like, Legend of a Liquid Sword. Damn, this is my rhymes. This is how I’m spittin’ it. We say the tongue is symbolic of the sword anyway, you know, and when in motion it produces wind. That’s how you hear ‘wu’.That’s the wind swinging from the sword. The ‘Tang’, that’s when it hits an object. Tang! That’s how it is with words.”

Anyone who has heard Liquid Swords will know how perfectly this metaphor applies in the context of GZA’s music. If the tongue symbolises the sword, than what is the art of the MC if not the art of ‘liquid’ swordplay? Not only has GZA appropriated (by way of samples from Samurai flicks, as well as from a lyrical and philosophical standpoint) the Samurai code, he has also engaged in a cultural dialogue, drawing parallels between both sets of aesthetics (and chess!) in a manner that extends beyond mere fetishisation or fascination with Otherness. If the example of Liquid Swords tells us anything then, it is that culture is always in a state of flux. Simply put, culture changes, and regardless of whether different kinds of appropriation are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, they are still going to occur, and produce (potentially new) meanings as a consequence.

Today, the repetitive jerk of the Maneki Neko (Beckoning Cat) arm is one of the most familiar sights in quotidian Wellington life. I cannot accurately imagine Wellington’s Cuba Quarter without thinking of all those delicious (and cheap!) Malaysian restaurants. Sushi bars are equally ubiquitous, and there are more than a few Korean joints (and Karaoke bars) nestled about as well. Doubtless, my own desire to seek out these imported flavours is in part the result of an ongoing fascination with their Otherness. However, just as we have imported Asian cuisine and culture, the process, as Epstein concludes, goes both ways: “A lot of it is back and forth, and it becomes difficult to talk about things being specifically eastern or western anymore.”

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  1. Sylvester Cooper says:

    Interesting piece of writing. Whilst I wholly concede to going through an Otaku phase (oh god, the horror), I got past it (eventually) and am now in love with the great country Sverige, or Sweden.

    From my experiences in Japan, I know it works the other way, too. It’s human nature to look at something different or unusual and find it fascinating. I think (generally), that the obscurity of some-thing is directly proportional to the interest it generates.

    Looking forward to future articles suiting my tastes from this author.

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