Filmmaker Masaaki Yuasa has extensively explored the relationship between humans and cataclysm in works like Devilman Crybaby and Mind Game, both of which used fantastical imagery to get their points across. But his new series, Japan Sinks 2020, has a comparatively grounded take on destruction.
Inspired by a similarly named 1973 novel that’s famous for capturing Japan’s political climate, the anime centers on a single family’s odyssey to survive as Japan is ravaged by continual earthquakes that will eventually cause the country to sink into the ocean. The modern update changes the story in an attempt to have a similar social impact, but the tragedy loses steam when it relies too much on the surprise of loss or dabbles in a more allegorical message. The 10-episode series also lacks the imaginative animation that the director built his name on.
When the series begins, the focus is primarily on the Mutous, an average working class family with high levels of optimism. They quickly rise to the occasion, leading a small group of survivors through Japan. While catastrophe decimates the country, it brings the Mutou family closer together. Each member gets time to express their love for one another, showing affection and compassion. This love leads to the best beats in the series, like Ayumu’s bond with her dad over Japanese yams, and Mari’s protective nature towards her two children. These moments also make the regularly growing death toll hit hard. At least at first.
[Ed. note: The rest of this review contains mild spoilers for the series.]
In Japan Sinks 2020, death looms over every episode, though the killing main and supporting cast members at a steady pace yields diminishing returns. If you expect death to be around every corner, death becomes just another feature of the corner. The death and loss depicted become so repetitive that the series verges on exploitation.
It’s further hampered by the messaging behind those deaths. Although a natural disaster should be indiscriminate in who it affects, most characters unwillingly killed by the earthquakes expressed greed, regret, or gluttony shortly before dying. With this context, the earthquakes felt more like rapturous cleansings than disasters. Nevertheless, Masaaki Yuasa’s choices make it clear that he holds a deep affection for his country.
The love between the Mutou family and in other relationships constantly expresses itself in elder characters sacrificing themselves for the good of the future. The animator presumably believes the older generation is responsible for facilitating Japan’s future, leaving it to the youth to improve the country’s past flaws. His love is extended by presenting the lost lives as a tenacious bunch, persevering through public records of their existence. Everyone supposedly has a part to play in improving the country, even those with flawed character, concluding that the country will always survive. This final message feels at odds with the circumstances around the natural disaster related deaths, making the series appear unsure of its message.
Body morphing animation choices often found in Masaaki Yuasa’s work like the Devilman Crybaby dash and Papa running amok in Lu Over The Wall are nowhere to be seen in Japan Sinks 2020. The show rarely includes any animation sequence or camera angle out of the ordinary. Instead, Japan Sinks 2020 spends its artistic resources crafting extremely detailed environments, presumably to give Japan’s landmass visual attention equal to the main characters, which works phenomenally. The series features a soundtrack by Kensuke Ushio, who previously collaborated with the director on Devilman Crybaby and Ping Pong: The Animation.
Japan Sinks 2020 likely won’t have the same lasting impact of Masaaki Yuasa’s other work, lacking the limitless artistic qualities that have come to define him. The love exemplified between the characters is a touching saving grace that makes the initial deaths tug at your aorta, but viewers are likely to be so desensitized by episode 10 that it won’t matter who perishes. Japan Sinks 2020 attempts to show the adversity exemplified by humanity, but mixed messaging will leave the viewer confused once the final credits roll.
Japan Sinks 2020 is now streaming on Netflix.