What’s is about? It’s a seemingly normal day in Tokyo for the Muto Family: that is, until all four members family members get caught in Japan’s worst earthquake disaster to date, a quake that sinks the island of Okinawa, damages distant Malaysia and the Philippines, and plunges the country into the aftermath of a traumatizing series of disasters.
Content Warning: Graphic imagery of natural disasters, dead/unconscious bodies, explicit body horror, and blood; mentions of COVID-19 in the review
Japan Sinks: 2020 is a ten episode, Original Net Animation (ONA) adapting Komatsu Sakyo’s novel Japan Sinks, which was published in 1973. The animation itself is being handled by Science Saru, who produced hit series DEVILMAN crybaby in 2018, Ride your Wave in 2019, and—perhaps most famously—Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! this year as part of the Winter 2020 lineup.
Ho Pyeon-Gang serves as the series’ director. This seems to mark her first credit as a Series Director, though she’s served as an Assistant Director and Episode Director on many series, including Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Terror in Resonance, and One Outs. Science Saru founder Yuasa Masaaki is also serving as a director for the series.
Additionally, Yoshitaka Toshio (known for working on Sazae-san) is handling composition. Naoya Wada (When Marnie Was There, Ride Your Wave, Flip Flappers) is in charge of character design, with Ushio Kensuke—of DEVILMAN crybaby, Ping Pong, and A Silent Voice fame—handling the music.
Because Japan Sinks: 2020 is a Netflix series, all ten episodes dropped at once on July 9, 2020. However, I only watched episodes 1 and 2, in part because this is a series that doesn’t benefit from watching it all in one go, and in larger part because this is not an easy series to watch.
While Japan Sinks: 2020 will engage you and pull you in, I really think that this series is best broken up over a matter of days, if only for your mental health.
Before I give you my thoughts about the first two episodes, I’d like to reiterate the content and trigger warnings from above, which extend to the entire series: there’s very graphic imagery of dead bodies, death, blood, mild body horror, and explicit imagery of gore and destruction.
Please keep that in mind as you read and watch.
Episode one, aptly titled “The Beginning of the End,” starts off on what seems to be a perfectly normal day in Tokyo. High up in the skies, Muto Mari’s flight—set to land at Haneda Airport—makes its final approach towards the metropolis that is Tokyo. Down on the ground at a track field, Muto Ayumu wraps up practice. At the family home, Ayumu’s brother, Gou, plays on his handheld with a friend across the world. Their father, Koichiro, is hard at work at a stadium installing a new mega-sized stadium screen.
And then things go very, very wrong.
Beneath Japan, the tectonic plates shift and an earthquake bubbles up from the earth, resulting in a Level 4 quake on the Japanese Shindo Seismic Scale, which is enough to make you sit up and pay attention. Soon after, things come to an end, leaving traffic lights flashing caution yellow, trains stopped while they wait out any aftershocks, and people generally flustered.
For a moment, peace returns.
And then things go very, very, very wrong.
All around Tokyo, phones scream with an emergency earthquake alert, and Japan is struck with a Level 7 quake, the strongest rating on the Shindo Scale. Everything collapses in a visceral way that makes you feel like you’re caught in the quake: after all, a Level 7 quake is the kind where no one can move, where buildings collapse, fissures form, and even the most quake-resistant residences are severely damaged.
Things are bad post-quake: in fact, things are downright nightmarish. There’s visible death as the camera pans over Ayumu’s friends and teammates, who lay trapped beneath metal rubble. In the air, Mari’s plane is forced to make an emergency water landing make a due to volcanic eruption caused by the quakes. Gou is forced to face the quake alone in the family home, only to be struck over the eye. Koichiro manages to survive the destruction of the stadium
People are hurt: people are dead. Nothing is good, and you’re left wondering if it can only get worse. All this, and it’s only episode one. All this and we’re only fifteen or so minutes in.
Most painful of all is watching Ayumu struggle to get somewhere, anywhere safe. Ayumu’s reaction to the destruction around her makes her feel like a genuine teenager: she cries and is terrified of the gore around her, she finds her phone, she’s horrified all over again; but she escapes, running on pure adrenaline and determination as she tries to find her family.
Thankfully, Ayumu is able to regroup with her family at a shrine on a hill that very same night. Even better, they’re not alone: the family is one of many refugees staking a claim on elevated, safe ground. For now, they’re safe, despite on-going destruction around them.
Then episode two begins.
Episode two, “Farewell, Tokyo,” goes through the day after the initial quake, which is not much better. The water from the previous tsunami continues to rise, leaving the streets of a wrecked Tokyo waterlogged and hazardous. Soon, news comes via YouTube and Twitter—which are explicitly called “YouTube” and “Twitter” in the series. Fear-filled cries of “fake news” ring out as news that Okinawa has, unbelievably, been sunk.
Not knowing what’s to come, the Muto family and the others at the shrine venture forth into Tokyo, which is a sea of destruction. Nothing looks like the Tokyo people are used to seeing: the skyscrapers and trains resemble broken toys. Homes and storefronts are shattered wrecks. But time marches on and the need for supplies grows as the group continues into the city. Eventually, the shrine group splits: the Muto family and Ayumu’s friends Nanami and Koga go one way, and the rest of the survivors go the other.
The trek takes them out of Tokyo and into the countryside, away from the more localized destruction and to small, rustic towns filled with abandoned homes. Already, just a day and a half after the initial destruction, nature has crept in as the Muto family encounters a boar, which Koichiro is able to kill for their dinner. This is one of the mildly comedic, if not grizzly, moments: the family comes together and enjoys a meal. It’s a really genuine moment.
But remember: this is a show about a disaster.
Peace can’t reign forever.
This series hits very differently in 2020, in large part because in our real world, we’re experiencing a series of disasters ourselves. I think it’s fitting to say that the world is in constant upheaval: it’s hard to think past one day, never mind a week. For many people, disaster has become a close companion. I think in any other year, this show wouldn’t have affected me the way it did, but because of the disaster looming outside out windows, Japan Sinks: 2020 strikes a direct hit on the heart, which at times is… very exhausting.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has claimed tens of thousands of lives: in the case of America, it’s claimed nearly 140,000 lives at time of this article, with nearly 3.3 million people infected. Additionally, as a Black American writer, I cannot ignore the fact that many Black Americans have been dealt a second blow as police violence continues to rise mid-pandemic. For tens of millions of people, 2020 is their own disaster year. I couldn’t shake this thought as I watched Japan Sinks: 2020.
Japan Sinks: 2020 doesn’t pretty up the destruction: it’s realistic, and jarring. There are scenes of people pushing carts of groceries—tea, instant foods, water—salvaged from convenience stores. There’s blood. There’s tears. It’s an incredibly tense situation, even when the characters are smiling or enjoying a moment of levity.
Where Japan Sinks: 2020 becomes difficult is that bad things keep happening. Happy moments are soon spoiled. Joy doesn’t get to exist for longer than a scene or two, and it can be a bit exhausting. In 2020, that feels particularly cruel: this year has been filled with a lot of heartache. I wish that Japan Sinks: 2020 let the small moments grow a bit more before reminding us that yes, it’s a TV-MA disaster anime.
Still, even with those critiques these first two episodes contain a good amount of little moments: at various times through the first two episodes, Mari takes out her Insta-lookalike and snaps Polaroids of her family and their small community of survivors, and even gifts one to a child she saved from drowning. In Episode 2, they bag a boar and have a delicious dinner. Hopefully, there will be more of them as the series continues on.
In many ways, Japan Sinks: 2020 is very, very hard to watch while in the middle of a seemingly unending global pandemic. As I write this review from Japan, a country with a history of strong quakes that have caused ruin, I find myself both wanting to watch more and also, feeling a bit haunted by what I did see. As I said in my content warning, this show has a lot of imagery of death: and unfortunately, that does extend to the Muto family by the end of episode two.
Ultimately, Japan Sinks: 2020 is… a lot for the actual year 2020. It is bleak, it is painful, it is visceral, and it doesn’t pull punches on reinforcing the disaster narrative. While the first two episodes had some very small hope spots, there’s twice as many scenes of tragedy. Combine all those feelings with the music, and Japan Sinks: 2020 is, so far, has the potential to be incredibly impactful, though the timing of its release is… unfortunate, to say the least.
After writing all of this, I can honestly say that I don’t know how the series will shake out in the end, but I can tell you that I’ll probably be watching the rest. I don’t know if this will become a solid recommend from me: it’s still to early in my watchthrough, and honestly… I’m not one to recommend bleakness, especially not in the middle of a pandemic. I have the sinking feeling—pardon the pun—that my heart will ache by the end of this series. The question that remains is will Japan Sinks: 2020 have earned the emotional reaction it asks of me?
Yet all that said, if you’re able and in a place where this series won’t harm you, I do think it’s worth a watch. The animation is solid, and the backgrounds are lovely: plus, I really do have hope that this will be an impactful story. So far… it’s just honestly quite disheartening, for the most part, save for the glimpses of hope the Mutas are allowed.
I can’t reiterate enough that this is not a pleasant, hope-filled series, at least not at the beginning: there’s very little catharsis to be found here, especially in a year that contains multiple disasters. Japan Sinks: 2020 is very explicit with its gore and destruction. Should you choose to watch, I highly suggest the dub, which I thought was pretty solid, though either version is a good way to engage with this series.
Watch it carefully, watch the series kindly, and please, don’t binge it without breaks. Instead, stretch this out over a while, let yourself breath, and take your time. Life this year is already hard enough: don’t push yourself if you don’t need to.
After all, Japan Sinks: 2020 will be there when you’re up to coming back to it.