Bubble Fictions

It is a scene straight out of Evangelion. At the offices of a secret government project, a stern-faced leader informs a reluctant young protagonist that the world is about to end. A clock on the wall counts down the seconds until disaster, unless… unless someone climbs into a dangerous, untested prototype machine, and does battle with the fates themselves.

But Japan is not under attack from avenging angels. The countdown clock is financial, ticking away the moments until Japan’s debts spiral completely out of control, and the country comes crashing down – collapsing banks, armies of starving ex-workers, and considerably less anime in the stores.

2007’s big Japanese sci-fi movie was the satirical Bubble Fiction, in which Ryoko Hirosue is catapulted back to the boom year of 1990 in a last-ditch attempt to save the Japanese economy. The effect is not unlike Back to the Future as written by accountants – Japan’s modern woes are tracked back to a tiny loophole in a proclamation by the Finance Ministry, and high jinks inevitably ensue.

Inevitably, there are sly digs at the fashions of yesteryear, and cameos from whichever future stars the producers could persuade to play their younger selves. Most notably, Ai Iijima, the future author of Time Traveller Ai, can be found dancing at a discotheque. Phones are the size of bricks, shoulder pads the size of helipads, tight ruffled dresses on body-conscious Tokyo ladies and men wear suits two sizes too big for them. Written by Bayside Shakedown’s Ryoichi Kimizuka, Bubble Fiction presents a fantasy view of the 1990s, in which people literally give money away in the streets, taxis need to be hailed with a ten thousand yen note, and champagne flows freely among the party set.

But there is also a sense of impending doom. It’s here, as Tokyo land prices soared to silly heights, that the seeds were sown of economic collapse. The Bubble, warned some pundits, was sure to burst, bringing disaster on the hedonistic Japanese.

Creatively, the Bubble years have a lot to answer for. Outside Japan, the economic might of Japan led Hollywood to make Black Rain and Rising Sun. The great growth in wealth among the Japanese turned them into the owners of video players, and hence helped drive the modern anime industry. The idea of a future economic implosion even gave us the name of a famous anime, Bubblegum Crisis. Deep pockets nurtured the garage kit and figurine industries. The largest disposable income of all turned out to be in the hands of the charmingly named “parasite singles”, twenty-something women living rent-free with their parents, hence a similar emphasis on bespoke cute. Hello Kitty might have been around long before the Bubble, but she certainly achieved megastar status with the help of all those yen with nowhere else to go.

But let us also remember the indirect effects of the crash. With profit margins constricting in Japan itself, producers and publishers became more amenable to foreign sales. Anime and manga abroad, particularly in America, are another side-effect of the boom and bust, and a generation on, the fact that the American market plays such a great part in Japanese business decisions is, at least in part, a result of deals done in the Bubble period.

But what if the American economy starts to slump…? Who’s going to pay for anime then? Sub-prime days ahead, my friends?

This article first appeared in Newtype USA in 2007, and was reprinted in the book Schoolgirl Milky Crisis. Bubble Fiction is screening at several UK cinemas as part of the Japan Foundation’s touring film season.