Based on the 1973 novel ‘Japan Sinks’ by Sakyo Komatsu, this original anime series has updated the story to 2020 in an unfortunate case of ‘not now sinking Japan!’ for this crisis hit year. A major earthquake strikes Japan causing death and devastation, but matters are made exponentially worse as it is slowly realised that Japan itself is sinking. The series follows primarily the Mutous family and their efforts to survive as disaster piles on disaster.
Miraculously, considering the earthquake strikes whilst they are all apart, the Mutous manage to find each other thanks to the father’s quickly knocked up light display drawing them in. They start to lead a group of survivors before squabbles and human instinct make any form of leadership difficult. The strength of the earthquake has torn apart the landscape of the land of the rising sun. Mari and Koichiro guide their teenage daughter Ayumu and young son Go inland to look for safety, but the threats are many and unexpected.
Japan Sinks can’t work out quite how hard to hit. Considering the series is created by Masaaki Yuasa who also brought us the blood, blades and boobs Devilman Crybaby, Japan Sinks dabbles in the darker aspects of humanity’s responses to adversity. There are hints of Walking Dead rhythms here (find a safe place, it’s not safe because people are the real threat, move on to next safe place, etc.) yet you can feel Yuasa pull back from exploring any angle. There are two threatened sexual assaults but the male attackers are dispatched with relative ease: mere irritations rather than genuine threats.
Another missed opportunity to explore disaster based mentality is when our gang (which has increased to include a reclusive former athlete, a crotchety old store owner, an English comedian, and an extreme sports YouTuber) arrive at Shun City. Here we are in classic ‘nice looking commune / cult but what’s the catch’. Food and mod cons are plentiful, but aside from another vague sexual assault threat what gets our group moving is ultimately more earthquake threat; it isn’t that cult leader Mother can apparently commune with the dead when in contact with a small boy. Shun City adds little to the plot or the threat faced, despite having so much potential to do so.
Strangely for a disaster show, Japan Sinks 2020 works best in moments of quiet character reflection. Father Koichiro’s connection with daughter Ayumu is sweet and lasting, and when siblings Ayumu and Go end up adrift in a lifeboat for most of an episode deep in the series their light hearted talk in the face of adversity breathes genuine life into a narrative that has otherwise lurched aimlessly. Character deaths initially hit hard as a few nasty surprises claim sympathetic lives. This brings diminishing returns however. At first characters with useful skills get eliminated, but a recurring theme of sacrifice means that the impact lessens in the back run of episodes when death becomes more predictable.
The lifeboat scenes also mark some moments of gorgeous animation as the lifeboat is surrounded by luminous sea life, because otherwise there is very little of director Yuasa’s normally bombastic style here. Indeed, the characters look unattractively blocky throughout, which is a shame. It is Japan itself which seems to get the animator polish. There is a strong questioning of national pride throughout the show culminating in, of all things, a rap battle where surviving characters expressing alternating distaste and pride at Japanese sensibilities.
The tearing apart and ultimate submergence of Japan is given as much gravitas as the characters, although when the final montage lasts a good 10 minutes this national love fest does try the patience somewhat. Japan Sinks 2020 is a one and done type of show. Once the thrill of popcorn destruction and ‘oh no I can’t believe they died I liked them’ is seen once there is no actual substance left to need a repeat viewing. The series, like the year 2020 itself, will not be looked back on in the years to come with any longing for more.
Words by Mike Record