Roland Kelts on Blade Runner: Black Lotus, the influence of shoujo, and 18 years of Japanamerica

By: Gabriel Leão February 23, 20240 Comments
Roland Kelts, a Japanese-American man in a suit and glasses, sitting at a microphone talking

In November 2006, the book Japanamerica started a conversation about the influence of Japanese media on American culture. In it, Roland Kelts describes how Japanese pop culture is influencing Hollywood, gaming, music, sports, and other industries and environments, and how that influence on America then reverberates around the globe. 

Since publishing Japanamerica, Roland Kelts, a Tokyo-based Japanese American writer, journalist, and professor, has become one of the leading names regarding the interactions between Japanese and Western cultures. What Kelts did for manga and anime can be compared to what the late Donald Richie did to bridge Western audiences and Japanese films, creating an accessible entry point that both facilitated and commented on cross cultural communication.

In September 2022, Kelts published the book The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus, a study and exploration of the art of the recent anime installment in the long running franchise, which stars a new android named Elle. While the original Blade Runner based its cyberpunk dystopian society on a (controversial) view of Asia, Black Lotus brings this cultural influence full circle by giving us a Japanese interpretation of the American franchise.

Blade Runner: Black Lotus in a Russian edition
Blade Runner: Black Lotus’s Russian Edition, Courtesy Alcon Publishing/Titan Books/Penguin Random House.

In an interview with Anime Feminist, Kelts opened up about his early childhood relationship with anime and manga, the status that Japanamerica holds today, cross cultural influence in media, female characters in manga and anime, and his work on The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus.

Anime Feminist: Let’s talk a bit about yourself. Being half-Japanese and born in America, how did you connect with anime and manga? How has that relationship changed over the years?

Roland Kelts: I first got into anime when I was around 6 years old. My Japanese mother took me from the US to Japan to live with her parents and attend kindergarten in Morioka, a very small city in northern Japan. There weren’t any other kids like me in Morioka. Everyone else was 100 percent Japanese so I was bullied at school and spent a lot of time alone, catching cicadas and beetles in my grandparents’ little grass-and-dirt patchwork backyard. 

After it started getting dark outside my grandfather brought me into the living room to watch TV with him on the tatami mats, which I loved. I fell hard for Ultraman Taro, still my favorite tokusatsu hero, sumo wrestling, and a little blue cat named Doraemon

When I got back to the US I couldn’t find any of those shows on TV. I accused my American father of incompetence and yelled at him in Japanese because I knew he couldn’t understand the language. Nice kid, huh?

When I visited Japan with my mother during summer vacations I used to stuff my suitcase with manga I’d grabbed on the train. Back in the States, I got addicted to Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato) and used to run home from school so I wouldn’t miss a minute. I didn’t see Akira until I was a freshman in college, but I went with a girlfriend and we were both high, making the whole experience even more amazing.

My relationship with anime and manga has shifted from me being an awestruck but not very thoughtful fan to becoming a journalist, author, and professor. Along the way I read a lot of books, saw a lot of shows and movies and got to know a lot of artists. Happily, they’ve only deepened my appreciation for the art and the hard work that goes into it.

Courtesy St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan.

What can you tell us about the process of making that interest into a living?

In 1998 I was commissioned to write a work of fiction for Zoetrope: All Story, the literary magazine co-founded by director Francis Ford Coppola and author Adrienne Brodeur. I had been living in New York but the story was to be set in Japan, so I moved to Osaka on the JET program and started writing. It was my first time living in Japan as an adult without my mother to escort me to family events. I loved it.

I had published short stories and articles since I was a teenager. When I got to Japan, I was asked by several magazine and newspaper editors to write about it. 

That year I was fortunate to meet and interview Haruki Murakami and other writers and artists. Young Japanese were then experimenting with makeup, dyed hair and platform boots—the whole yamanba, ganguro/gyaru thing—and we all had cellphones/keitai denwa that did magical things.  

Princess Mononoke was showing in cinemas. A group of Japanese friends took me to see it and I was astonished by Hayao Miyazaki’s dynamic storytelling range and sheer artistry. Japan seemed to me an energetic creative culture far beyond the stereotypical samurai, geisha, ninja and uptight salarymen. But at the time, not too many people outside of Japan knew much about its colorful contemporary culture.

In 2006, you published the book Japanamerica telling how anime and manga culture entered the mainstream American market. For our readers who only know anime and manga as part of the mainstream, could you describe what it was like to observe this change first hand?

Thrilling. I was in New York when I was commissioned by Anthony Wahl and Airie Stuart at Macmillan to write Japanamerica. I almost declined the offer because I didn’t know if there would be enough of a story to tell. 

I was very wrong. 

When I started conducting research and interviews for the book in Japan my excitement surged. Every day felt like one of those Matryoshka dolls: there were stories upon stories, anecdotes inside anecdotes, and the artists, editors and producers I met were fascinating and very forthcoming. 

Back in the US, meeting American authors of books on anime and manga like Frederik L. Schodt, Susan Napier, and Charles Solomon gave me a solid education. American anime fans at conventions not only taught me how hot and deep their love for the medium ran, but they also stoked my sense of wonder. They’re a “sticky” fan base, as the streaming people like to say: loyal, passionate, and committed.

When I first signed the contract for Japanamerica, I really had no idea how popular and influential anime and manga had become in the States. Now I feel very lucky. I’m grateful to Toby, Airie, and contributing writer Leo Lewis. The book continues to reach new generations of readers and show up on syllabi around the world.

Courtesy Kodansha Ltd.

For a long time, anime and manga were perceived as a nerd and/or childish thing and sometimes it still is. How have things changed for this culture in America since the release of your book?

That perception has changed radically since Japanamerica was first published, and some people very kindly tell me that the book and the numerous stories I’ve published since have had something to do with that change—though you’re right to point out that there’s still something of a generational divide. For some older people, anime and manga will always be pigeonholed as “cartoons”—lowbrow and lightweight entertainment unfit for adult audiences. 

But that dividing line is being pushed further and further back into oblivion as the fan base ages up, especially in the West, and the more accomplished artists like Miyazaki, Rumiko Takahashi, Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno, Naoko Takeuchi, Mamoru Oshii, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Hosoda, and Makoto Shinkai and gain further traction and accolades. 

The work of dedicated North American distributors, publishers, and platforms helped propel that shift in perspective. The former ADV and Central Park Media and now GKids, Viz, Vertical, Sentai, Kodansha USA and Crunchyroll did and continue to do yeoman’s work delivering (licensed!) Japanese goods to meet American demand.

How have female anime and manga characters influenced women in Western media? Is this tied to the larger phenomenon of Japanese culture influencing American culture, or is it different from what you described in 2006?

The presence of multi-dimensional female characters in some manga and anime has had a profound effect on female characters in Western media, and on audience expectations of their media representations. Just one example: the director of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, Fran Kuzui, recently told me that her primary inspiration was Sailor Moon

I think it still is tied to or at least related to the larger phenomenon of Japanese culture influencing American culture. 

Broadly speaking, for nearly 80 years after the end of World War II Japan has been a pacifist country, and while I don’t want to slip into sloppy gender stereotypes, I think those decades of peace and relative prosperity have enabled generations of Japanese [people] to explore and cultivate what we tend to consider more traditionally feminine characteristics: thinking of and respecting the needs of others before oneself, making room for complex sensitivities and psychological states, expressing and articulating emotions, nurturing real fortitude versus brute strength, and finding paths to accomplishment through humility, patience, study and community-building, or teamwork. 

There are too many wonderful manga and anime stories to mention that foreground these characteristics, but it’s hard for me to imagine Fullmetal Alchemist (let alone the original concept of Sailor Moon), for example coming from a mainstream Hollywood studio or screenwriter, at least not before those titles reached big audiences in the US.

While surveys still report a larger male fan base for Japanese pop culture, the audience has diversified dramatically in recent years. US conventions were once dominated by Asian American and Caucasian males. Now some con organizers tell me they tally a roughly 50/50 male-female split, and of course some attendees identify as non-binary. The fan base today is also multi-ethnic, which is wonderful to see.

What can you say about the contribution of female artists as well as shoujo and josei manga to the emergence of mainstream acceptance of anime and manga in the US?

This is three questions in one, or maybe four, but I think I can answer them all by noting that the female presence in anime and manga has had a profound impact on the US market. (I hesitate to use the term “mainstream” anymore because it’s so difficult to define with such a diverse and splintered audience for culture.) 

Prior to the emergence of Japanese pop culture in the US, the comics industry targeted boys almost exclusively. And because they were created mostly by men for boys, their female characters were mostly projections of male fantasies (think Wonder Woman and Batgirl). 

Manga transformed the US bookselling industry when store managers realized that girls were buying and reading books in the graphic story format. The animated version of Sailor Moon, in particular, taught US TV programmers that a passionate and devoted female audience would tune into a “cartoon show” about magical girls who think and act like actual high school girls, not superheroes or heroines. 

Josei titles have so far been slower to rise in the US market but I think that’s owing to the “aging up” challenge I mentioned earlier. As successive waves of younger readers and viewers increase the acceptance of graphic narrative book formats and animated works made for adults reach wider audiences, I expect more josei stories will be embraced.  

A pile of JapanAmerica
Courtesy St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan.

As Japanese manga and anime continues to influence American media, do you feel other mediums such as books and film could also grow in popularity? Do you think Japanese influence on media and pop culture will continue to gain strength or ubiquity nearly 20 years on from Japanamerica?

We’re already seeing this happen—and not just with Japanese books and films, but also those made in other Asian cultures and languages, notably South Korea. The success in America of live-action films like Parasite, Drive My Car and Godzilla Minus One shows that a large audience is ready to consume very culture-specific narratives in non English-language media. 

For the past thirteen years I’ve been contributing editor to the English-language literary magazine, Monkey: New Writing from Japan. When we started, one of our regular writers, Haruki Murakami, was just about the only contemporary Japanese author most Americans had heard of or read. Since then, Japanese authors such as Mieko Kawakami, Hiromi Kawakami, Yoko Ogawa, Hideo Furukawa, and Sayaka Murata have large and growing readerships in the US.

So, yes, I do think Japan’s influence will continue to grow, but it won’t be the only culture blipping on America’s radar. 

And when you published Japanamerica, you subtitled it “How Japanese pop culture has invaded the U.S.” Today, with nationalism on the rise and anti-Asian sentiments also felt in America, do you feel that a continued growth of Japanese media in America could also lead to backlash?

That subtitle was proposed by my publisher and I rubber-stamped it. The idea was that the term “invaded” might resonate with readers who were aware of the label “British Invasion” as it was applied to the US influx of British bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who in the 1960s and 70s—non-American artists reaching a vast American audience. Today the term of choice seems to be “conquered.”

My Japanese publisher Kodansha and I settled on a different subtitle for the Japanese edition owing to sensitivities in Japan regarding World War II and the word “invaded.” But I don’t think “conquered” would work as a substitute. Ahem.

As for a backlash, I thought that might happen years ago, and there are occasional flare-ups, like the arrest of American manga-collector Christopher Handley in 2010 on obscenity charges. Periodically an American politician, usually from a rural state, raises objections to the sexual content in manga or anime. But so far nothing has spurred a sustained backlash to Japanese content. 

The anti-Asian sentiments stirred by some US political figures doesn’t seem to have affected Japanese pop culture, but of course that could change in the future. 

Last year you published the book The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus. Could you tell us how that project came about? 

That was a commission that came my way during the pandemic. I had to turn down a few but The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus proposal was too good to resist. 

Alcon Entertainment in Los Angeles owns the rights to the Blade Runner property. The head of Alcon’s publishing division, a great guy named Jeff Conner, told the book’s British publishers, Titan Books, that they should ask me to write it. 

When Titan contacted me, they told me that the president of the studio making the anime series, Joseph Chou of Sola Digital Arts, and one of its directors, Shinji Aramaki, were involved, and I almost immediately said yes. Joseph and Shinji are also great guys whom I’ve known for years. It also helped that Sola’s main studio is very close to my Tokyo office.

Joseph from Blade Runner Black Lotus concept art, showing him in a brown jacket and blue jeans with a black shirt
Courtesy Alcon Publishing/Titan Books/Penguin Random House.

How was it to work in a title that is focused on a particular property, and what drew you to it in particular?

The original 1982 movie has aged really well, though I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that it took me a long time to appreciate it. The story’s kind of peculiar: I used to wonder why Deckard doesn’t go directly to the Tyrell Corporation building with a posse when he knows that’s where the replicants are heading. 

But after revisiting the movie to prepare for my book, I finally realized that Roy, the replicant played by so brilliantly by Rutger Hauer, is the real heart of the narrative, reminding me of Tetsuo in Akira, which Otomo later told me was heavily influenced by Blade Runner. In that sense, writing the Blade Runner book felt like completing the circle of Japanamerica.

Blade Runner was itself deeply influenced by the West’s view of Japanese culture during the height of anti-Japanese sentiments of the 1980s, but then it in turn influenced a generation of manga and anime in Japan as well. From there, Blade Runner: Black Lotus is the latest iteration of this exchange where a diverse collective of creators have come together to create it. What do you think of this evolution throughout the years? 

I think this kind of transcultural cross-pollination is wonderful in principle, and sometimes it works in execution, too. In the case of Blade Runner, as you point out, the West’s view of Japanese culture, with all of its Orientalism and garbled signage intact, shapes the film’s mise en scène, which makes perfect sense since the setting is supposed to be an American city—Los Angeles in 2019—not a Japanese city. 

Shinichiro Watanabe, who directed the anime short film “Blade Runner Black Out 2022” and was creative producer on Black Lotus, told me that he’d watched the original film several times and loves the bad Japanese in the signs and dialogue because it makes the city feel even more futuristic and alien. He said correct Japanese would ruin it.

As a Japanese American kid, I found the scenery stunning. I couldn’t believe Hollywood was even paying attention to Japan, let alone trying to represent its iconography. 

The evolution of the property into an anime series made in Japan 40 years later has a kind of attractive symmetry to it, but I think it’s largely the result of Syd Mead’s tactile and inimitable designs. The anime artists I spoke to at Sola all revered Mead.

Elle's Character Design sheet from Blade Runner Black Lotus, showing various outfits
Courtesy Alcon Publishing/Titan Books/Penguin Random House.

The female replicant Elle is the star of Blade Runner: Black Lotus. What does it mean for a Blade Runner story to have a female lead? And how do you see Elle in relation to other cyberpunk heroines like Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell or Lucyna “Lucy” Kushinada from Cyberpunk: Edgerunners?

Having a female lead is a welcome sign of the times and a way of breathing fresh air into classic story tropes, though what’s most important is that the female lead has agency on her own, without being sucked into or ushered through the story by men. Elle’s got agency in spades. 

She’s also a far more sympathetic character than Deckard in the original. He’s mainly a sullen jerk forced from early retirement into taking one more job. Elle is on a personal mission to find out who she is and what happened to her as a victim of discrimination, abuse, and assault. 

Elle and Lucy do share some attributes. Both are half-Japanese women with mysterious pasts and a kind of inherent shyness or introversion combined with killer instincts. It may be easier for audiences to access and/or identify with their searching and uncertain personalities. 

To me, though, Kusanagi is more of a self-contained cipher, which is why her scuba diving scene in the original Ghost in the Shell affords such a poetic, philosophical moment of introspection. Similarly, when she sees her replicated cyborg body and face in the café upstairs, she arguably becomes her own voyeur. It’s hard for us to identify with her, and then in these sudden flashes of self-awareness, we do. Piercingly.

Regarding the history of cyberpunk heroines, Maj. Kusanagi and Elle are framed by the camera as both competent in combat as well as desirable and attractive. What is the relationship between female androids and the long history of Asian women being represented as objects of desire in mainstream media?

I’m afraid I don’t have time to parse that relationship over the long history you properly cite, and it’s worth pointing out that Asians have been far from the only women presented as desirable objects in the media. 

It may also be worth pointing you to a couple of sources. A friend of mine, the South Korean artist Lee Bul, has a series of extraordinary cyborg sculptures in feminine forms that raises a lot of questions about representations of women, Asian or otherwise, as androids. And a book I reviewed for The Wall Street Journal, Yoko Kawaguchi’s Butterfly’s Sisters, traces the history of Western depictions of Japanese women as desirable blank slates onto which Orientalist fantasies are more easily projected. 

But when it comes to Kusanagi and Elle, I think we should also look at their male counterparts, who some viewers might also find quite desirable. In Ghost in the Shell, Batou is an impossibly strapping and cut dude with razor cheekbones, and Togusa is boyishly cute. Plus, Kusanagi has been rightly described, I think, as having a gender-fluid personality inside her exaggerated body parts, thereby both attracting and reconfiguring the proverbial “male gaze.”

In Blade Runner: Black Lotus, Elle has a far more realistic-looking body that she often drapes with her very cool olive-green parka. Her chief male counterpart is the raffishly handsome Joseph, who the artists told me is meant to embody a very specific kind of soft-spoken, sensitive Japanese style of sexy male cool. In general, of course, manga and anime artists have the freedom to draw attractive lead characters, male or female or genderless, and often take full advantage of it.

About the Author : Gabriel Leão

Gabriel Leão work as a journalist and is based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has written for outlets in Brazil, the UK, Canada and the USA such as Vice, Ozy Media, Remezcla, Al Jazeera, Women’s Media Center, Clash Music, Yahoo! Brasil, Anime Herald, and Brazil’s ESPN Magazine. He also holds a Master’s degree in Communications and a post-grad degree in Foreign Relations.

Read more articles from Gabriel Leão

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