Japan Sinks: 2020 and the Loss of a Nation

When I first heard Masaaki Yuasa became the director of the Netflix original anime Japan Sinks: 2020, I was intrigued. Masaaki is well-known for many of his quirky anime like Devilman Crybaby and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (which I think deserve a dedicated long review on itself)—the kind of anime director who can surprise viewers with his perks and experimental style. As I have watched Masaaki’s previous works, I do not expect something straightforward from his latest series. I always like the ways he plays with the visual style and the pacing. And I looked forward to his collaboration with Science Saru as the animation studio, and Pyeon Gang-Ho as the series director. But after watching Japan Sinks: 2020, I got utterly confused. What did they actually do?

The anime itself is the latest adaptation of a famous novel by Komatsu Sakyō, Nippon chinbotsu published in 1973. The first adaptation was a movie title Tidal Wave (1973), and the second adaptation was Sinking of Japan (2006). The story remains the same and straightforward: Japan sinks, but the stories of the people (and, of course, the contemporary context) are starkly different. Japanese Sinks: 2020 starts shortly after the Olympics 2020 (which in reality did not happen because of another COVID disaster *sad*) and focused on a small group of a family unit, the Mutou family. After the huge earthquake, each member of the Mutou tried to find each other, and the anime will take you to their journey and struggle to survive. Death (of your favorite characters) is inevitable, and in ten episodes, the anime will give us a portrait of conflict beyond the disaster itself.

taken from Netflix

I watched it impatiently as I got frustrated with many distractions in the plot: silly deaths, hidden community (that was surprisingly survived), hi-tech (and rich) YouTuber based in Estonia. I like many aspects of the anime: the storyboard, back sound music, the soundtrack (the opening is legit, “the calm before the storm” elegantly put), the racial representation (although bare minimum), and the visual execution. But the story and the supporting characters are quite random and, again, silly. I was questioning the creators’ intentions and their creative decisions. Are they trying to lure us into looking at the unexpected within the “expected” disaster, to see the sinking of Japan as the remark of everyday death caused by not-necessarily a “huge” sudden catastrophe but by remnants of war, comfort zone, love?

On another note, Japan Sinks: 2020 also gives us a space to think about contemporary Japan—borrowing from a brilliant video essay by “Pause and Select,” to see the anime as the product of confronting social anxiety. What is Japan? Would there be any “land of the rising sun” without the land? And if Japan is not about the place but about the people: who are the people, the “Japanese”? Disaster, often seen as a critical point in popular cinema, escalates this question: how to address the already existing crisis within the newly emerged crisis? Disaster movie provides not only sci-fi explanations and heart-warming scenes of family, love, and loss but also the conflict of hierarchy (class, race, gender, age, ability). In Japan Sinks: 2020, we can see how the creators deal with this conflict, especially on race, in multiple scenes, for example, the annoyance of an elderly against an English-speaking kid or gaijin; or when a bunch of survived Japanese chauvinists only let the “pure Japanese” on-board with their boat; and when the kids were sitting together doing impromptu hip-hop rap and debated strength/weakness of becoming Japanese.

It forces us to see not only the conflicted state of a nation’s cultural loss—the very essence that makes Japan, well, Japanese—but also the dis/continuity of social conflict. The son of Mutō, Gō was a representation of a young generation of Japan (bi-racial and often code-switching to English when talking) who felt that he did not necessarily belong to Japan; and another character, Haruo Koga, represents another young generation who was the opposite of Gō. When they rap-battled (yes), this tension was spoken out loud, and Ayumu, Gō’s big sister, was the bridge between them. The disaster embraces the old conflict but also makes peace with it (not offering a solution for sure).  

Japan Sinks 2020 gives us the escalating conflict of losing one’s identity and what remains after that. But the final conclusion, in my opinion, only repeats the old narrative of the rise of Japan. When the narrative tells us that the sinking disaster was temporary and the land would finally rise again, it follows with the snapshots of another Olympics event where Japan already sent their best athletes, the preservation of cultural memory, and the advancement of Japan 2.0 as an archipelago. I appreciate the humanitarian sentiment—the perseverance of community and also the subtle poke towards the people who exoticize Japan (or East Asia in general) as the land of rich tradition and thousand-years-of- civilization, but when it comes about their people, the story could be different. But at the same time, it also preserves a narrative of Japan’s superiority of survival. Japan can be sunk into the deep down of the sea, but it is “destined” to rise and rise once again to be a better nation (not sure in what way) with a great culture. This narrative might not be the core theme of the anime story, but I wonder whether this conclusion maintains the recurring problems of Japan’s nationalism. (I might be wrong).

For an anime that does not give the best first impression (at least to me), Japan Sinks: 2020 is worth watching. You might hate it. You might love it. It does not matter. A brilliant anime always gives us space to rethink many things—even changing opinions—and not be settling too soon.