Think the U.S. Is Having a '90s Nostalgia Craze? Take a Look at Japan

The country's unique social history and its current financial state have inspired a boom in pop-culture throwbacks to the end of the 20th century.

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The latest Dragonball Z film, Dragonball Z: Battle Of The Gods, resurrects characters and plots from the original 1990s iteration. (Funimation Entertainment)

Conventional wisdom says that America may be nearing peak '90s nostalgia. Between Buzzfeed's super-viral remember-the-Aggro-Crag listicles and the Backstreet Boys reunion, millennial longing for the entertainment products of their childhood has reached backlash-inducing levels.

But to see what a real '90s revival looks like, head to Japan. There, the blockbuster entertainments of 13 to 23 years past are making a major, profitable comeback at all levels of culture--movies, music, TV. Dragonball Z: Battle Of The Gods, the first film of the DBZ anime franchise since 1996, dominated the box office this spring, selling more than a million tickets in six days and pulling in $32 million more than its projected gross. It followed on the heels of the rebooted Neon Genesis Evangelion films (based on an animated TV show that ran from 1995 to 1996), the third of which nabbed the highest opening-weekend box office haul of 2012. And it comes in advance of a new version of Sailor Moon, another hit cartoon of the '90s.

Twenty-somethings on both sides of the Pacific want to revisit the things they grew up with, but there's more to Japan's '90s craze than that. The country's unique social history and current financial stagnation created the conditions for a nationwide cultural rewind to the end of 20th century, which serves to remind natives and gaijin alike just how much economic conditions affect mass entertainment.

To reiterate, this '90s craze isn't restricted to cinemas. The two most popular albums of last year in Japan were best-of compilations from the rock group Mr. Children, a '90s phenomenon who also captured the No. 7 bestseller spot with an original disc. Also enjoying a renaissance--albeit on a slightly smaller scale--is Visual kei, a style of music defined by the over-the-top clothes and backstories. Its heyday was in the '90s, but recently more of these groups have launched reunion tours while pop acts like Golden Bomber have topped the music charts using Visual kei's aesthetic.

Even Japan's most popular contemporary musical groups owe a debt to the 1990s. AKB48, who recently beat '90s heavyweight Ayumi Hamasaki to become the best-selling female singles artist ever, have dominated the nation's music charts since 2009. Yet they are practically a reboot themselves--they started in 2005, but borrow many ideas from '80s outfit Onyanko Club and, especially, '90s group Morning Musume. Those two groups approach to pop--dozens of members who constantly changed, an emphasis on cuteness--went out of style in the mid '90s in favor of Mariah-Carey-esque belters like Hamasaki or Namie Amuro. Yet now AKB towers over the J-Pop industry using by bringing those practices back.

Nostalgia has long been a staple in Japanese entertainment. Year after year, some of the most popular TV shows have been historical dramas whose sole purpose is to remember long-ago times no viewer was actually alive for. As far back as the 1940s, Japanese artists were pining for simpler times in film (Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story) and music (the enka genre). Other pieces of media have gazed back on triumphant times in history, especially the extravagant '80s.

Yet the current wave of '90s look-back is different, bigger, and a product of long-term financial struggles. The Japanese bubble economy burst at the start of the '90s, and by the new millennium many were feeling the effects. In an excellent five-part piece about the nation's great pop-culture shift written in 2011, W. David Marx details how the average Japanese income has taken a substantial hit since then, with more and more people becoming "non-regular workers." But in the '90s, just after the crash, the situation wasn't as dire, and the economy was coming down from a height it'd been climbing to for decades. That meant that in the '80s and much of the '90s, Japan's middle class could "experiment on 'weirder' products," in Marx's words. To the result was a vibrant pop-culture marketplace producing the phenomena that still defines Japan in much of the world's eyes--think Harajuku fashion, or Pokémon.

Yet as the recession wore on and disposable income shrunk, Japanese consumers' daring purchasing habits and corporations willingness to invest in risky, new creations lessened too. When folks did decide to spend on something fun, they were less likely to try out unknown entities--and labels weren't going to push new artists when fewer people wanted them. It's a phenomenon not restricted to Japan. Glasgow's University Of Strathcldye Business School published an article in a 2010 edition of the college's magazine citing the global recession as one reason nostalgia had become so prevalent in British marketing. An academic paper by Helen Powell published in 2011 similarly argues that, despite the risk of alienating consumers from the present day, nostalgia can fill people with a sense of warmth during an economic downturn.

But why return to the '90s, specifically? Take a look at the American reboot craze, which comes from a similar place as Japan's. Hollywood has found it far easier to get people out to theaters using familiar franchises, as easily demonstrated by this summer's slate of blockbusters--Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel. But those titles all have much older lineages than, say, Sailor Moon. America's been an economic and commercial-culture powerhouse for much longer than Japan, so it has a larger, deeper store of intellectual properties to recycle. Japan's most reboot-friendly franchises, meanwhile, peaked in the '90s.

Companies and advertisers in both countries, though, have only recently wised up regarding just how much they can exploit that consumer nostalgia. Many of big cartoon franchises or bands of the '90s lay dormant for the first decade of the new millennium; it wasn't until the last few years that the owners of these properties found new ways to monetize them. The new Evangelion and Dragonball Z movies introduce new characters to the series, which also means more new merchandise to be sold. Both series also make cosmetic changes to existing characters (one of the protagonists in Evangelion, for example, ends up wearing an eye patch in the new films), which means even more goods to sell. Press for both have also played up the authenticity of these new movies, as both feature the returns of individuals involved in the original '90s run of each.

How long will this revival last? Most likely as long as it remains profitable ... which could be a while, based on Japan's current economic path. Ethan Devine recently wrote in The Atlantic about the country's continued struggles, in particular the ones younger Japanese people face in finding regular employment. The forecast doesn't look promising, and as long as incomes stay the same (or shrink further), time-tested entertainment will be pushed in the marketplace--and the time they were tested in, by and large, will have been the '90s.