(Spoilers for the entire series)
Maybe 2020 is not the time to publish any apocalyptic media. Even if it has a “happy” ending. There’s no way Masaaki Yuasa or anyone on the production team of Japan Sinks 2020 could have foreseen everything going on when they were producing this movie – but it might have been prudent of Netflix to…not release it?
Although Japan Sinks 2020 is not focused on a worldwide pandemic – it’s a disaster movie set in 2020 and the themes of human nature, survival, nationalism, and xenophobia hit oddly – and I think a bit (differently) than it was intended to. Somehow it is both relevant and completely out of touch with our current situation.
And that doesn’t even cover the fact that I don’t believe the series handles its premise well – it has terrible pacing, a huge tonal issue, and the themes seem to play second fiddle to the scenes of death, disaster, and misery.
I have so many issues with this series – that to be honest I don’t know how to feel about it. Because parts of it are good, really good. And others are just…mediocre or weird. They don’t balance each other out – it just makes it appear like kind of a mess.
The series is on the 1973 novel Japan Sinks by Sakyo Komatsu. It’s been adapted several times – and each is different. The series is very different from the book, with different characters and more contemporary themes.
The movie takes place in 2020 and begins with a major earthquake striking Tokyo. Originally it was supposed to take place following the now canceled Olympics, but they dropped that minor aspect. Of course, given how production works –there’s no mention of COVID-19. That’s probably for the better.
The Mutou family – father Kouichirou, mother Mari, and children Ayumu and Gou manage to escape with some of their neighbors and have to a new scary reality.
The siblings are the main characters – and it’s frightening to watch two young kids struggling to survive earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions and realizing that their entire country will sink – possibly in a matter of days.
When they come across Onodera – a scientist who predicted the events but was ignored – they go on a journey to bring his information to the public.
The family is constantly traveling, struggling to find their way when they don’t know what disaster will find them next or how they will survive. And being a series focused on what basically amounts to the apocalypse – most our main cast doesn’t make it to the end.
Major pacing problems
A 10-episode series isn’t long. And it means you need to be extra careful with how you tell your story. And unfortunately for this series – the pace is so terrible that you can see it on both an episodic and series level.
The first and second episodes are pretty good – but around the third episode things start to fall apart. In the fourth episode, the group encounters a community where the residents grow marijuana (which is illegal in Japan) and the leader communicates with the dead. Neither of these plots goes anywhere or is thematically relevant.
The only important part of them coming across this compound is they find Onodera -paralyzed in a hospital bed trying to communicate the danger through Morse code. It seemed like such a waste of time -when they easily could have found him in literally any other way.
Also, – I don’t think in any of the other adaptations including the novel that Onodera is paralyzed and I could find nothing about there being a marijuana death cult -so I don’t get why this aspect was included.
For me, it ruins the pace of the story – especially as the cult storyline takes way too long. If it was necessary to include it – they could have cut it way down. And to make matters weirder – even though the series is fairly grounded in reality – it’s implied the medium’s powers are real.
And it doesn’t affect the characters or plot…so…why?
After the agonizingly slow and awkward pacing of these episodes makes the following episodes even more frustrating to watch. Especially when they start killing the main characters – often at the most inexplicable times.
Many times – death happens at the end of an episode. And while they all do get acknowledged in the following episode, we’re never allowed to linger on the deaths. They don’t feel like they’re given proper closure or attention and many of the deaths are mainly for shock value -rather than to add anything.
The most obvious is the neighbor Nanami, who falls over during a pee break and dies when she inhales toxic gas. It just seems pointless, and only exists to torture and guilt Ayumu more.
It happens pretty much in the middle of the third episode when the father just died at the end of the previous episode. We’re given no time to really mourn either of them – and Nanami’s death doesn’t even mean anything. What was the point of her character?
And because of the placement of her death; the first half and the second half of this episode, seem to be two completely different episodes. And that happens in this series a lot. The pacing is all off – so the middle of an episode may feel like the end – and then the second half seems like it should be paired with the first half of the following episode.
I think somebody cut these wrong – or they were planned to be fewer but slightly longer episodes, but Netflix decided they didn’t want that. Scenes linger too long or appear cut short and it’s too focused on the wrong things.
It’s just awkward,
I think maybe it’s because Japan Sinks 2020 is a very different genre than Yuasa is used to. His filmography is full of more light-hearted, lower-stakes stories and tends to focus even more closely on one or two characters – often with a romantic angle.
Japan Sinks 2020 has a lot more characters – even if Ayumu and Gou are the main characters, as the only ones to appear in all episodes – and has no romance angle except the implication Ayumu has a crush on Haruo – a former classmate of hers. But it never goes far.
Also, Yuasa’s works tend to lean towards the fantastic as opposed to the mundane, which is another strike against him.
Perhaps if another director, one with more experience in the serious, apocalyptic genre, was in charge – elements would have been better. This also could have worked better as a movie – though it would have been on the longer side. Or as I mentioned earlier – having fewer episodes, but making them all longer (and making a few changes with the plot and characters.)
The pacing of this show is made all the worse because so much time is spent focusing on death and tragedy. Look, I get this, is apocalyptic media. I know that characters will die – but that doesn’t mean something terrible must constantly happen, nor do you have to kill off your characters in shocking ways, many of them only to continue the main characters’ emotional journeys.
I appreciate how the series does attempt to give each character a moment of humanity before their death – but they’re flashbacks and quotes that often we’ve just heard and it appears repetitive and manipulative. Like rather than feeling sad because we lost a character, we’ve come to know and love, we feel sorry because we’re hearing a eulogy.
We’re being told to feel sad rather than genuinely feeling sad.
These aren’t characters. They’re just bodies and victims. They exist only as motivation.
When characters get separated – the incidents are treated as tragic – but they’re almost always back together by the end of the episode or the following one. We, the audience, know these others aren’t dead because they weren’t given the same send-off. And somehow coming across each other feels like coincidence – rather than anything meaningful. Like the separation was just another tactic to keep us viewing.
And of course, it’s not just the deaths and separation that are sent to torture the characters.
Ayumu and Nanami both get or nearly get sexually assaulted during the show – often to show without fear of police retaliation and lack of laws – the men think they can do whatever they want. And while this is fine, I don’t understand why it needs to be done multiple times.
After the first time, you’re just torturing the characters for no good reason. And things always have to be tragic in the most tragic way. If a character accidentally hits a mine in search of food, his hand must land near his spouse with his wedding ring. If a character needs to dive into the ocean to unsnag a ship – she doesn’t die of drowning. No, she’s a professional swimmer, she can’t drown. She dies because she has a pacemaker put in and hasn’t been able to charge the solar battery. And the volcano ash isn’t letting the sun through.
Like in some ways – the Olympic swimmer – adds a lot to the mother’s character – but not the pacemaker. It seemed more like an excuse to have her commit a heroic sacrifice because otherwise, people would have been complaining there was no way for her to drown.
Notable, but not actually a major source of tragedy is how the Mutohs face prejudice, even the wake of the worst natural disasters their country has witnessed because they’re mixed race. Everything about the family is designed to be as sympathetic as possible and then the series milks it for every last teardrop they can.
It’s like the movie thinks the only way we can sympathize with the protagonists is if they are tortured
Sure, they get moments of happiness and peace – but they’re not there often enough, and they’re only earned after major tragedies.
Kind of Tone Deaf
These tonal shifts sometimes work. For example, Mari has a habit of taking pictures of the group and the others they meet throughout the movie. The camera immediately prints them out, she’ll write a little note and give it to the person they’re leaving behind.
Narratively, it signifies something that is about to change – usually that the group will separate somehow or that another tragedy will strike. At first, it feels uncomfortable – like she isn’t considering the danger the family is in or is poorly attempting to distract everyone.
Once again, the cult is the biggest issue: there’s Daniel, who embodies all the worst of the goofy foreigner trope and has some weird Japanese culture fetish. He never acknowledges the danger everyone is in.
He’s comic relief – but not good comic relief. And the whole part with the commune farming marijuana doesn’t make any sense – since it is banned in Japan and it doesn’t look like they use it any rituals.
I was just kind of confused throughout the whole arc. There was a lot that didn’t go anywhere.
There’s also a peculiar melody they use during those death flashback scenes I discussed earlier that just seems dissonant since it’s a light flowy type of melody, rather than a melancholy one.
Who are these characters?
I will say that the characters who get the most focus in the series: Ayumu, Gou, Mari, and a YouTuber named KITE – are all intriguing with solid character arcs and believable motivations.
Mari, who is Filipina and a former star swimmer, doesn’t have an issue being a foreigner in Japan and it isn’t made clear until partway through the series. Instead, she’s strongly protective of her children, she is stern but caring and tries not to let them see her during her weaker moments. She is focused on surviving and multiple times throughout the series, when there are opportunities for only one person to be rescued, she insists on one of the children.
While that does make her heroic sacrifice very-in character, I don’t think they needed her having an undercharged pacemaker to make it heartbreaking. I knew something was up – but if we’re going, to be honest, I thought they were going to reveal she was pregnant – but wasn’t telling anyone.
But for a mother character, she is well-developed and I wish we got to see a little more of her thought process and how she was trying to cope after her husband died since she was hiding it under a facade.
Gou – the elementary school-age son, dreams of being a professional gamer and moving to Estonia of all places. I don’t know why – I don’t know a lot about Estonia or their gaming industry but it’s not the place I would imagine a 10-year-old dreams of going.
He uses a lot of English – and he is more aware of his interracial identity than his sister. Perhaps because his skin is darker. I had also wondered at first if Mari was a step-mom to Ayumu and Gou was her half-brother, but I digressed.
He doesn’t feel like he fits in, and when he is gaming, he can talk to anyone, anywhere. And he learns about embracing his own culture, and he is also forced to grow up fast. He’s never overly annoying or hyperactive in the way so many shows portray boys in that age range.
And we see him forced to grow up – to eat foods he doesn’t like, overcome prejudices, and learning to appreciate where he came from and what he has- after living a pleasant, peaceful childhood with his loving family.
Ayumu, who I would consider the series’ main protagonist, doesn’t struggle as much with her racial identity. Instead, the focus is more on her dealing with her survivors’ guilt: she leaves behind her classmates after the first quake hits, for her dad dying after he attempts to dig up yams for her, for Nanami dying instead of her.
All the while she is dealing with a bad cut on her leg, that she doesn’t tell anyone about. The poor girl gets put through the wringer and honestly suffers the most throughout the series. It’s kind of hard to watch.
But my favorite character is KITE – an Estonian Youtuber who the family meets after he is paragliding. I spent a lot of time reckoning he would be a villain – exploiting the disaster for views and would betray the family when he had the chance.
Instead, he pulls the most weight – I won’t say too much, but he is the one who carries the paralyzed Onodera – in his arms, on his back, and is prepared to risk his own life for these strangers.
It’s also implied – via a flashback towards the end of the series – that KITE is also a trans man. I think making this clearer to the audience would have been admirable because it not only adds something, but it helps contextualize why he acts the way he did.
Either way, he’s still the most enigmatic character of the show, and I wish we got to see more of him.
An examination of society
The issue this series is good at is examining the functioning of society and human nature. People fight over resources – after Ayumu offers some water to an elderly couple, the wife slips the whole bottle into her purse rather than giving it back, the shop-owner attempting to prevent the gang from stealing from his store, the people at the compound who attempt to steal gold and money from a vault. (Why do they even have a vault-like that? The leader clearly isn’t in there for the money.) and there is a group that is only willing to rescue full-blooded Japanese citizens.
Even though good people sometimes die because it’s the apocalypse – those who act selfishly, tend do die horribly, if they haven’t redeemed themselves. It’s clear in its message.
And I do believe these are the lessons we should be taking from the series that regardless of race, we should help our fellow countrymen because that’s the only way to make a country great. This series is, of course, focused highly on Japanese nationalism and identity, which leans much more toward group thinking than an individual.
The series praises those who help others and who aren’t selfish. It makes clear its citizens define a nation – not its policies or ideologies, and in the end, the best citizens are those who help people.
It also has the suitable, and apparently necessary, Aesop of LISTEN TO THE GODDAMN EXPERTS.
I also have many issues with the animation, but this review is already long enough. So I’m going to leave it here.
That’s the scoop.
Year of release: 2020
Length: 10 episodes, 25-31 minutes
Directors: Pyeon-Gang Ho, Masaaki Yuasa
Writer: Toshio Yoshitaka
If you liked this review, please read: “Ride Your Wave” is the anime romance we need right now