The first episode of Japan Sinks: 2020 is intense. Ayumu Mutou, getting changed after her athletics practice, watches her teammates die as a massive earthquake shakes the room and debris crushes them underneath. Go Mutou, her brother, is struck on the head by a falling chair and barely manages to crawl away from the crumbling house, covered in blood. Meanwhile, Mari Mutou, their mother, is forced to endure an emergency landing and makes the decision to swim away from the crashed aircraft as a tsunami approaches. Finally, Koichiro Mutou, their father, is left suspended in the air by his construction job, only avoiding the fate of his colleagues through sheer chance.
It is such intensity that makes Japan Sinks: 2020 hard to recommend.
It goes without saying that we already have enough to worry about in our own lives. On top of the stress of the everyday, we are currently dealing with the worst pandemic in 100 years; an international reckoning with racial injustice and police violence, and an economic crisis that has already put millions out of work. That might already be enough to turn some viewers away from watching something as harrowing as Japan Sinks: 2020, but is made even worse by the fact that we have already undergone a disaster of sorts.
In a recent interview with the Japan Times, Science SARU CEO Eunyoung Choi stated that Japan Sinks: 2020 is “all about loss.” It is about losing both your country and the simple pleasures of everyday life: your mom’s home cooking, your warm safe bed. Certainly, the series does a good job at highlighting this. While scenes of disaster and tragedy may have left me sick to my stomach, I found myself appreciating the small moments of reflection that the narrative occasionally offers: a glimpse of Mt. Fuji, a sunset vista.
But the problem is that many people, including myself, have already experienced something akin to this. Forced lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to lose everything that we once took for granted, from visiting our favorite café to spending time with our friends. Of course, the kind of loss that we have experienced is nothing close to that of the Mutou family – their home, their peace, and even their lives – but it hardly feels good to experience that feeling all over again through Japan Sinks: 2020.
To a certain extent, then, Japan Sinks: 2020 is a victim of circumstance. Once more in the Japan Times interview, Choi says that while they had “no idea that things would turn out like this,” she hopes that it’ll help deliver “some positivity” to those of us watching in the current year. Certainly, feelings of tragedy and despair are accompanied by those of awe and wonder, both as the series’ thematic bent becomes clear and as the Mutou family overcome the obstacles in their way. There were also several moments where I found myself holding back tears due to the sheer emotion of it all.
Yet again, however, I’m not sure if I want to feel like that right now. While tragedy and loss has never usually been something that can turn me off a movie or a show, for some reason I felt this way about Japan Sinks: 2020. Perhaps it was because of the series’ intense first episode – things get more subdued as they go along – but the mood had well and truly been set.
Nevertheless, I will try to critique Japan Sinks: 2020 as objectively as possible.
Taking as his inspiration Sakyo Komatsu’s original 1973 novel, director Masaaki Yuasa brings plenty of unique ideas to the table. His first big move was to move the focus of Japan Sinks: 2020 away from the world of politics and onto the experiences of one family, the Mutous. This pays off well, as we do form a genuine connection with the family and the characters that surround them. They may not be the most interesting characters in the world, but we do care about their wellbeing.
Yuasa’s second move was to insert some of his own worldview into the story. I haven’t actually read the original novel, so I don’t know if any of this is present in there, but there is a clear link between Japan Sinks: 2020’s production circumstances and the kind of ideas that it puts across. Taking as its starting point the notion of ‘Japan,’ the series deconstructs the idea of the nation in the midst of its literal destruction – the international nature of the series’ release makes clear that Yuasa has some ideas on that. To that end, the series also boldly showcases the country’s international nature: the Mutous are a mixed race family, and characters from other countries play a prominent role in the story. The story’s ultimate thesis on the idea of the nation is a little corny, but offers some food for thought nonetheless.
Toshio Yoshitaka’s scripts also ensure that Japan Sinks: 2020 never outstays its welcome. Much like Devilman Crybaby, this is the perfect show to release on Netflix. It practically demands that you continue watching through constant cliffhangers and shock endings. This made me glad for Netflix’s automatic skipping of the credits (less so the opening), but at least there’s almost something at the other end to make it all worth it.
There is, however, a definite lull in the series around episode 4. Encountering the character of Kunio, the Mutou family make their way to the mysterious ‘Shen City’ in the hope of peace and tranquility. The concept for this part is sound, exploring what it would be like for a cult-like organization to encounter the end of the world, but we don’t spend nearly enough time with any of the new characters to make it feel satisfying.
Things do get better from episode 6 onwards. Here, Japan Sinks: 2020 explores some of the more classical conventions of the disaster genre: what would it be like to leave your family behind, what would it be like to be faced with an impossible choice? This then leads into an excellent set of episodes where some of our characters find themselves adrift at sea, blanketed by eternal night.
Japan Sinks: 2020 gets off to a flying start as it enters its finale. Faced with the possibility of ‘saving Japan,’ the Mutos make their way to a mysterious cave under the orders of Mr. Onodera. I initially thought the worst when entering this portion, fearing that the series would veer too much towards fantasy, but what they find at the end is surprisingly grounded. We also get some of those meditations on what it means to be a ‘nation,’ along with an excellent conclusion to a long-running character arc.
That conclusion, in turn, is one of the only instances in which Science SARU really flexes its creative muscles. Unfortunately, aside from the series’ earlier scenes of destruction, Japan Sinks: 2020 feels quite flat: not only are these character designs something we’ve seen countless times before, much of the cinematography and visual design is bland and unremarkable. To a certain extent, this is because Science SARU has now established for itself a distinct, homogenous visual style, but the feeling is still the same.
Even after finishing all ten episodes of Japan Sinks: 2020 and reading several interviews, I still couldn’t get my head around the initial question that I had entering into the series: why now? Why choose now to adapt Komatsu’s original novel into animation for the first time? For Choi, this was because the source material would have a much wider reach thanks to anime’s international audience. Yuasa was fairly coy.
Certain aspects of Japan Sinks: 2020 do make clear its real-world inspirations. The Olympics, for one, feature prominently in the early episodes and position the disasters clearly as a sort of existential dread that hangs over any community when a big event is coming up. (Incidentally, Naoki Urasawa is doing much the same in his new series, Asadora!.)
Even so, we’ve already had such existential dread confirmed to be completely valid by the outbreak of the Coronavirus. Japan has already had its Olympics postponed, which only furthers the traumatic aspects of the narrative. Alongside these unfortunate circumstances, Japan Sinks: 2020 also appears far more conventional than Yuasa’s previous projects: unlike Devilman Crybaby, it hardly feels like a must-watch.
My theory is that Yuasa is only as good of a director as his source material allows him. Part of the reason why Crybaby felt – and still feels – so essential is because of the eminent nature of Nagai’s original manga, which still continues to influence the industry even today. Furthermore, one of the reasons why Ping Pong the Animation is so good and continues to be, in my opinion, the best thing that Yuasa has ever made is because Taiyou Matsumoto’s original manga was already one of the best manga ever made.
Choosing to adapt Komatsu’s novel, or at least the core concept of it, may have, therefore, not been the best idea. Even if the current state of the world hadn’t rendered so much of Japan Sinks: 2020 so traumatic, it hardly feels like something that would have made much of an impact. I certainly enjoyed my time with Japan Sinks: 2020, but I can hardly bring myself to recommend it.
You can watch Japan Sinks: 2020 via Netflix.