TWWK: With the possibly exception of DECA-DENCE and its story with a story structure, the most surprising series this anime season may be Japan Sinks: 2020. I tuned in because I’ve become a fan of the director, Masaaki Yuasa, with his other work from this year, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, locked in as one of 2020’s best anime. Japan Sinks is a different animal, a violent disaster series originally created to coincide with this year’s Summer Olympic games. Netflix premiered the show, and I blew through it quickly, as did a couple of other staff members, Samuru and Thathilomgirl. But as much as I found the show addicting, I had a challenging time writing about it, and so besides a first impressions post, have avoided doing so. But we three decided to unpack the series together—a good decision, I think, because it perhaps takes three people to really discuss the ups and downs of this series, starting with the why each person tuned in and what they thought of regarding that visceral opening episode.
SPOILERS from throughout the series ahead!
Thathilomgirl: Honestly, I watched it because someone in a Discord group I’m in mentioned that the mom was from my home province (XD). The show wasn’t really on my radar early on because I thought it was a movie with a theatrical release, but seeing other word-of-mouth posts eventually made me try it out on a whim. The fact that it was all on Netflix made it easier for me to finish it off so quickly, too. As for my reaction after episode one, well, it really didn’t hold back at all. It seemed fitting for the catastrophic scenario it was supposed to portray.
Samuru: I saw the trailer on Netflix since they constantly preview new anime (I watch a lot of it on that platform.) It looked interesting, and like Thathilomgirl, I thought it was a movie! But I was interested more when I discovered it was a series. My first reaction was that the show was not going to be a relaxing one; it seemed to be very serious from the start and it was not afraid to be very realistic and dangerous. The animation was very good (in episode one, at least—more on that later) and it hooked me.
TWWK: For sure! It definitely tried to convey a sense of realism and danger. It felt like 1970s disaster movies, where everything goes wrong and lot of crazy stuff happens, like the bodies falling from the sky—all the death, really—and the disastrous time at the cult sanctuary.
Samuru: I thought the middle section with the cult was out of place. I get that it changed things around and gave the viewer a break from all the destruction, but I didn’t understand why that was even in the anime. Also, the random sexual encounter that was only a few seconds was also unnecessary, but maybe they were just experimenting with ideas?
Thathilomgirl: I just thought the psychic cult was just plain weird. Like, even going into how and why it managed to start up at all was kinda strange, even with how well-intentioned the woman was at first. Part of me just wanted to go through the screen and tell her, “This is all well and good, ma’am, but I think you may have gone way off course the moment gold entered the picture.” I thought the best part of that arc was when the old man managed to just nonchalantly broke into the temple to kidnap the woman’s child, just for how tonally different it was from everything else.
Twwk: You know, I actually really liked that section. I think when it comes the narrative, it was the best part of the series. A lot of foreboding and discomfort was building, especially centered around Daniel (Is he really as sweet natured as he seems? Is it like a horror movie, where he was actually just baiting the travelers? Or was he going to be another sad victim?). I think besides giving us a little break from the destruction, and leading to some character development, the section also helped emphasize a theme of the series, which is acceptance of those different from you and the importance of the Japanese coming together despite having different values and being in different generations. Cults have a bad wrap in Japan as they do elsewhere in the world, so this cult not being pure evil in the sense we expected, and their leader truly trying to help, was to me as big a surprise as any in the series.
Thathilomgirl: Similar to what you touched upon a bit, I saw a lot of diversity among the characters in the show, whether in race, age, or even the difference in opinion regarding nationalism. It wasn’t that surprising to me, considering the anime was made by Science Saru, who also takes value in diversity as seen from the Eizouken anime. Putting aside any possible bias on my end, having the main characters comprise a Filipino-Japanese family was a good foundation to allow certain issues be addressed in the anime. On the other hand, sometimes it did feel like some non-Japanese characters such as KITE were kind of put on a pedestal because almost every action taken upon by them turned out to be the right decision in the end.
Twwk: Oh man, now I suddenly wonder if this “KITE! Best character of the season!” feeling I have is just feeding into a sense of faux diversity…
Samuru: Good points on the diversity of the characters. I noticed it then but am now really thinking about; I’m glad to have seen it. The anime gave perspectives that some Japanese have with foreigners and just as a people that aren’t often seen in anime. God made us all different, all with varying features, languages, etc. I enjoyed seeing some acceptance of that, especially from Ayumu who just wanted to help others regardless of who they were (as well as her mom and brother, Gō). Gō also expressed how he did not feel very Japanese, and he just wanted to move to Estonia instead. This created friction a few times with other characters, as they thought he either wasn’t Japanese or trying to act like a foreigner. It showed how proud, to a fault, the Japanese are (in the anime) to their culture. I myself am proud of being Hispanic, so I get where they were coming from, but it seemed to be too much on how they were pressuring him, instead of just letting him enjoy other countries and their differences.
Twwk: That’s an interesting thought, though the overall quality of the writing leads me to believe that the writers just didn’t achieve the subtlety in such remarks that may have made for a more intriguing series. But more than that, I don’t think they wanted subtlety; that strong pro-Japanese / anti-everyone else feel from the old man was certainly intentional.
Thathilomgirl: There was also that ultra-nationalistic group that refused the Mutohs on their megafloat because the kids weren’t Japanese enough. It was too on-the-nose for me, but if a country did end up getting destroyed one way or another, it wouldn’t surprise me if a group like that started to surface. On another note, the more cynical side of me was wondering if all the non-Japanese characters were inputted in just so the series was able to check off diversity points to get more views and traction from international watchers. It did work on me a bit (and I also saw a lot of that from other anime fans in my country), but I’ve learned not to get too hung up on or cling hard to how certain areas of my identity are represented in the media over the years.
Twwk: Playing on your point, I wonder if Kite, among others, was lifted so highly because Yuasa was looking to strike a sort of balance, one critical of those who would be too nationalistic, to the point of being xenophobic, with an ultimate view that Japan is generally good, and has the potential of being marvelous. We seem to be a little skeptical of their inclusion, but it’s hard not to be when the themes about what Japan is and should be were usually quite bombastic—kind of like all the deaths.
Samuru: Speaking of deaths, I think there were too many. After a while it felt like one of those horror movies where you know who is going to die, except for the main characters (of course!). I knew around the last few episodes who was going to die, but it was still impactful when they did because of the way it happened. I actually felt sad for the loss of those characters.
Thathilomgirl: It’s really hard to say for me to judge whether there were “too many deaths” for this show. On one hand, I did at least wish some characters like the Mutoh dad lived for a few more episodes so that we’d be more attached to him. However, realistically speaking, it made a lot more sense considering the aftereffects of what goes on if Japan really did start sinking to the ground and the possible consequences it has for the survivors on the land. By far, the only death I thought was the most out-of-place was for the cult leader’s son. It just came so suddenly like the debris that fell on him, laughter was the only thing that escaped my mouth during that scene.
Twwk: You laughed at that? Oh my gosh haha. I don’t think you were alone, though.
Samuru: I knew that kid was not going to make it, as he barely had any dialogue or interaction so he seemed “expendable” and I noticed that this anime liked to get rid of those minor characters. So yeah, he was on the anime’s “hit list” for sure.
Thathilomgirl: There was another thing I noticed regarding death. Among the Mutoh family, Ayumu seems to be the only one who actually visibly struggles throughout the anime, but that’s because she was the only one who actually came face-to-face with watching her entire track team die in front of her eyes as soon as she came to from the initial earthquake. The other family members, meanwhile, were either in a relatively safer area from the ground and/or alone when it occurred. Every other death afterwards just goes on to make the survivor’s guilt she’s experiencing worsen as the story goes on. I also figured out right away that Mari’s seeming indifference to her husband’s death was just her being strong for her kids, because I’ve seen that a lot from the other people in my life. There was never really a good time for her to properly grieve as well, until they arrived at the cult in Shan City.
Twwk: You know, I don’t know…Like you, I noticed the seeming lack of empathy throughout the series, and I think Mari’s final episode or two was definitely meant to show that she hid her emotions on purpose (I think an idea many Asian kids can understand that westerners may not), but I felt like it was too little, too late. It was just so awkward that after the dad’s death, most everyone was kind of okay—even and especially Go. it was just too unrealistic, even with Go kind of in his own world and trying to make sense of it with his dad’s death. It was too disingenuous. Ultimately, I think it was poor writing, confirmed by the fact that Go’s emotional age seemed to drift anywhere between 7 years old and 14.
And I also struggled with the sheer number of character deaths shown. The shock value was important to the series, yes, but it got to be too much for me by the end. The old man getting eaten by the shark was my almost-laughable moment, for instance. And all the self-sacrifice already demonstrated by so many may have taken away some of the emotion of Mari’s death, which affected me, but not terribly deeply. I will say that Haruo’s death got to me, however; I thought that the themes of the show, particularly the idea of the older generation passing their love onto the younger, meant that he and the Mutoh kids would all survive. That was rough.
Samuru: I agree also about the deaths. I think it was somewhat laughable because it just kept happening. I would think, “Uh oh, it’s a new character, he probably won’t last long”. Also, I have new found respect for seagulls, those birds can’t be that ravenous…right? Haruo and Ayumu’s father dying were the most shocking for me. I really thought they would both make it, so once the dad died, I knew all bets were off with this anime and nobody was safe. I thought even Ayumu wouldn’t make it, even though she lost a part of herself in the ordeal. It made it seem very real, unlike a lot of TV shows where the main cast, and only the main cast, escapes just fine.
Thathilomgirl: Mari’s death got to me a bit because I was hoping that she would at least last long enough to make it to relative safety before her heart got to her, and because of that storybook she used to read to her kids. But the latter’s just me being really sentimental in general.
Twwk: The show was unusual in the sense that it tried to balance that sentimentality you’re talking about with hard, sudden violence. That’s not an easy thing to do. Comparisons will be made to Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 or other disaster anime and films, like I did earlier, but I also immediately think of American movies regarding 9/11—United 93 and World Trade Center. The earlier had violence and shock on par with Japan Sinks, and it was draining and emotional in a successful way. The latter didn’t feel as overwhelming, nor was it as good a film. I think Japan Sinks found itself somewhere in between those both in how it tried to animate its disaster and in how meaningful the end product is. What did you both ultimately think of the series?
Samuru: I thought the show was excellent and very different than most anime I have seen. I liked the intensity of it, the diversity of the cast, and the originality of the story, even though it’s based on a book from the 70s. A lot of anime try to copy another one, and just add something else to make it standout. This series stands on its own.
However, the animation was off and on for me. There were some scenes in the last episodes that were terrible. I wanted to take pictures of it to share in case I was the only one that was noticing that. I don’t know what was going on with the animators at the end. But how the story concludes in a satisfying way, as I got to see what happened to the survivors and how they were living their lives. It gave hope when there seemed none, which reminded me of this verse: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).
Thathilomgirl: I thought it was a good show overall. Not the best one I’ve ever seen, but it did what it set out to do with its story. Yeah, the animation was a bit off at times, but I thought that was just how Science Saru anime was sometimes (keep in mind that I’ve only seen Eizouken and Ride Your Wave from them so far). I’m glad it ended on a hopeful note with Japan slowly rising back up, and seeing how every Japanese person that survived fared through the eight years since.
Twwk: My thoughts on the series are ultimately not as positive as they were for both of you. After one episode, and based on the studio and director, I commented that this might be the best anime of the year; I was so off that it’s not even funny. What was funny, though, was some of the scenes in the show that were supposed to be serious, as we referred to earlier. And that’s troublesome. Its high moments were extremely high, and could have lifted the show up to a 9 or 10 in my book, while the low moments—like the unintentionally funny ones—were very low, awful even. I gave the series a “7” rating, which is average to mildly good in my book, because it was a balance between those extremes.
Ultimately, though, it’s a major disappointment. Hot on the heals of Eizouken, I thought we could potentially have another classic, which this series is assuredly not. But its mileage will vary, and I very much emphasize that—all of us judged the series differently and felt strongly, one way or another, about many different moments. And there are so many vivid and memorable scenes in this show! Most viewers’ experience will likely be powerful, too, and in that way, I think we can all suggest Japan Sinks: 2020 is well worth the watch.
The entire Japan Sinks: 2020 series can be streamed now on Netflix. All images courtesy of Netflix.