In Japan Sinks: 2020, Masaaki Yuasa's apocalyptic vision of nature's wrath mirrors life during the Covid crisis
Little prepares Japan Sinks: 2020's Mutoh family and the rest of the nation for the horrors that ensue, like little prepared us for the coronavirus pandemic.
Stranded on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific, teenager Ayumu and her younger brother Go reminisce over the simple pleasures before their entire country lay submerged. Go wonders if Amazon will still deliver the game he bought. Hungry and thirsty, he craves a Matcha Green Tea Crème Frappuccino at Starbucks. Ayumu wants a Caramel Macchiato. What once annoyed them becomes a happy memory: their mother reading the same book to them every night. What once made them happy becomes a sad memory: dad preparing their favourite lunch. It's one of Japan Sinks: 2020's more heartfelt moments, and an all-too-familiar feeling as we look back on all the little things we miss about life before the lockdown.
Watching the new anime series from Masaaki Yuasa's Science SARU (the studio that gave us Lu over the Wall and Devilman Crybaby) on Netflix, you go from thinking, "this could soon be reality" to "shit, this could soon be reality" as you eject the safety belt of watching an unforeseen crisis in a controlled environment. It's a dynamic that changed as soon as the Covid-19 crisis unfolded. With global warming causing rise in sea levels, and abnormal weather patterns becoming the new normal, you don't need to look towards fiction to put words and images to our anxiety when our everyday reality is already saturated in it.
Sitting atop four tectonic plates, Japan's vulnerability to earthquakes has been well-documented — and Yuasa only presents a dialled-up version of disasters the nation has already witnessed. Yet, little prepares the Mutoh family and the rest of the nation for the horrors that ensue, like little prepared us for the coronavirus pandemic. The source material, Sakyo Komatsu's 1973 novel Japan Sinks, has already been adapted twice for cinema and once for TV. But Yuasa's apocalyptic vision of nature's wrath has an uncomfortable prescience to it, and conveys the growing urgency of the climate crisis.
Like the title suggests, Japan is literally sinking into the sea as a series of earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis leave the country in submerged ruins. By focusing the story on a single family caught up in the catastrophe, Yuasa personalises the small-scale impact of a large-scale disaster. Before disaster strikes, Ayumu is a teenage girl dreaming of being an Olympic athlete. Like most kids his age, Go spends most of his time on YouTube and video games. After it strikes, their parents are obviously more prepared than they are. If their dad Koichiro is a survivalist, ready to tackle boars and dig for Japanese yam to keep his family fed, their mom Mari lives each moment like it's her last, eager to capture special moments with a group selfie despite the death and destruction surrounding them. As the Mutohs try to reach higher ground, they make friends along the way in a typical strength-in-numbers story about solidarity, perseverance and stubborn optimism of the human spirit.
Light and shadow magic give a fluidity to the disaster sequences. The simultaneous stillness and motion of a scene as a static frame elevate the feeling of quiet before the chaos. Yuasa does not skimp on graphic depictions of the horrors: an earthquake turns a locker room into a bloodbath; a helicopter crash causes bodies to rain from the sky; a dead body is picked clean by seagulls; an unexploded WWII bomb explodes; and the earth violently splits open leaving a landscape of human debris. Strip away the shock value, there is little that truly plumbs our deepest anxieties. Tragedies come in absurd, unexpected ways before you can make an emotional connection with the characters. But it puts us in the same position as the survivors, who don't have the luxury to grieve — or assimilate the grief to move on — when the world around them is slowly disappearing.
If the "family separated by disaster before emotional reunion" trope is explored in the very first episode, we encounter other apocalyptic fiction tropes in the following episodes — like Kite, the opportune multi-hyphenate survivalist, readily equipped with all the skills to survive; Onodera, the omniscient guy who figures out how to save humanity; and Shan City, the too-good-to-be-true utopia offering sanctuary and salvation.
Japan Sinks: 2020 is more than just a disaster extravaganza, it also acts as a metaphor for the loss of the Japanese identity. Yuasa seems to suggest a culture survives even if the people lose their country and scatter themselves all over the world. It's not about a group of people united by race, religion or region, but in how they confront a common crisis: through solidarity and self-sacrifice. Disaster puts a country's blindspots in focus, reinforcing its pre-existing nationalist and racial dynamics. We see a group of "pure-blood Japanese" refuse to take in Mari, Ayumu and Go on their boat because she is Filipina and her children bi-racial. We hear a few citizens declare the rising sea levels as "fake news"; others claim the severity of the calamity is being overstated to hurt the country's image overseas. This is no different from the wild conspiracy theories about immigrants, climate change and now, the coronavirus, floated by those actively hostile towards progress and diversity.
After taking a complicated path filled with many harrowing detours, Japan Sinks: 2020 arrives at a little too optimistic conclusion that diminishes its impact. It takes the easy way out and gives humanity a reset button, to destroy the mess we have made so we can start anew. Of course, it is hard to deny the narrative comfort in seeing people survive against all odds and come through it stronger and better. Now, more than ever, who would argue against a do-over of 2020?
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