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Japan Sinks 2020 (2020)

Disaster epics are normally the province of live-action cinema. For all the mighty buildings and cities that they topple, the films themselves are often indestructible. You laugh at their ludicrousness, their dramatic cheapness, yet you end up chilled and moved by their underlying tectonics: the terror of death, the scrabble for survival.

Japan Sinks 2020, Netflix’s new anime serial by feted director Masaaki Yuasa, has none of the overt trashiness of a Roland Emmerich or Irwin Allen flick. But for much of its length, it didn’t seem to have those directors’ power either. I was initially impressed by Japan Sinks; then quickly worried by the show’s dramatic shortcomings, and by the seventh part of ten, I was writing it off as a bust. And yet by the show’s extended coda (the tenth episode runs a full half-hour), I had to shake my head and give the show four out of five; not great but with fragments of greatness, especially toward the end.

The series is an update of a 1972 novel by Sakyo Komatsu, referred to as either Japan Sinks or The Sinking of Japan. It’s been filmed twice in live-action; I’ve seen the second film (2006). That had an anime connection, being directed by Shinji Higuchi, who worked on Evangelion and later made the live-action Attack on Titan films. Higuchi’s Sinking was ponderous, with toe-curling J-pop and disaster effects nearer TV than Hollywood, but the characters and story were compelling once the other disappointments wore off.

Yuasa’s anime only resembles Higuchi’s film in the title premise. Present-day Japan is struck by a series of massive earthquakes, threatening to submerge the country. Stories of the Titanic, James Cameron’s included, presented a doomed ship as a microcosm of society. Japan Sinks turns a whole nation into a Titanic, with Mount Fuji as its smoking funnel.

In part one, the first quake strikes Tokyo. It’s nothing earthshattering, a “weak five” magnitude, enough for people to huddle as it passes, then start gossiping, texting and laughing it off. Minutes later, a second quake strikes, smashing skyscrapers and killing people by the thousands.

Yuasa focuses on an ordinary Tokyo family of four. The father and mother are Koichiro and Mari, both solid parental presences; the mum performs a heroic rescue in the opening minutes. They’re an interracial couple. Mari is Filipino, which becomes significant later on, when the show dives into the nature of Japaneseness. Their kids are Go, a preteen boy gamer who often speaks in excitable English soundbites, and his sister Ayumu, a teen sprinter who has her leg injured in the first episode, impeding her ever after.

They’re all in different places when they survive the first big quake – it’s emphasised how improbable it is they all survive. Bucking disaster film conventions, they find each other quickly in the ruins, but realise through snatches of media (mainstream and social) that the cataclysm’s just begun.

Like many anime, the most visually impressive character in Japan Sinks is Japan itself, the hills, forests and now-ruined towns of the stricken country. Much of the character animation feels serviceable rather than attractive, sometimes obviously limited (a nightclub scene) and sometimes just weird (an attack by a wild boar).

Most of the series eschews the stretchy distortions and deformities which characterise Yuasa’s anime, and there’s none of the extreme experimentalism of his Ping-Pong: The Animation. The best animation treats are kept for the show's title sequence (utterly lovely, making art from daily life) and for the last episodes.

The most unusual thing about Japan Sinks is its use of music. The images of smashed infrastructure and shell-shocked survivors are accompanied by the kind of wistful, restful melodies that you’d normally find accompanying a nostalgic scene of children at play. Critics sometimes wonder if drama in animation, however emotional or melodramatic, has an inherently distanced quality compared to live-action. 

Japan Sinks tests that idea. It places its characters in horrifying and upsetting situations, but it also frames them in aesthetic neutrality, inviting us to admire the evening sun glinting off broken buildings, or hear the characters’ voices speaking out of happier times.

Composed by Kensuke Ushio (A Silent Voice, Devilman Crybaby), the music shifts between such shocking counterpoints, more conventional reflections of the characters’ moods, and zones in between, where the characters seem to be outside themselves, recognising when their stories are culminating and perhaps ending. The score also ceases for several scenes, following what’s perhaps the most brutal shock in the series.

And Japan Sinks can be brutal. This is no disaster flick for Sunday-afternoon television. There are moments to make the most blasé viewer wince or gasp at what the show does (and when). And yet, from even the early episodes, Japan Sinks can also feel lackadaisical for stretches, very much in the way that made me dislike Yuasa’s earlier Netflix series, Devilman Crybaby. Big moments often fall flat. Early on, the characters see a video of an entire Japanese island sinking, and it feels comically unimpressive. Dialogue scenes can be dull, dropped-in plot points absurdly clunky, and some developments and coincidences are as laughable as the worst disaster flicks.

For a series that takes disaster seriously, there are parts of Japan Sinks that are outrageously silly. They’re not just a tasteless response to the subject, which is an approach that can work perfectly well in anime. Rather, they’re tasteless given the show’s own elevated seriousness.

Even worse are the middle episodes. These involve a new setting and lots of new characters we stay with but never really get to know, including one enormously annoying “English” hanger-on. It’s an enforced and unwelcome side-track. There’s a suggestion that it’s a trick on the audience – the situation in these episodes isn’t quite what it screams out to us. But it’s too much work for a payoff that’s tangential.

Perhaps the real trick was to fool us into thinking Japan Sinks had shark-jumped away from the story it sold us on. If so, count me duped. It’s also possible that the humanist and spiritual undertones of this section will play better if you rewatch the series knowing how it ends, but that’s a big ask.

And yet Japan Sinks’ final episodes make the show worth rewatching. There’s a flurry of strong situations, characters hitting their personal peaks, and visuals that are valedictory and poetic amid stormy picture-book dreamscapes. The animation of Yuasa’s anime has always been most magical when it shows characters straining every sinew in their battles with the world. It goes all the way back to Yuasa’s 2004 film Mind Game, a film which climaxed with the heroes sprinting up a whale’s flooded throat.

Japan Sinks has several such climaxes. For one of the principal characters, the ultimate life-or-death battle turns out to be a reworking of a camp-classic moment from a vintage live-action disaster film. But it’s made wondrously sublime in animation, its struggles exquisitely drawn.

Elsewhere, there are more callbacks to Yuasa’s past anime. Rap music and relay racing, which were both in Devilman Crybaby, make return appearances. I enjoyed them much more this time round. The rap song in Japan Sinks is warmly hilarious in spelling out Yuasa’s thoughts on the country he’s destroying. The end of the last episode dissolves into lyrical snapshots, a la the finale of Mind Game.

And it’s not just Yuasa’s anime that are referenced. A chirpy toy robot plainly channels Haro from the Gundam franchise. There are also visual nods to the 1970s apocalypse series Future Boy Conan by Hayao Miyazaki, which had been celebrated just months ago in Yuasa’s TV show about budding animators, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!



IN A NUTSHELL: Often impressive and often frustrating, Japan Sinks 2020 is worth the journey for its splendid last episodes.

Andrew Osmond is a British Journalist specialising in animation and is the UK editor of Anime News Network. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away, 100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net