How Japanese Films Showed the Aftereffects of the Asset Bubble Burst

From the Lecture Series: The Rise of Modern Japan

By Mark J. RavinaUniversity of Texas at Austin

Japan’s financial crisis caused a surge in reports of child abuse and domestic violence. It’s hard to interpret the numbers because the increase might reflect changing attitudes rather than more crime. Let’s now explore how Japanese popular culture addressed these problems. How did novels, movies, and TV reflect—and shape—the new realities? Let’s start with the darkest side of post-bubble Japan: poverty and family collapse.

Man and woman sitting in a building with worried faces
Japanese popular culture had to somehow reflect the dark side of post-bubble Japan such as family collapse. (Image: Glowonconcept/Shutterstock)

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Grim Retelling of a True Incident

The Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu has made a career of exploring families experiencing poverty and despair. His breakthrough film, Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai), released in 2004, examined child abandonment and poverty. It’s the story of four siblings between the ages of 5 and 12. They live with their mother in a tiny Tokyo apartment. But each has a different father, so technically they are step-siblings. 

None attends school, and only the oldest can be seen in public because the landlord won’t allow five people to live in such a small apartment. One day, the mother gives the eldest child, Akira, a few hundred dollars, and leaves, telling him to take care of the others until she returns. Akira manages and their mother returns with gifts just as things are getting desperate. Then mother leaves again, this time for good.

The children manage for a while, but they can’t pay the bills. So, the power and water are turned off. The children get water from the nearby park, scrounge for food in the streets, and gradually descend into poverty. It’s bleak. The film was loosely based on a true incident in 1998 that captured enormous media attention. And while the film is grim, it’s actually sweeter than the true story. Given the subject matter, Nobody Knows did surprisingly well at the box office, and it was acclaimed by both Japanese critics and at international film festivals.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Rise of Modern JapanWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Image of Kore-eda
Kore-eda’s work is an example of Japanese popular culture responding to the difficulties introduced to Japanese society. (Image: Georges Biard/Public domain)

Honor among Thieves

Kore’eda’s 2018 film Shoplifters deals with much the same subject matter. This film focuses on a family of petty criminals. The father, Shibata Osamu, is a day laborer who can’t work after twisting his ankle. 

The mother, Nobuyo, is employed by an industrial laundry service. Nobuyo’s sister is a stripper. And Osamu’s son—whose bedroom is a closet—works with his father as a shoplifter. They live in a tiny, filthy, cluttered, unheated home that is owned by Osamu’s widowed mother, Hatsue. They are a den of thieves but also an intensely loving family.

The family takes in Yuri, a girl from a nearby apartment who’s being abused and neglected by her parents. And they care for her with exquisite kindness. By law, the Shibatas are criminals and kidnappers. But they’re the most stable and loving family Yuri has ever known. And that simple paradox is at the core of the film. 

What makes the story so powerful is that Kore’eda refuses to offer up a morality play about the nobility of poverty. The Shibata family members are all deeply flawed people whose poverty stems partly from their own bad judgment. But none of that makes their love for each other, or for Yuri, any less real.

Embracing a Difficult Subject?

A movie theater with full seats
Shoplifters hit a nerve with the Japanese people since it did as well as big-budget Hollywood movies in Japan. (Image: lapandr/Shutterstock)

Shoplifters—like Nobody Knows—was a huge critical success. It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Amazingly, it made money. In Japan, it had the 11th highest box office of 2018, so it did about as well as a bunch of big-budget Hollywood movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Mission Impossible: Fallout, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

So, why did Japanese audiences embrace this tragic film about abused children and petty thieves? Well, based on comments on the Internet, Japanese viewers thought that the film spoke to their reality. 

In the words of a viewer: “This is a story of true love in a society full of terrible poverty and abuse.” Another wrote, “Didn’t this movie make you think, what is a family? What human beings need most of all is empathy, generosity … and that is what today’s Japan lacks.” Some of the negative posts complained the film made Japan look bad internationally. But others responded, “No, Japan’s biggest problem is conformity.” So, the film truly hit a nerve.

Common Questions about How Japanese Films Showed the Aftereffects of the Asset Bubble Burst

Q: What is the plot of the Japanese film Nobody Knows?

The film dealt with major themes that were relevant to Japan‘s society: poverty and the collapse of a family. The film follows four step-siblings who are abandoned by their mother and have to survive in a tiny apartment on their own. Since they can’t work and pay the bills, the children gradually descend into poverty.

Q: What makes the story of the 2018 film Shoplifters so powerful?

The Japanese film, Shoplifters, is powerful as it refuses to offer a morality play that illustrates the nobility of poverty. Instead, it shows that the characters are all deeply flawed and a part of their poverty comes from their own bad judgment.

Q: Why did Japanese audiences embrace grim films such as Shoplifters as much as big-budget Hollywood movies?

According to many Japanese viewers, the film spoke to them on a very real level. It it hit a nerve in the Japanese society because it asked questions about the nature of a family, true love, poverty, and much more.

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