Back to the Future premiered on Fourth of July weekend thirty years ago. The essays in this Avidly collection, guest edited by Wendy Lee and Stephen Vider, revisit the movie and its two sequels to reconsider their deeper workings and lasting appeal. Read their introduction.
When 1985 Jennifer Parker visits her 2015 Hilldale home in Back to the Future Part II, she is horrified by her future family’s unhappy, hyper-technological life: Marty, Jr. hooked on multi-channel TV, mother-in-law Lorraine rehydrating a pizza, father-in-law George hovering upside down to heal his thrown back. But the most frightening moment comes when Marty takes a video call from co-worker Needles, who goads him into using his company credit card for an illegal transaction. As Marty feared, his boss Ito Fujitsu has been monitoring him remotely. Fujitsu suddenly appears on Marty’s video phone and promptly fires him—sending the dot-matrix message “YOU’RE FIRED!!!” to fax machines all over the house—in the den, in the kitchen, and even in the closet—while the same words flash on the video screen. Fujitsu (named for a Japanese electronics manufacturer and telecom company) embodies an unspoken preoccupation of Back to the Future’s future: Marty’s firing may take place in 2015, but his family’s decline is driven by the ascendance of Japanese technological and economic prowess.
From the 1980s through the early 1990s, the Cold War was accompanied by a technology and trade war that pitted the US against Japan. As Japanese exports poured into American markets and became increasingly popular with American consumers, many in the U.S. accused Japanese corporations of conducting unfair, adversarial trade practices that targeted American industries for destruction.
This fear translated into “Japan Bashing” spectacles. In 1981 and 1982, autoworkers union members in Illinois and Indiana organized violent public destruction of Japanese cars. In 1987, nine U.S. Congress members smashed a Toshiba radio with sledgehammers during a press conference, after the company illegally sold submarine technology to the Soviet Union. But this hostility coexisted with American fascination: as George Packard noted in 1987, in a Foreign Affairs essay ominously titled “The Coming U.S.-Japan Crisis,” “Americans are impressed with Japan’s sense of history, aesthetics, reserve and, most recently, its managerial, scientific and technological genius, and its growing wealth.” That rise would have been unimaginable only a few decades earlier: in Part III, when 1955 Doc and Marty try to repair the DeLorean’s time circuits, Doc assumes a microchip failed because it says: “Made in Japan.” Marty replies, “What do you mean Doc? All the best stuff is made in Japan.”
Movies like Die Hard (1988) RoboCop 3 (1993) Rising Sun (1993), and even the comic Gung Ho (1986) also tapped into American fears of Japanese takeover–all depicting Japanese economic and technological power as destroying American culture as well as industry. But it was Blade Runner (1982) most of all that turned that fear into a science-fiction convention, depicting the future as a time when Japan has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s superpower. The future American city looks and feels not just “Japanese,” but pan-Asian and multicultural.
2015 Hill Valley similarly reflects both this fear and fascination, combining Asian imagery and technology to imagine a future in which Asian goods and people might be everyday sights. Pan-Asian and multicultural imagery and technology in Part II literally go together in a way that is easy to miss. When Marty first crosses the street into Courthouse Square at the start of the future sequence, a hover car flies overhead, its movement paralleled by two Asian women pedestrians crossing the street behind him. In the Café 80s, a video waiter simulacra Ronald Reagan announces that the daily special is mesquite-grilled sushi, while a multicultural array of customers watch Marty’s showdown with Griff Tannen from their stationary bikes and booths. Asian-ness and technology go together in even more incidental details: the DeLorean is parked near a billboard advertising US Air flights for surf trips to Vietnam, and Doc wears a red shirt with Chinese characters.
This visual equation of Asian imagery with technology, while sometimes clever, is also highly stereotypical and simplistic. Part II’s future is part of a “techno-orientalist” phenomenon that Asian American studies scholars David Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta Niu trace back to the early twentieth century: the future looks Asian and Asians look “futuristic.” Though it was filmed and set in California (a state that since the late 20th century has been the U.S. population center for Asian Americans), the Back to the Future trilogy can only imagine Asian residents existing in 2015 but not in 1955, or even 1985. And yet it is still remarkable that this Asian imagery is part of the landscape (even in only an incidental way) in a future where “Hill Valley has changed for the better,” as a line from the script suggests.
The threat and thrill of Japanese technological takeover converge in one of Part II’s most iconic scenes—the hoverboard chase. Griff’s gang includes Chester “Whitey” Nogura (played by Jason Scott Lee), the only Asian American member of any Tannen gang in Hill Valley’s history. He combines the movie’s best-loved technology with Asian imagery. His clothing and make-up are vaguely “Oriental,” and he rides a Rising Sun hoverboard with a design similar to the Japanese Imperial Navy flag, visualizing the fear that Reagan-era confidence in American dominance is something best left to the nostalgic Café 80s. It is also Whitey and fellow gang member Rafe “Data” Unger who heckle Marty that his American-made, Mattel hoverboard won’t work over water (“unless you’ve got power!”). Morning in America is in danger of being outshone by the Rising Sun of Nogura’s hoverboard.
Still Marty triumphs over them in the end, saving himself and his son from the threat posed by Griff’s multicultural gang. By the end of the trilogy, Marty even saves his future self and family from Fujitsu’s “You’re Fired!!!” faxes. Jennifer brings back a copy of the fax to 1985, but after multiple time trips, Marty finally overcome his fear of seeming “chicken,” and the ominous words on the fax disappear. Marty’s life it seems, will no longer be ruined by a future Fujitisu.
I take perverse delight in recognizing these things now, but I did not notice them the first time around in 1989—as a thirteen-year-old growing up in San Francisco. I didn’t recognize how the Hollywood movies that I loved use Asian characters symbolically, not as fully fleshed out characters. This problem, unlike Back to the Future’s fax machines, is sadly not outdated. In Hollywood movies Asian Americans and other people of color are still largely relegated to the background or given so few words that every single word spoken by a person of color can be edited into a video of less than 30 seconds. (Or even worse, Asian-American roles are cast with white actors.) In science fiction movies, too, time travel is still for white people. Looking back to Part II reminds us that with the thrills of going back to past visions of the future can come a bit of sadness and exasperation about what remains all too familiar.
Wendy Allison Lee: could still use some Pazazz.