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End of an era: 3 films that capture the highs and lows of Japan’s Heisei period

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

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Following decades of instability on all fronts, 1989 marked the end of the Showa Era and the beginning of Heisei, a period in Japanese history influenced by peace and prosperity. Thirty years later today, with the abdication of the current emperor Akihito, Japan is once again ending one era and bracing itself to welcome the next, Reiwa, a period of “beautiful harmony” set to begin on May 1, 2019. But before we settle down in the new era, we look back at the Heisei years through the following three movies that best capture what those years signified: financial prosperity and the burst of the “Japan dream” bubble, natural disasters, and the rise of a youth generation that is finally comfortable to come out of their shells.

1. Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust (バブルへGO!! タイムマシンはドラム式), 2007

A comedy fiction that grasps the essence of the so-called “Bubble era” in Japanese history like no other, Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust follows the story of Mayumi Tanaka, a hostess who works hard to repay her boyfriend’s debts. In an odd twist of fate, Mayumi meets a man who works for Japan’s Ministry of Finance who persuades her to travel back 17 years back into 1990 to find her mother who is there to prevent a legislation that would burst the booming economic bubble of that time. As Mayumi goes back in time, we are introduced to some of the highlights of the “Bubble” era.

The “Bubble era,” dating roughly from the mid-1980 to the early 1990s, was a time of rapid economic prosperity characterized by massive inflation of real estate and stock market prices. Suddenly Japanese people were rich — and buying things — as if there was no tomorrow. There were constant wild parties and tons of money-spending. For many Japanese at the time, this was a bubble of dreams they failed to see in reality: a bubble bursts easily, just as it did in 1991 when asset prices began to fall, leaving people in debts and financial insecurity. Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust is one of the few movies on this period that grasps the essence of those wild days.

Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Ryoko Hirosue
Director: Yasuo Baba

2. Shin Godzilla (Godzilla Resurgence), シン・ゴジラ, 2016

Following 12 years of silence on the creative front, Toho, the producer of Japan’s most famous movie franchise Godzilla, released its latest non-animation addition to the series in 2016, and the timing was not accidental. It was five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, and Japan was still recovering — barely. In the same year, the country further suffered other major natural disasters, including the magnitude 7.3 quake in Kumamoto, southern Japan. It was not a coincidence that Japan was once again in fear of something far more powerful than human strength and something the country could no longer ignore: the threat of natural disasters and their aftermath.

Godzilla, the fictitious character Japan gave birth to in 1954, nearly a decade after the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was born out of similar fear: mass destruction. The 2016 edition, stronger and far more powerful than the first one (Godzilla grew to 118.5 meters in height, the largest ever), symbolizes the nation’s fear of nature’s mass destruction power. The “massive tail emerging from the ocean” in the movie triggers panic, destruction and governmental lies. For those who had lived through it, Shin Godzilla was clearly drawing a parallel between the disaster that struck the nation on March 11, 2011, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, and the tsunami leading to Japan’s worst nuclear disaster.

The lessons Japan learned on that day was that we still don’t know nature well and that no matter how well we think we are prepared we can’t outpower it. Like an unknown creature that rises suddenly and comes to haunt, Japan is constantly living in fear of the next major disaster that may hit the nation. Sadly, Heisei was an era of a series of natural disasters — earthquakes, tsunami, floodings, landslides and more, all of which in our movie are represented by the most horrific creature in Japan’s film history: the Godzilla.

Shin Godzilla was the highest-grossing live-action Japanese film of 2016 and the highest grossing Godzilla film in the franchise.

Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara
Director: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi

3. HIBIKI (響-HIBIKI-), 2018

She is young, she is different and she knows what she wants. Hibiki follows the story of 15-year-old Hibiki Akui, a talented young writer who sends her novel to a rookie contest but gets easily disqualified for not meeting certain submission criteria. Her novel, which ends up in the bin, is collected by a young editor at the publishing company who immediately recognizes the talent this new writer has. The editor then begins a search of Hibiki through which she discovers that the girl is one of a kind: spontaneous, fearless and greatly determined to keep things her way.

Our protagonist, Hibiki, represents the new wave of young Japanese adults who, after decades of being taught to obey the rules and stay as modest as possible, are now beginning to emerge from their shells, not afraid to stick out from the crowd. In the early years of the Heisei era the status quo was to be part of the “harmony” — being part of the group used to be convenient, less demanding and secure. Life employment was still the norm, social security was more or less granted, and stability was assured. But with the burst of the Bubble economic era and later on the Lehman shock, which led to widespread unemployment, pay cuts and insecurity especially for young and senior employees, Japan’s youth began to realize that uniformity is not necessarily working in their favor. The country slowly began to witness young rebels questioning the status quo and looking into ways to differentiate themselves from the rest.

Hibiki is the prodigy of this new generation who are now increasingly questioning the authority and beginning to rely on their uniqueness to lead their lives.

Cast: Yurina Hirate, Keiko Kitagawa, Shun Oguri
Director: Sho Tsukikawa

Thirty years is a long enough time for a country to go through a series of transformations. The Heisei era was a period of simultaneous prosperity and destruction, growth and regression, happiness and tragedy all at once. However, like every historical period, it left Japan with much to reflect on — and as the country looks ahead to the beginning of a new era, we can only hope that it’ll use past lessons to make it a safe, peaceful and secure one for all.

Text by:Rose Haneda

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