[Hello all and welcome to Weeb Analysis: a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. Sit back, get some sushi or ramen, and get ready to learn about anime.]
2020 has been a miserable year all around. Social unrest, political upheaval, natural disasters, and to top it all off, a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. Many have lost their jobs, some may in fact lose their homes, leaving families and, on a personal note, friends destitute. The psychological strain from this year is palpable and everyone, at one point or another, has probably been filled with a sense of dread at the prospect of waking up to some new fresh hell awaiting us. Each new day doesn’t bring optimism anymore; it brings anxiety and fear. It’s that same sense of dread that embodies Masaaki Yuasa’s latest anime series, Japan Sinks 2020.
The series dropped on Netflix at the beginning of July and it was one that I immediately wanted to see, if only because of Yuasa’s signature style. Earlier this year, Yuasa’s Ride Your Wave had a limited theatrical run and I praised his work on it for maintaining his unique visual flair and telling a touching and unique romance. But while Yuasa has been having a busy year between Ride Your Wave, Japan Sinks 2020, and his recent comedy series Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, most people generally aren’t as familiar with his work. His visuals are wholly distinct, but he lacks the name recognition of famous modern anime directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Shinichiro Watanabe, Mamoru Hosoda, and Makoto Shinkai. If anything, most people are bound to recognize him only for an anime he created in 2018 that smashed expectations and became one of the most-streamed anime titles in Netflix’s history; Devilman Crybaby.
Devilman Crybaby is a pitch-black action series that offers very little in terms of hope or levity. It’s outright vicious in its message that humanity is awful and selfish to the point that maybe we should be wiped off the face of the earth. While it isn’t the darkest anime I’ve ever seen (ask me about Happy Sugar Life, I dare you) and is critically lauded for a reason, it’s an anime that I never wish to watch again. Great in its character drama and action, but soul-crushing to rewatch. Japan Sinks 2020 hits a lot of the same beats that Devilman Crybaby does, examining the nature of humanity, this time through the lens of natural disaster, yet comes across as a refutation of what Crybaby preaches. It doesn’t feel as strong of a product as Crybaby. In fact it feels far more padded out and not as cohesive, but it’s easily the more optimistic of the two about humanity’s place in the world.
The premise of Japan Sinks 2020 is all in the title. Based on a 1973 novel of the same name, minus the 2020 part, Tokyo experiences a massive earthquake that leaves the city massively damaged. This begins a chain reaction of events that lead to further seismic activities across the country, leading the citizens of the country to realize the horrifying truth that Japan is sinking into the Pacific Ocean. While the series primarily follows the Mutou family, a half-Japanese, half-Filipino family, in their attempts to escape the country before certain doom, they’re joined by numerous others, whether they be family friends or complete strangers.
Like Crybaby before it, Japan Sinks 2020 isn’t shy about forcing the Mutou family to undergo one horrific tragedy after another. When the first episode concludes with corpses falling out from a helicopter onto them as they watch Japan burn, it sets the tone that things will only get worse before they get better. There’s a sense of aimlessness to the carnage that we see as most of it feels indiscriminate. People die in this show at a fairly frequent rate and most of it has little to no meaning. It makes sense given that we’re dealing with frequent natural disasters over the course of the series, and the show wants us to feel horrified at the senselessness of it all, but it eventually becomes numbing watching all of the suffering without meaning.
It would be one thing if the earthquakes and chaos felt like divine punishment, retribution for character’s selfish actions, but like most natural disasters, there’s no emotion to it. People die because sometimes life is unfair. There is no rhyme or reason and there is no karmic payback. Not everyone will die by the time the series concludes, but once you’ve accepted the fact that most of the cast will die and that Japan will inevitably sink, there’s little reason to be attached to anyone. Of course we’re rooting for the Mutou family to make it out alive, but they never feel defined as characters over the 10 episode series. They’re more like surrogates for different types of people that we would see in high-stress situations. Because the characters barely feel like they’ve progressed since the first episode, we’re not rooting for their survival because we like them as people, but because we don’t want to have our time wasted as audiences. It’s the sunk-cost fallacy.
It’s very difficult to handle death in a series, especially in a show that is centered around death and destruction. If we as an audience know that most of the cast will die, then in order to feel anything at their passing in a show where there is no great meaning to anyone’s passing, their deaths need to be sudden and jarring if the show wants to covey the shockingness of it all. Take the second episode in which the father of the Mutou family, Koichiro, accidentally digs up an active mine while digging for yams and is immediately blown up. There’s no prolonged shot of him realizing what he did. It’s a quick look at his eyes, followed by a massive explosion where his remains spray over his family as they look on in horror. Before we can see the aftermath and the family grieving, the episode cuts to black as the credits roll. It’s a gut-punch of a scene that left me stunned, but the show never comes close to reaching those heights again.
Future deaths all feel grand and glorious in order to ensure the survival of the group. There is an honor and nobility in that, but the show opts to frame all of those who lost their lives in such a way as martyrs, sacrifices to ensure the survival of the group. This plays in a larger part to the show’s idea that humanity can persevere through difficult times, which we will come back to, but it becomes tiresome when we see it so frequently. Mari Mutou, the mother of the family, sacrifices herself to save her kids. Harou, a family friend, sacrifices himself to retrieve a hard drive that could help the group escape. KITE, an Estonian Youtuber, almost sacrifices himself in order to get a rescue signal out for a rescue. You can have characters dying to protect others, but to do it so frequently in a show like this makes the proceedings feel drawn out and boring. These deaths lose meaning when they happen in every single episode.
When you break it down, Japan Sinks 2020 is a modern-day disaster movie, complete with scientists denying that Japan is sinking, ultra-nationalists fighting amongst each other for resources, and a desire to protect the next generation of Japanese citizens and ensuring a better and brighter future for them. By the end of the series, Japan does indeed sink, but the waters slowly but surely start to recede years later, allowing the survivors to return home and preserve the legacy of what Japan was and still is. You can destroy a location, but you can’t destroy an identity created from it.
But what struck me most about Japan Sinks 2020 had less to do with the overall content that the show delivered. Truthfully, if you had to watch either Japan Sinks 2020 or Devilman Crybaby, you should seek out the latter without a shadow of a doubt. It’s better paced, has is more thematically consistent in its execution, and has the GREATEST RUNNING ANIMATION EVER PUT TO FILM. But while Crybaby may be an overall better experience, I’ll remember Japan Sinks 2020 more because of how it perfectly encapsulates the moment we live in and serve as a pure distillation of what it’s like to experience disaster and destruction.
It’s not a stretch to relate the events of Japan Sinks 2020 to what’s happening in America today with the coronavirus and the still ongoing George Floyd protests. With a global disaster happening all around us, we see how some people are reacting to such a generation-defining event. We’ve seen people come together in order to protect one another in the strength of the community. We’ve also seen just how selfish people are and how their greed and stupidity can lead to unnecessary death, further division, and a prolongment of a crisis that could/should have been contained months ago.
I’m reminded of two moments in the show that best embodies this negative viewpoint that Americans are doing so well to display. The first is when the group spends time in Shan City, a makeshift city of refugees that believe that the destruction around them can’t reach the confines of the city. They arrogantly believe that they are safe and welcome all to the city because of it, but when Shan City begins to crumble under a massive earthquake, countless lives are lost. Some residents choose to stay because they still believe that the earthquake won’t destroy the city. Others stay because they have nowhere else to go. Many of the former peaceful civilians degrade to violence to save themselves or to steal from each other, even as their utopia collapses around them.
The other scene comes in the following episode where the aforementioned ultranationalists have acquired a boat and are only letting pure-blooded Japanese citizens onboard. Mari attempts to get her kids onto their ship, but their bigotry and xenophobia prevent them from boarding. A kindly fisherman lets them onto their ship, but the ultranationalists boat runs aground and explodes, taking all other ships with them, separating the family in the chaos and leaving even more dead. The metaphors behind these situations seem fairly obvious; ignorance of a problem is not a solution to said problem and hatred and dissonance are self-destructive and will only lead to further tragedy.
In the age of COVID, where people in America still pretend that the virus doesn’t exist despite 160,000 deaths (at the moment), and frequent protests that have erupted across the country, most notably in Minneapolis and Portland, Japan Sinks 2020 feels like a perfect snapshot of the national mood. On a micro level, people are trying to get by and are doing their best to survive. On a macro level, the country is sinking.
But to read into the show solely from a Western perspective would feel unfaithful to Yuasa’s intended vision. The show is heavily based on Japanese practices and traditions and paints a picture of the perseverance of Japan as a country. It’s not a stretch to connect the dots between the creation of this anime and the events of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, as the events of that natural disaster still ring loudly in Japan today. Yet Japan recouped and came back from it. But the most obvious comparison that I drew from the pandemonium on display in Japan Sinks 2020 was how Japan reacted to and endured the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
75 years ago on August 6th, 1945, at 8:15 am, the United States dropped an atomic bomb called “Little Boy” onto the city of Hiroshima, decimating it. Over a hundred thousand lives were lost in the impact of the blast, with even more dying in the weeks, months, and years following it. Three days later, a second atomic bomb, “Fat Man,” was dropped onto Nagasaki, killing almost as many people. The greatest disaster that ever struck Japan and changed the fate of the world, is celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary this month.
The apocalyptic themes are evident all throughout Japan Sinks 2020, with fires, toxic gas, contaminated water, and potential nuclear meltdowns all being threats the Mutous have to contend with. To see them walking across deserted towns, all of which are destroyed amid landslides and flooding, feel like direct callbacks to the widespread destruction attributed to the atomic bombs as displaced citizens wandered the countryside seeking refuge and safety. Unless you are over 75 years old, the vast majority of modern-day Japan never had to experience the direct fallout from those days. Sure, they grew up in a world post-detonation, but they weren’t there during said detonation. While the original novelist behind Japan Sinks, Sakyo Komatsu, was only 14 at the time of the atomic bombs dropping, his novel channeled fears of a doomsday scenario that was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s not hard to see how Komatsu’s vision of a destroyed Japan, one that channels a and nightmarish and apocalyptic event, still lingers in Japan to this day, especially after the 2011 Tohoku tsunami that also nearly resulted in a nuclear disaster.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Yuasa decided to adapt the novel as a way to commemorate the events of 75 years ago. I admit that it’s complete speculation and I have no evidence to support my claim, but it feels almost thematically apt. It’s entirely coincidental that the series released amidst a global pandemic, but thankfully the message that Japan Sinks 2020 ultimately wishes to convey is one of hope. Regardless of if the creation of the show was in response to the tsunami, atomic warfare, or Yuasa just wanting to adapt the novel because he felt like it, the message he tells by the time the credits roll is that together we can rebuild, and together we can overcome any obstacle.
Tragedies may happen. Bigotry may exist. Lives may be lost in a senseless manner that is almost impossible to wrap our heads around. Despite all of that, humanity can and will persist. If someone we love dies, then we’ll keep them in our memory and push on. If our country sinks into the bottom of the ocean, we will rebuild. If the world feels like it’s fall apart around us and there’s no hope, there will always be a light at the end of the tunnel. No virus, social divide, or spectre of nuclear armageddon can keep humanity from helping each other out and building a better world.