Leaving Neo-Tokyo: The Art of Japan's Lost Decade

By Nicholas Tristan

In “Global Perspectives”, our writers take a deeper dive into topics that may only tangentially relate to video games. First up, Nicholas Tristan discusses the art created during Japan’s “Lost Decade”.

Audition (1999), dir. Takashi Miike

Audition (1999), dir. Takashi Miike

In 1991, Japan underwent a burst of its asset price bubble -- financial deregulation, the continual lowering of interest rates, and uncontrolled spiking of land prices led to the gradual collapse of Japan’s economy over 1991 and 1992. What followed was a period of economic stagnation over an entire decade unlike any the country had ever experienced -- for a country who had only seen their fortunes improve in the rebuilding phase since World War II, this was a traumatic experience built on top of past traumas. This period became known as the Lost Decade.

The Lost Decade profoundly influenced Japanese media that was created through the 90s, as there was a shift away from the conspicuous consumption that characterized Japan’s capitalism-obsessed 1980s culture. Ostentatious displays of wealth like high-end consumer electronics, cars, watches, and jewelry all became virtually taboo even among higher echelons of Japanese society.

But to chart the impact of the Lost Decade of Japan’s art from the period, we need to go back further to an even greater national trauma -- the country’s defeat in World War II and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Akira (1982-1990), art by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira (1982-1990), art by Katsuhiro Otomo

Post-war Japanese art has a fixation on apocalyptic or dystopian scenarios, such as the anime films Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Akira, as well as works that focus on isolation and ideological dissonance, like Yukio Mishima’s novels Confessions of a Mask and The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and Mishima’s own descent into far-right hyper-nationalism that led to him committing seppuku after a failed coup against the Japanese government.

From these stories of disaffection and dystopia come Japan’s cultural output from the Lost Decade, with a new critical eye looking warily toward consumerism and capitalist excess.



The video game auteur Hideo Kojima produced several works emblematic of the lost decade during this time. Policenauts (1994) is an unconventional sci-fi point-and-click adventure game unusually obsessed with disease and decay, and Metal Gear Solid 2 (2001) is an overflowing miasma of commentary on globalization, postmodernism, and the erosion of the self. Other video games weren’t immune to these themes, either -- Last Bronx (1996) explores violently disaffected youth in a funhouse mirror vision of hyper-capitalist Tokyo, with ubiquitous corporate branding showcased not as synergy-friendly product placement but as Blade Runner or Shadowrun-style corporatist cyberpunk, and blockbuster RPGs Final Fantasy 7 (1997) and Final Fantasy 8 (1999) touch on themes of alienation and apocalypse in futuristic settings.

Policenauts (1994), Konami (PC-9812, PlayStation, Sega Saturn)

Policenauts (1994), Konami (PC-9812, PlayStation, Sega Saturn)

Haruki Murakami, arguably Japan’s best known novelist of the modern era, also produced works during the period highly emblematic of its general mood. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (published over three parts between 1994 and 1995) is a densely layered and surreal magical realist novel about suppressed desire in contemporary Japanese society. Kafka on the Shore (2002) deals with the alienation of youth through a story full of windy, twisted riddles with no concrete answers. And though it was released after the period officially ended, 1Q84 uses shifting parallel universes set in Tokyo in the year 1984 to showcase the grim portents the future holds.

Japanese film from this period likewise shows the influence of the Lost Decade. Audition (1999) by Takashi Miike uses its stunning twist to peel away the facile normalcy of Japanese domestic life and reveal something disgusting festering underneath, while the crime films of Takeshi Kitano like Sonatine (1993) and Hana-bi (1997) show deep, existential angst within its characters that mirror those found in contemporary society. And certainly nothing combines bleak dystopian futures, a distrust for government and authority, and alienated wayward youth more iconically than Battle Royale (2000).

Sonatine (1993), dir. Takeshi Kitano

Sonatine (1993), dir. Takeshi Kitano

Manga artist Junji Ito likewise drew inspiration from the malaise to producer horror, making iconic and immensely disturbing works like Uzumaki and The Enigma of Amigara Fault that draw their intense horror from the mundane and everyday, but also inevitable forces of terrifying finality. Ito saw parallels between the relentless nature of the dark spirits and monsters that populate traditional Japanese folklore, and the relentlessly cruel nature of modern capitalism, and his works reflect that horrible cycle. In Ito’s first major success, the manga Tomie, Tomie is an avatar of westernized feminine beauty that constantly regenerates through the ages to find her victims, a terrible outside force of alluring power.  

Fragments of Horror (2014), art by Junji Ito

Fragments of Horror (2014), art by Junji Ito

There is some debate whether the Lost Decade ever really ended, with many economists pointing to minor economic growth over the 2000s and even the 2010s being insignificant to the average Japanese person. But regardless of the exact time frame, the cultural and artistic effects of The Lost Decade cannot be overstated.