Science SARU's take on the sci-fi classic takes one Japanese family through hell and back as the islands of Japan sink into the sea. The series floats between devastation and rap battles, shark attacks and even weed cults. Japan Sinks: 2020 definitely has a message, but is it an effective one?
This series is currently streaming on Netflix
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Nicky, today we're going to be talking about Japan Sinks: 2020! It's a ten episode anime series on Netflix, and I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to this discussion. I have a lot of, uh, complicated feelings about it. Before we get into all that, however, I have one observation: I think it could've gotten its point across much more quickly if it had reduced itself to these two images and shortened its name to just “2020.”
Because that is a mood.
Hoo-boy, you bet it is! Here's a picture of everything around me on the west coast btw.
I don't know if this picked the best or the worst year to air.
But once again we are veering into more about politics when we should be talking about cartoons! Anyways, Japan Sinks: 2020 is the latest venture by Masaaki Yuasa's Science SARU studio. The same people that brought you stuff like Eizouken and DEVILMAN crybaby are now bringing you a loose adaptation of a famous Japanese 70's science fiction novel. I think the premise is pretty self-explanatory.
It's exactly what it says on its very grisly tin. It presupposes a situation (with some science to back it up, although I certainly can't comment on its veracity) in which all of Japan is dragged under the Pacific by a tectonic shift. Sure, that might sound a little far fetched, but I've also seen everything that's happened this year, and I really don't want to goad Mother Nature into any more history-defining disasters, so I'll stop there.
The scientific accuracy of the story doesn't really matter anyways. Japan Sinks is not only about a physical landmass of islands falling into the ocean, it's also about the state of Japan as a nation, a peoples, and most importantly, it's about a family.
It covers a lot of ground, the toughest of which I found in the very first episode, which depicts the humble-turned-horrific beginnings of this country-shattering seismic event. Like, whew, it does not hold back, and it's rough to watch. I had to pick and choose my screenshots to avoid anything too gory.
One minute everyone is going about their everyday lives of the Mutoh family, Ayumu is in the middle of track practice, her little brother Go is gaming in the kitchen with foreigners instead of eating his lunch, their dad is busy working at his job setting up equipment for the upcoming Olympics, and their mom is just flying back in from overseas. The next minute, BOOM-BAM, earthquakes, baby. At first mild, no one has any idea what is about to hit.
I like too how we see the city's very subdued reaction to the first quake. It's business as usual there, and as a society they've adapted to dealing with them. It only makes the terror of the BIG one all the more pronounced, because no amount of preparation would've done anything. That's a scary thought! And doubly so when ingested alongside the seemingly apocalyptic fervor of our actual 2020's momentum.
It was actually quite striking to me on a personal level when they were talking about the size of the initial quakes as I actually experience something pretty similar in which two large quakes happened RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF ANIME EXPO 2019.
Oh yeah I remember everyone tweeting about that! I've still never been in a earthquake, so while I of course know what they are in theory, I can't even imagine what they must feel like. That's such a powerful thing to only have as an abstraction in my head. It's weird to think about.
Don't worry, I'm a native Californian so I have lots of earthquake experience for the two of us. But I'll never forget the realization of being in a room with hundreds of people after the premiere of PROMARE of all things and suddenly understanding that the subtle uneasy feeling I had wasn't just the person next to me bouncing their leg and was actually what later turned out to be the biggest earthquake LA had in years. There was some dangling audio equipment that was swinging over people's heads and I had to yell at people to steer clear in the happenstance that they were going to fall. Fortunately, no one in that room got hurt and I didn't see anyone get turned into a bloody pancake that day. I wish I could say the same thing for Japan Sinks though. Immediately Ayumu watches her whole track team gets flattened and she ends up leaving them behind, injuring her leg in the process.
It's tough to watch, but that also speaks to how good and well-executed this premiere is. It's almost too good. The concatenation of collapsing buildings, tsunamis, fires, explosions, mutilation, and death—all animated with rawness and weight—is a hell of a lot to take in all at once. I was exhausted by the end of this episode, which, I might add, concludes on actual bodies falling from the sky, raining gobs of blood onto our heroes. It's pure nightmare logic, driving home the unreality of the situation.
Japan Sinks out of the gate, is not for the faint of heart. Some may be quick to call some of its depictions as Tragedy Porn, and I don't think that's an entirely inaccurate label. Even beyond the premiere there's lots of sudden and random deaths before we can even become truly familiar with some of the other characters. Everywhere they go our heroes meet dead bodies, ruin, and rubble. Characters spend days searching for resources. If you're feeling burnt out, Japan Sinks: 2020 may not feel like a fun escape and more like a stark of reflection of a horrible reality.
Thankfully, though, the rest of the show doesn't maintain the same level of intensity that the premiere has. As much as I like it, I don't know if I could've handled ten straight episodes of that lol.
It does have that Netflix-quality where I do think it's very structured to be binged so I do see a possibility where you treat this show like ripping a band-aid off.
And from that point on the show becomes a much...stranger thing for lack of a better word (I've got Netflix on the mind). It turns into this quasi-Yuasa-fied take on the disaster genre where the pitfalls of these stories go hand-in-hand with offbeat diversions and bizarre tonal shifts. It's sometimes hard to tell what's supposed to be funny and what isn't.
I find these to be a bit more of a reprieve. While the moments of misery strike hard, the entire show is not all Gloom and Doom. In fact, there's many moments that are pretty subdued or mundane ways of people dealing with a crisis with equal amounts of kindness and cruelty. The backgrounds and the music are beautiful and ethereal, marking the beauty of nature. it's actually very grounded and non-judgmental of people acting in a situation that's too big for them to comprehend like the idea that their country is falling apart. However, there's still also some underlying optimism and warmth
Yeah I definitely appreciate its refusal to ever go completely grimdark. I tend to dislike those kinds of stories even in the best of times. But it's definitely got a pacing problem on top of a lot of eyebrow-raising choices when it comes to scene and story construction. Like, as much as I enjoy kensuke ushio's work, Japan Sinks doesn't always do the best job pairing the right piece of music with the emotional impetus of a scene. Like, say, pairing a potentially deadly fight with a boar with some delicate plinks and plonks.
For me the biggest aggravator was just the Netflix-esque cliffhangers where someone just fuckin' up and died! I think in the middle and back half of the show with some of the remaining characters established I felt this a lot less. While danger exists around every corner, the Mutohs and Co. meet a man by the name of KITE, a YouTuber and survivalist who basically decides to stick with them on a whim. With him around they start to find their footing a bit better and steer clear of a few of the MANY natural disasters.
One of which I knew about thanks to a little ol' anime that aired last year.
Unfortunately Nanami did not watch Dr. Stone.
I'm never gonna even THINK about crouching in a bush to pee. Someone point me to the nearest actual restroom. I'll hold.
I mean you're probably good as long as you're not around an active volcano, but better safe than sorry. Personally, I know now that I will never ever even think about digging for yams.
Spoilers: it did not mean there were lots of yams.
To an extent, I get that Japan Sinks is playing fast and loose with its main cast in order to drive home the grand, cosmic capriciousness of death. But on the other hand, its fixation on dramatic irony, combined with the precious few moments our characters get to actually breathe and reflect, makes this point feel more frequently cloying than poignant. Actually, now that I think about it, the only episode that got me choked up was the finale, which was, not coincidentally, the only episode where our protagonists weren't constantly running away from omnipresent disaster.
I prefer much more when it's about the small conversations people have or trying to comment on Japan's nationalism, racism, and everyone's struggle to balance with their identities as Japanese citizens and the rest of the world. Even from the start you hear mixed things about people's ideas of globalism, foreigners, and other outside influences. The internet is actually pretty important in this crisis, sometimes a smartphone really is your greatest lifeline.
And sometimes, the internet is the internet.
This is hilarious because all that information ends up being the most accurate but people refuse to believe that their government might be gaslighting them.
It's painfully true-to-life, isn't it? Even accurate information gets swept up into the miasma of online and offline takes until nobody knows what to trust anymore except their own intuition.
I think it's also very telling of an ideology Japanese people have about trusting outside influences. When at a fork in a road of "east" and "west" most people ended up going east because they didn't feel like they could trust the information about the west and would rather follow something more short-sighted like food. Though, we never truly figure out what the correct outcome was.
Nicky, obviously the correct direction was the one that led to the weed cult.
Nothing to fill your stomach better than a bunch of WEED CURRY for THE CHILDREN!!
Just like mom used to make.
This is the weirdest narrative cul-de-sac in the show, it lasts two whole episodes, and I kinda love it despite the fact that it costars a prop comedian.
Daniel-san is actually one of my favorite characters in the whole show despite not sticking around much. His kind and playful outlook is pretty refreshing. The Shan City episodes are also nice because the characters actually have a little security like cozy yurts to sleep in, but they're also about desperately trying to keep together a crumbling nation while pretending everything is okay like keeping together a giant unstable-ass statue.
It's another place where Japan Sinks bucks convention and portrays the cult as actually doing an important service, filling in these gaps where the government has given up and failed to provide for its citizens. I mean, they're still a cult, but they aren't cartoonishly sinister or anything. Not that this is going to stop the Racist Grandpa from going Last Action Hero on a couple security guards.
They're not really malicious no but in the end they still keep people from doing what's important, which is moving on. Even when disaster hits, most people can't bring themselves to leave and would rather die when their leader tells them to live their own lives.
Though as equal as there are metaphors of saving Japan as a hopeless endeavor, there's also many hints that things can be renewed.
It's rough, though, 'cause everyone's gotta figure out for themselves what "moving on" means when you're boxed in like that. That said, I'm sure there are worse ways to go than being surrounded by verdant fields of that dank kush. Like, for instance, hopping aboard the Patriot Flotilla and almost immediately exploding.
That's not a boat you even want to set foot on, good thing the main characters are mixed-enthnicity as their mom is Filipino and couldn't even get a chance to get on. Good Riddance, Nazi Boat.
Japan Sinks can be very blunt about its admittedly compassionate politics with regards to national identity, but I think it's wonderful that the Not-Good Ship Nationalism blows up because of the fuck-huge speaker they dragged on board just to be loudly racist. That's poetic justice, baby.
Amen to that, little buddy.
Unfortunately, that's not all that sinks. And doubly unfortunately, this too is all Ayumu's fault for not knocking on wood quickly enough after saying this.
Damn it, Ayumu.
It's harder to describe the back half of the show, the siblings end up by themselves on a lifeboat without a paddle, literally, get rescued, and then try to drag the brilliant but disabled scientist Onodera to try to retrieve the archives. The conversations in the raft are some of the most real it gets but I feel just a little bad for Go about what I would say about the reality of being stuck inside playing video games would actually be like in the year of our lord 2020.
Oh and somewhere along the way they have a heckin' RAP BATTLE in a hot spring!!
Hell yeah, in case you forgot Yuasa co-directed this, there is indeed a rap battle about national identity. And it slaps.
It bubbles up beautifully out of almost nowhere, to the point of feeling out of place, but it's definitely one of the show's highlights.
It's definitely one of the best moments for all the characters before they all get put in mortal peril again!!
Yup, turns out Yuasa is nowhere near done breaking my heart via scenes of loss built around a symbolic baton pass.
No I'm still not over DEVILMAN crybaby, thanks for asking.
I think this scene was probably the closest to making me cry despite the fact that my eyes have just been continually burning from smoke for the past week.
Koga is one of the more understated characters in the show who I felt could've been developed better but he's also very much a sweetheart, it's hard not to feel sympathetic for this track star burnout turned shut-in.
I don't think the writing is strong enough to earn Haruo this scene, and at this point in the story it's still not even clear why this hard drive is important enough to risk his life over, but this is still the best scene in the whole show. On a pure, emotional, aesthetic level, it's an unimpeachable feat of animation. Unforgettable and sublime.
I mean I didn't think they would top the line "WHAT WOULD TOM CRUISE DO?" and a mention of Die Hard, but it did.
I think KITE found his answer anyway: Tom Cruise would get on a weather balloon and save his friends by giving them 5 seconds of internet access before disappearing forever into the stratosphere. Shine on, you crazy YouTuber.
KITE, in his classic daredevil ways makes a gamble to get the kids safe and sound with his people from Estonia. It's gotta be nice to have friends in high places.
Also we shouldn't grieve for KITE. He was reborn as a VTuber, and that's exactly what he would've wanted.
He's ascended to a greater form.
Just like KITE though, even with Japan totally submerged, eight years later it's culture and people continue to live on, with a big help from the internet.
This part really got to me. While Japan is physically gone, it's still preserved online in a giant database of images, stories, videos, holograms (apparently), and other memories.
Obviously it's not at all the same thing, but since I don't know when I'll ever get to visit Japan again, I've been looking recently through all the photos and videos I took during my trip last year. It's bittersweet at times, but I'm glad I have them and their memories.
Some Important Culture being PRESERVED right here!
And, like, unironically! The seedy, niche, and ugly parts of a place are just as important to its identity as the more photogenic ones.
For all the cynicism found in Japan Sinks, the show decides to end on a total high note bursting with optimism. Even if Japan's current state is not sustainable and may eventually lead to disaster, just like how our regular kid protagonists were able to find a way to safety, hope and the will of the people will survive no matter what happens.
And I'm glad it ends on a hopeful note. It allows us to imagine a culture and nation built on people and inclusivity, rather than on walls and borders. And truly, what better example than esports at the Olympics?
Ultimately, I kind of like Japan Sinks: 2020 in spite of itself. It's a sloppy work, and not in the same way that some of my favorite Yuasa works are sloppy. Yet it's this compellingly uncanny and singularly quirky version of a disaster movie, with important questions and progressive aspirations. It's a wild, sometimes shoddy ride, but there's nothing quite like it. For better or worse.
While certainly interesting, with it's mixed portrayal of humanity, it's a bit hard to dictate what people would get out of it. It feels a bit like an inkblot test and what you see in it will depend on your own personal feelings and experiences. it's something better to just to see for yourself even if it makes you end up like this.
Or like this.
But whatever you may end up feeling, it's about how there's ultimately a silver lining to every disaster, and I think that's something we all need.