TV Review: Japan Sinks 2020

Disaster strikes in Netflix’s gripping new anime series…

It has become a bit of a recurring gag this year to wonder what big disaster 2020 has in store for us next, to the extent where seeing the words “Japan Sinks” trending on social media almost warrants a double-take. Fortunately, this is just the title of a new animated miniseries on Netflix, meaning we can all spend a few hours escaping from our real-world crises into an exciting fictional one.

Japan Sinks is a present-day retelling of the 1973 novel of the same name and is its first animated adaptation. Set during the year of the (now-postponed) Tokyo Olympics, the story sees Japan hit by a major earthquake, which scientists warn will cause the entire nation to sink beneath the waves, and we see this disaster through the eyes of the Mutoh family as they battle against the elements in order to survive.

Those familiar with series director Masaaki Yuasa will know to expect the unexpected, as the Devilman Crybaby creator is known for employing a “no rules” approach to storytelling and animation that often takes bizarre and fantastic turns. Whilst that’s naturally toned down here in favour of greater realism, Yuasa still manages to take us on an exciting and entirely unpredictable adventure.

The defining feature of Japan Sinks is undoubtedly its stark tonal shifts. Peaceful scenes can at any moment descend into sheer terror and tragedy, and following a particularly jarring bombshell in the second episode, viewers learn to never fall into a false sense of security. Yet, for the most part, the series exercises restraint – it’s not a solid four hours of leaping from falling buildings like Dwayne Johnson, but instead a family drama in which uncertainty is always looming. 

Characterisation is an additional strength of the series, as time is spent showing why the viewer should care about the family’s survival. Ayumu, the track runner who was just finding her place in the world before it was torn apart, her tech-savvy little brother Go who stays positive in the darkest situations, and their two loving parents are a unit we want to see stick together until the very end. There’s also a great cast of quirky supporting characters, and some receive as much care and attention in their story arcs as the core protagonists. 

Despite Yuasa’s credentials as a film director, budget and schedule constraints appear to weigh down this series’ animation to some extent, with a lot of scenes being less than fluid. That being said, its visual aesthetic leaves an impact regardless – the thin linework reflects the characters’ fragility, and in many cases detailed animation of facial expressions, and actions such as running and swimming boosts the emotional impact of a scene.

Where the animation is lacking, the series’ impressive music and voice acting do the heavy lifting. Kensuke Ushio – who provided the music for Devilman Crybaby – returns as a composer and upholds the mood with a serene soundtrack that snaps to a more fitting tempo when disaster strikes, but still retains a unique feel. For a more authentic overall experience, the Japanese audio track is the suggested route due to the characters speaking their native language, and each voice actor – specifically those for Ayumu, Go and their mother Mari – injects ample emotion and humour into many key moments.

There’s a deeper meaning to Japan Sinks beyond just surviving earthquakes and tsunamis. Following in the footsteps of Japan’s classic post-war films, Yuasa weaves this story with themes of a rapidly changing society that must learn to move forward in the face of uncertainty and rebuild in the wake of tragedy. And whilst the questions the series poses and the conclusion it reaches are specifically catered to a Japanese audience, there’s still a wider, unintended application in the context of the coronavirus pandemic that allows overseas audiences to connect with the story in their own way.

Japan Sinks is not a perfect series, and some will take to it better than others due to its largely unconventional tone and visual style. However, those who can gel with Yuasa’s direction are in for a captivating adventure that weaves excitement, joy and dread into a story that is more likely to garner appreciation over time than ever sink into obscurity.

Japan Sinks: 2020 is available to watch on Netflix

By Jamie Morris

Feature image credit: Netflix

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