Yasuo Baba's Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust (Bubburu e go: Taimu-mashin wa doramu-shiki) deserves the distinction of being the first Japanese comedy to be retrospectively set in the "bubble era" of Japanese history, that glorious period in the late 80s where loan interest rates were staggeringly low, property values ludicrously high, worker bonuses doled out in extravagant amounts, etc, etc. It's also a particularly painful place to return to for many Japanese: lurking around the corner of such seemingly free-spirited fun is Sumitomo bank chief Ichiro Isoda's sudden resignation and the tide of bank scandals that would follow, resulting in the recession Japan has only recently begun to pull itself out of. Perhaps Baba, and more specifically screenwriter Ryoichi Kimizuka, felt enough time had passed to create a parody of the past and a satire of the present.
The film's plot is laden with ludicrously exaggerated hilarities. The story begins in the dreary present day, on a funeral, in the rain, with a close-up of Hiroshi Abe's face, distorted to maximum wrinkle effect. The present cannot be any bleaker. The funeral is for the mother of Mayumi (Hirosue), a hostess being hounded by her mother's grungy debt collectors. When Abe shows up at Mayumi's door, she assumes that he's another debt collector, but he is, in fact, an employee for the Ministry of Finance named Isao and an old friend of Mayumi's mother. He drops the bomb on Mayumi that her mother is not dead, but actually in the past, attempting to right the wrongs of decadent Japanese during the bubble era. According to Isao, the collapse of the Japanese economy is being tracked by the MoF, with a ticking clock counter to boot. Something has not gone right in the past, considering the present is still as bleak as ever, and Mayumi's mother has not returned. Desperate to escape from her mother's debt, Mayumi agrees to be sent bank in time to 1989, find her mother, and stop Finance Minister Serizawa (veteran voice and character actor Masato Ibu) from passing legislation that will be disastrous towards the economy, particularly the middle classes and below. Mayumi's method of time transportation? A washing machine.
Bubble Fiction is, first and foremost, a farce. It lacks the rigorous discipline characteristic of that genre, largely from the absence of any witty dialogue, but it's broad, physical humor, fast-paced plot, and ridiculous cast characterize it as a mild farce nonetheless. When Mayumi gets out of that washing machine, we're transported back to 1989. Why do we know this? Well, because the washing machine spins and there's this cool fluorescent glow that comes out of it, and then Ryoko Hirosue gets out of the thing in suds. We also see the Yokohama Bay Bridge still in mid construction. And in contrast to Baba's modern-day chiaroscuro, his 1989 is all blaring fluorescence - a product of the Rebels of the Neon Gods. No opening for camp is eschewed.
One of the chief pleasures of time-travel entertainment when it's placed in recent years is, to paraphrase Tom Wolfe, indulging in an audience's nostalgia for the crud. Baba gets some of the obvious pieces exactly right: an incipient salaryman hands Mayumi a diamond necklace for hanging out with him for the night. She refuses, but takes the necklace anyway to chants of "Might as well. Everyone has too much money!" In Mayumi's first night, she hits up a seemingly endless connection of nightclubs, hostess bars, and parties on rented luxury yacht liners to the tune of flowing dance music, imported cocktails and desserts, and girls decked in the slim-fitting, Body-con fashion of the clubbing times (the men are, as in the first gendai-geki, eternally in suits).
But the bubble simply doesn't swell enough. Perhaps limited by budgetary issues, Baba's Bubble is set in a neutered and redacted Tokyo. He misses a few instances to really satirize the excesses of the city during the time: the "progress" of Tokyo documented by elaborate post-modern architecture and the razing of underdeveloped areas of Tokyo to construct entertainment districts, to name just a couple instances of new urban areas of spending. We get one little patch of a nightclub block with some seedy types hanging about, and that's supposed to convey the sort of sprawling nightlife Tokyo was (and still is) known for. Maybe if Baba had relied a little less on celebrity cameos - were both Ai Iijima, not looking a day under 30, and Naoko Iijima really necessary? - and more on documenting environment and atmosphere, we might be more convinced that the bubble was really all it was cracked up to be.
Kimizuka (the scribe of Bayside Shakedown) cloaks all of this easy hedonism with his own sense of judgment, admonishing his characters, and us, by having them delight in and speak highly of the fast times they're enjoying. Baba himself has said in interviews that the lifestyle he enjoyed during the bubble economy was particularly destructive to his credit for years, and the lavish dwelling that Abe's younger finance worker soaks in - with its multi-paneled sunroof, art deco furniture, and double-decker floors - is wonderfully minute and true-to-life (likely the sort of apartment that Baba remarked he "wished he never rented").
It's hard to really buy into this finger-wagging when everyone's having such a groovy time, but if Kimizuka's message is heavy, his world is kept appropriately light and airy by the irony-laden and frequently nonsensical direction from Baba. Indeed, the momentum of the entire farce is pushed forward by the antics of a spy parody, culminating in a wonderfully inappropriate finale. Ostensibly a parody, the film offers up an amusing, refreshingly un-PC revisionist history of the causes of what popped the bubble. Without unduly spoiling things, let's just say it's not the evil Serizawa's doing. Or rather, it's not only the evil Serizawa's doing. Some might get justifiably miffed at the portrayal here, but the stuff is so far out of left-field and full of antique exaggerations that it's not all meant to be taken seriously. I mean, come on; just look at what happens in the re-imagined future for Abe! Wishful thinking from the natives, really. And even though it's not a manga adaptation, Bubble Fiction feels a lot more outrageous than one such as, say, Umizaru. Maybe this is too long a treatment for a film that's such small beer, but that's one of the charming point about Bubble Fiction - it's a B-movie that knows it's a B-movie, and the camp flows as easily as the film's endless supply of champagne.
Filling out that cast are the necessary character actors. Ibu's finance minister is in requisite villainous form from the get-go; you almost expect the guy to look straight into the camera and wink. Abe's present-day dowager mug gets a needed facelift when we're shot back into the past. Abe's the kind of comic actor at his best when he can get a little crazy, but as the hybrid salaryman/womanizer, Abe seems content just to ham it up. Ryoko Hirosue is also a mixed bag. It's been a while since we saw her outside of television - seemingly on the top of the entertainment world at the turn of the millennium, she's appeared in few film lead roles since, the last time being Yukihiko Tsutsumi's 2003 Love Collage (Renai Shashin). Bubble Fiction represents sort of a mini-comeback film for Hirosue in the world of fickle Japanese celebrity, and it seems to have provided a kick to her career - she's now slated to star opposite Masahiro Motoki in Okuribito this year, as well as in Kazuaki Kiriya's live action Goemon in 2009. She's characteristically cute here; she can't walk all over Abe's womanizer - perhaps this is the needed foil to Kazue Fukuishi's bushy-eyebrowed man-eater. As such, Ryoko's not a very convincing hostess, nor does she reach the sort of resilient heights of one of Nobuko Miyamoto's tough onna getting in the face of corrupt higher-ups. But when she starts enjoying herself, when she opens the floodgates to that all that sparkling jewelry and wine, she seems to be really having a great time, and it's easy for us to brush aside those dark days ahead. Maybe that's not the hardest of roles, but maybe that's the point; maybe Mayumi is the kind of modern girl working at a kyabakura to afford stuff like her still not-too-shabby digs and entertainments and not worry about the efforts of restraint. Which just happens to be the director's larger point - we can lecture each other all we want about the need to be thrifty and debt-free, but in the end, which is all too easy to forget, we're pleasure-seeking creatures. Just don't get carried away, okay?