Movies

'Japan Sinks 2020' is a Bleak, Violent Disaster Anime That Hits Harder During Lockdown

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

It shouldn’t come across as controversial to say that 2020 feels like living in a disaster film. Looking outside feels like catching a glimpse of a hellish apocalypse, with thousands of people dying while governments are too inept to do anything about it, misinformation making things worse, and any resemblance of “normal life” rapidly disappearing into memory. So it feels strange that the bleakest show of 2020 is perhaps one of its most hopeful.

The latest anime by Masaaki Yuasa is his third project this year, after the masterpiece that was Keep Your Hands off Eizouken! (a fantastic ode to creativity and those who dedicate themselves to work in animation), and the melancholic rom-com Ride Your Wave. By comparison, Japan Sinks: 2020 comes across as a bit of an outlier. A bleak, shocking reflection of the hellhole that is 2020 that is surprisingly hopeful.

Based on the 1973 disaster novel by Japanese writer Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks: 2020 follows the Muto family, a contemporary Tokyo family at ground zero for a chain reaction of earthquakes that lead to the Japanese archipelago to start sinking into the ocean. 

From there on, the show continues to be shocking, dark, and very violent, as the Muto family encounters disaster after disaster, while still hoping to find their way to safety and reclaim some sense of normalcy out of their lives. The show manages to be both hopeful for the future while also being confrontational about the present. 

What Makes It Great

The experience of watching the first earthquake hit is one of the most terrifying horror movie moments of 2020. Rather than gloat over sensational visuals to show the magnitude of the initial disaster in excruciating detail, Yuasa and his team focus on the suddenness of the earthquake. The whole thing is over before you know it, and all that’s left is to use the aftermath to showcase the mercilessness of it all. Those expecting to see a San Andreas-style disaster film will be disappointed, as the show even teases a devastating tsunami that is never shown on screen. 

Instead, the focus is on how the Muto family experiences the disaster and what they find in its aftermath. Some of the many, many deaths in subsequent episodes are also given a very abrupt and sudden treatment, as the show explores the fast-paced relentlessness of such a disaster and how little time there is to process what’s happening.

That being said, there are still plenty of macabre and surprising deaths, to the point where it can almost feel campy or ridiculous to see a new character die every single episode, but Japan Sinks: 2020 knows when to turn up its disaster film influences and when to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. Bodies are ripped to shreds by the ground opening up, buildings falling on top of them, and some characters are even eaten by a shark.

Like some of Yuasa’s other projects, Japan Sinks: 2020 is surprisingly diverse and modern for an anime show. The show portrays Japan’s increased diversity by making the head of the Muto family a Philipino woman, while her son is a very online boy who dreams of moving to Estonia and incorporates a lot of English into his speech. The filmmakers made a conscious effort to avoid stereotypes by including characters who challenge traditional roles and categorization, but the show doesn’t shy away from the racism and xenophobia that still plagues Japan. 

What It Brings to the Conversation

Despite there being plenty of death and destruction in Japan Sinks: 2020, what really hits home the hardest is in the little moments, where the Mutos and other characters reminisce about the small day-to-day things that they miss the most. Even amongst a disaster so big that it is literally sinking Japan, the show’s main theme is the loss of the small things we take for granted in our daily lives, like a video game console breaking in an early episode, or a character who is a former DJ seeing one of his records breaking into pieces, or when the characters simply talk about what drink they’d buy at Starbucks. Of course, watching this in 2020 under our current circumstances makes this an infinitely more poignant show. Rather than exploring the loss of bigger and more abstract concepts like society or your nation, Japan Sinks: 2020 takes a more intimate approach and makes the loss of normalcy and routine something catastrophic.

More than almost every other disaster film out there, Japan Sinks: 2020 places social media and the use of the internet front and center as an important part of the disaster. Characters essentially follow doomsday on Twitter and other social media, while misinformation turns advice into rumors with deadly consequences. That being said, the show still has a hopeful undertone, and it recognizes the value in technology and the internet as a way of preserving memories, with photos and videos carrying huge emotional importance.

Just like in real life, the show also explores how the damage done by a natural disaster increases tenfold by the damage done by shitty, racist, xenophobic people. Even rarer than seeing a mixed-race family in an anime show is seeing such a poignant critique of Japanese nationalism as the real threat to Japan. The Mutos run into problems with extreme nationalists that prioritize racial purity during attempts at evacuation. Anime shows seldom critique the actual Japanese culture or people, and seeing Japan Sinks: 2020 regard extreme nationalism and the desire for isolationism as such destructive forces is refreshing and poignant in 2020.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

It’s been some time since we’ve seen a great disaster movie or series, or one that’s as bleak and ridiculously violent and gory as this one. If you want a show that will make your lockdown situation feel better by comparison, while also offering a glimmer of hope for the future, Japan Sinks 2020 is for you.

This show is a remarkable disaster series that prioritizes a character-driven story rather than a visual feast of destruction. The backgrounds are stunning, the emotional arcs are raw, and yet the ending might make you feel a bit more hopeful about the future.

Watch This If You Like: The Impossible, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, Chernobyl

Japan Sinks 2020 is now streaming on Netflix.

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