Japan Sinks 2020 is an Anime series update of the classic disaster novel Nippon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks). This novel has already spawned two actual movies of the same name and the satirical send up ‘Everybody Sinks Except Japan’. This time, it returns as a 10 episode anime series that goes out of its way to be cruel to its characters to raise the suspense stakes. It made me ask the question – at what point do regular character deaths simply not matter anymore?
The disasters faced
The sinking of Japan via Earthquake, Mt Fuji erupting, exploding yams, toxic gas, tsunamis, evil cults, Japanese elders who seem more likely to kamikaze for their younger generation than protect themselves, greed, denial and one crazy European clown.
This section will be largely spoiler free in terms of characters and their fates but this will go into detail about the overall 10 episode arc of the story – so please skip ahead if you want to go in blind. Just know that yes… Japan sinks!
Still here? Ok!
The Muto family are all enjoying their usual day like any other. Father Koichiro is part of a construction team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (ha – hasn’t that aged well immediately on release). Mother Mari is on a plane flying into Japan from an overseas trip. Son Go is playing games at home after school and elder daughter and main character Ayumu is doing track and field practice at school. Suddenly from nowhere just a couple of minutes in, the first Earthquake hits and hits hard. Go is injured at home, Ayumu is caught up at school, Koichiro is left dangling off of scaffolding and Mari’s plane (for no apparent reason) decides to blow an engine and crash into a river. The first episode see’s them all struggle to find each other and rendezvous at their safe point.
Here they are joined by two other characters – Nanami and Harou – who are family friends. Harou has lost his mother and is alone whilst Nanami is still searching for hers. Together they set off with their village survivors as they hear news that parts of Japan are sinking. They get this via social media videos and not from traditional press. One of their sources of info is Kite – a YouTuber – who is busy taking aerial views of the devastation. Soon enough the villagers and our gang decide to go their separate ways as they decide to head for the coast and get on a ship for safety.
As the group move onwards they meet up with Kite who decides to join them when one of the group is killed right in front of them all, leaving them distraught – having already suffered tragedy in the previous episode. Together they’ll soon enough be joined by shopkeeper Kunio and Daniel the soppy but creepy clown. Kunio doesn’t like foreigners and Daniel is from Yugoslavia so you know that is going to go well.
This leads the group to Shan City – a perceived safe haven community. It is here we meet Kanae the medium with her partner Osamu and son Daichi, Otani the chef and Onodera the scientist. The place is well stocked with food but something isn’t quite right. Maybe its because the entire community are high on the cannabis fields they look after and then put in the food! Either way, the entire place is like a cult in waiting but the veneer of safety is soon ripped away when a new Earthquake strikes and Shan City is sunk into the sea too. Those who survive that cross the rest of Japan to the harbour only to find the Government has limited spaces on ships and those who survive are picked from a lottery. With only Ayumu picked to leave, she doesn’t feel like she can leave her family behind and chooses to remain behind. The group try to escape on a smaller boat with new recruit Sone, but a freak tsunami capsizes them leaving them stranded with little to no resources left.
This leads to the revelation from Dr Onodera, who cannot speak and must communicate via morse code blinking, that he expects parts of Japan to resurface. This leads those who are left to try and collect Onodera’s research and work out the exact co-ordinates of the places where land may reappear. If they can get there – it may mean safety – but is it true?
Why is it worth watching?
Japan Sinks 2020 is at its best, a visceral and cruel reminder that the world doesn’t play favourites. The body count in this anime series is huge. If I tell you that only four of the thirteenish main characters survive and of those two are badly injured – you’ll know the kind of ride you are in for. It is not afraid to kill in bulk, target the mains and do it out of place. This kind of shock is really effective at the start but by about episode 7 or 8, I was busy deciding whose turn it was to die this episode. It strangely made me feel less invested in the characters because most of the caring ones had already died to protect the weaker ones and I didn’t want to get attached anymore. This series definitely crushes too much death into too short of a timeframe. Maybe over 15-18 episodes, each death would have meant more but aside from a couple of the later ones, my thoughts were ambivalent.
Death count aside, the series deals with a lot of different thoughts at surface level. Grief, shock and confusion is paramount here – especially when you aren’t able to lean into them because you have to keep going to survive. How characters process that internal war is interesting but kept to a minimum. There is also the role that traditional vs social media plays in the event too. Social media effectively plays the role of informant here whilst traditional media is more sugar coated. There are racial and gender issues here too which spike up out of nowhere and feel a bit forced at times but when times are tough, people show their primal colours.
I found all the initial survival and most of the latter survival sections intense, fast paced and interesting although I was hoping for a bit more of a grounded feel to things. Where the series got bogged down was when the group of survivors chose to stay at Shan City. Whilst I found the look at how cults and religions can take hold of people during a crisis to be interesting, making it a drug fuelled den where everyone chased spirits of the dead felt a bit out of tone.
For all the bits that I really enjoyed, I also found Japan Sinks 2020 incredibly frustrating. When Mari’s plane crashes she screams as a tsunami comes towards her but then its never mentioned or dealt with again. Go gets his eyelid stapled?! Everyone stops at Shan City even though they know that Japan is sinking and waits for it to catch up to them before trying to escape. Several character deaths and sacrifices felt utterly unnecessary if someone just simply thought for five seconds about what would be the sensible thing to do. That balance of ‘oh no they’ve died’ vs ‘what the hell did you do that for’ is off kilter but at least it gave me a reaction!
One thing I really did enjoy was the overarching message of creating memories and capturing moments. Mari, Kite and Ayumu love a photo and even in their darkest times, a photo shows exactly who was left at that time and the state of the world around them. We find out at the end that the Muto family has been creating memories like this all their life and it makes for a beautiful message to capture some of these to look back on.
The last thing I’d say is that there is another anime series which is far less exploitative and gentler in pace called ‘Tokyo Magnitude 8.0’. It focuses on providing people on information on what to do in a huge earthquake. If you like the premise of this but can’t handle the stupidity and high death count, this is your anime to go to but there is definitely room for both. It is just the tones are vastly different.
Some of the animation of a sinking Japan is beautiful – especially at sunset. The colours are largely muted and things look beautiful. Elsewhere, the animation is quite standard and sometimes faces look really flat and unfinished for one or two shots in a scene. A mixed bag but decent enough when the big stuff happens.
Ayumu is a brat. She didn’t need yams – in an earthquake you eat what you are given. She didn’t help her school friends after the accident either. In fact until she gets left alone with Go on a floating dingy that she has any kind of redeeming features. It makes her quite difficult to like as a main character but she does grow over time. Go is there to make Kite feel good and Kite is a wannabe Bond in waiting. I found it weird that he had all of the gadgets under the sun to his disposal when money didn’t really matter in a sinking Japan anymore. It also felt like he was there as a rich person to simply dabble in others lives and then make a trending video on it when the series was over.
As the series is short at ten episodes it also made Koichiro and Mari look like unstable parents as they wildly switch mood. Harou goes from recluse to angsty rapper over the series and Nanami is literally the only voice of rational reason. The weirdest addition to the group is Daniel. He is there to give Mari some levity as she struggles with the grim situation but pulling out fake eyes and talking with puppets as a grown man made me feel like he was one step away from kidnapping the kids!
On a wider note, Japan Sinks 2020 also cuts the cast into generational traits. Everyone old seems to feel like Japan is fantastic and must be saved for the youngsters. Everyone young feels like Japan shouldn’t be saved and maybe its better to let it die and be reborn anew. This speaks to a cultural belief in Japan that seems all to willing to bend over backwards to support the new generation. It plays out as time after time elder characters sacrifice themselves to keep Ayumu and Go alive.
If I die – you can eat me…
You’d taste terrible!
If you make a fire – make sure to do me medium!Go and ayumu when trapped on a rescue dingy with no food or water
Three memorable moments
- Digging for yams.
- When Kunio meets Go at his shop. I shouted a swear word.
- The ending montage of photos which takes an underlying message full circle in a beautiful way.
The obligatory weird moment
The is a moment in episode 9 which I will only refer to as the ‘political rap moment’. Kite turns on some music and each of the remaining characters decides to have a go at rapping about how crap life has become. It is so random and out of place, its like a political and social exposition dump to a beat. All the characters suddenly are drawn with ‘boss face’ on it feels very awkward.
The drinking game
Is that a character getting killed? Shots for a main character, swigs for a background character – I don’t want you being the next one off now!
Director Masaka Yuasa is known for creating weird and wonderful animations (Mind Game is nuts) and his off-kilter approach translates awkwardly into a realistic modern day world setting. Some of Japan Sinks 2020 is utterly superb and spellbinding. Some of it is screamingly frustrating and infuriating. There isn’t anything else in the disaster genre quite like it. I’d wished we had been given a few more episodes to flesh out character arcs and add more depth to the story. As it is, the jarring speed, unfinished plots, sudden mood changes and rollercoaster ride that is Japan Sinks 2020 is a unique but cautious recommendation.
Rating – 3 / 5 – Good
If you liked Japan Sinks 2020 then you may also like…
- Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 – Heartfelt anime series of two children finding home.
- The Sinking of Japan – most recent film adaptation of Nippon Chinbotsu
- The Tower – Korean remake of The Tower Inferno has an equally high death count!