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.