Disaster movies are quite rare in anime but a few do exist. One of them is the 2006 two-part series called ‘A Spirit of the Sun’ (Taiyou no Mokushiroku). Made by Madhouse, a top tier anime studio, this near 2 hour 40 minute epic moves from disaster movie to political and terrorist intrigue but has a lot to say in its quick fire lifespan.
The disasters faced
Multiple earthquakes, tsunamis, Mt Fuji erupting and that’s all in the first half hour. Throw in noodle wars, racism, immigration riots, terrorist attacks and national gaslighting and you have a film that is very relevant today.
A Spirit of the Sun takes place over a fifteen year time jump. In 2002, Japan suffers multiple natural disasters – each one triggering the next. Multiple earthquakes trigger a tsunami and volcanic eruption that wipes out a lot of Japan. With the land already destabilised, a second round of earthquakes five days later breaks Japan into two. We see this mainly through the experiences of Genichiro, a young boy to political parents whom was left at a family farm when it all kicked off. His parents are killed trying to search for him and he is left alone with a puppy he saved. He soon befriends a man who takes him in as they travel back across Japan to get home but during a dramatic sea crossing, more volcanic activity throws them into jeopardy and Genichiro is presumed killed.
Fast forward fifteen years and Japan is in a sorry state. Having been split into two, America controls and looks after South Japan. China takes over North Japan. The two have very different views on how to rebuild and this means everyone is displaced as distrust brings down the shutters on the borders. No one can leave and no one can enter – which is a problem for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese people now living in temporary slums in Taiwan.
It is here we discover that Genichiro has indeed survived but was so traumatised by the event, he has no recollection of what happened beforehand initially. Over time he has regained those memories but he has kept that to himself. The reason is that the hatred between Taiwanese and Japanese communities runs deep and is being gaslit by anti-Japanese politicos desperate to cause anarchy and take control. Genichiro was taken in by Taiwan parents and raised as such but he struggles to watch the issues play out before him as he runs a small but popular noodle food cart in town.
This comes to a head when a Japanese woman and child are killed after Genichiro buys them some vegetables in public after being refused them by a Taiwanese market trader. Genichiro, along with his mafia sidekick and new best friend Chan, decide to investigate who is responsible for the murder. Together with Hata, a young policeman whom has also been put on the case, they uncover a political scandal and power struggle set to bring down the current prime minister and place Japanese-hating politicians in charge instead.
Can Genichiro, Chan and Hata all work together to solve the nations disputes? Will they be able to leave Taiwan and get back home? Only some of this will be answered…
Why is it worth watching?
Strictly speaking, A Spirit of the Sun isn’t really a disaster movie. Its a movie that happens on the backdrop of a disaster. The first 40 minutes of the series is one giant rollercoaster of disaster. It is quick paced, harsh and refuses to show remorse as cast members are thrown aside. You’ll just be begging that the puppy makes it!
It then switches into more of a political thriller with a very heavy handed message about fighting aggressively with love. Genichiro is a man that is full of nothing but love and he refuses to hurt or harm another person – and from that he will never waiver. Each time the stakes are raised, he will sacrifice his own survival for the greater good. In a disaster he will share his limited food and water. When facing police forces he will gently protest without baring arms. At times it is a little too perfect so that is where all the other characters come in.
Hata is interesting because his police officer position was only given to him because they thought he was Taiwanese and not being able to be himself has chewed up both him and his father. How they’ve dealt with the fall out is very different. Similarly Chan is there to show that education and good experiences can turn around a troubled life. There is also a lot of consideration for Japan’s proud heritage and that is where Ozu comes in. As the official trying to restore order, he is left balancing a nations pride with pure facts. No one wants to be seen grovelling but if you are desperate – is that what it should take?
Ultimately the story switches gears from disaster to aftermath quickly after the first 40 minutes so disaster movie fans may not enjoy the rest of the feature. That being said, there is plenty to enjoy if you like to see how an anime’s take on immigration can show different aspects of how to change public perception. I just wish A Spirit of the Sun wasn’t so heavy handed with it.
This review also comes with a word of warning and it applies to the ending. Whilst the story is relatively self contained, it ends on a note the almost suggests ‘next time on…’ but there isn’t one. Instead, the story has been continued from the manga the feature came from. I have no idea what happens and I don’t want to know unless it comes to film and that is a shame. I found that the enticing ‘this is what we’ll do next’ ending left me wanting more. Its been 14 years and I don’t think more is coming. If you can handle that though, there is a story with a semi-end to be told.
It’s also worth noting that both Japanese and English dubs are available on the blu-ray along with English subtitles.
Madhouse is usually known for its excellent visuals but that isn’t really the case here. CGI effects are not well integrated into the drawings and whilst it is hardly terrible at all – I’ve seen better examples of CGI and art combined from the same era. Plenty of destruction early on though!
One of the interesting questions I had after watching this is wondering whether a perfect protagonist who gets it right every time can hurt a film or series? Genichiro has the midas touch. He also is unwavering in his decisions. I’m not saying that he isn’t a shining example of compassion and excellence but it does make him a bit smug and unlikable at times because its so one sided. I’d have liked to have seen him rounded out with some night time crises or worries. He simply see’s a massive problem and casually waltzes in. When your protagonist makes something look easy, the payoff isn’t as great when they succeed.
How long will my sentence be? 20 years? That means I’ll never see you again… I’m proud of you son.Hati’s father to hati when realising he will die in prison not seeing his son again
Three memorable moments
- The 80,000 Japanese silent walk protest for being a powerful reminder of how to show your spirit without violence.
- The opening earthquake moments and the carnage it causes
- The boat section with the whirpools dragging down hundreds of people to their death.
The obligatory weird moment
I found the arch of Chan to be very stilted as he goes from killer thug to hippie within about two scenes – suddenly declaring Genichiro his brother. It felt rushed and unearned but then this whole thing feels like it needed to be at least twice as long!
The drinking game
Is that Genichiro acting like a modern day messiah again? DRINK!
I did enjoy A Spirit of the Sun but it is not without its flaws. Some stilted animation, a script that hammers home really important lessons and topics clumsily and an ending missing in action. The fact I still liked it must mean what is here is entertaining but it is a tentative recommendation for a niche audience.
Rating: 2.5 / 5 – OK
If you liked A Spirit of the Sun then you may enjoy…
- Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 – Easily my favourite disaster anime of all time
- The Sinking of Japan – Similar disaster – this time as a Japanese big budget movie
- District 9 – What happens when aliens become the immigrants?