By Noel Vera
Directed by Masaaki Yuasa and Ho Pyeon-gang
ONCE AGAIN Masaaki Yuasa put out an anime series (Japan Sinks, 2020, available on Netflix — actually his second after the delightful Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) and once again he flouts expectations, of both his fans and fans of disaster movies. This time though Yuasa may have fashioned not just a quietly subversive disaster epic but the fiction story summing up our feelings in this disaster of a year, 2020.
Where the source novel (by Sakyo Komatsu) focused on government efforts to cope with the cataclysm, Yuasa (with co-director Ho Pyeon-gang and writer Toshio Yoshitaka adapting) focuses on the common folk struggling to stay alive. Where the novel had mostly Japanese characters, the series takes extra effort to present a more diversified cast: wife and mother Mari Muto is from Cebu, Philippines; popular YouTube celebrity KITE is from Estonia; hitchhiker and amateur magician Daniel is from Kosovo; submarine pilot turned research scientist Onodera — who predicted Japan’s downfall — is a paraplegic (a source of unspoken embarrassment in everyday Japanese society). A sinister religious cult is introduced, its subplot springing a few surprises (and not a little controversy among viewers); the actual disaster setpieces (the various earthquakes, Mt. Fuji erupting, Japan’s promised submersion) look and feel, well, different from the usual onscreen depiction.
When the first quake strikes, Yuasa cuts to four locations: a girl’s locker room (where middle schooler Ayumu Muto is dressing after track practice); an Olympic stadium (where father Koichiro is installing a jumbotron screen); the Muto home where youngest son Go is waiting; and an inflight jet holding Mari, who is coming back to Japan. The locker, stadium, and home sequences are handled impressionistically; mainly brief shots strung together (perhaps the most effective being Ayumu and her classmates flung against a rushing gray background, to land every which way they can). Mari’s plane crashes against a river, resting its nose against a bridge but the actual crash is skipped over — and you realize that perhaps Yuasa didn’t have the budget to visualize the series properly, hence, the elliptical if not downright frugal approach. He may have decided to pour money instead in unexpected directions: a garden lit at night in spectacular purple, blue, and green, as a signal to draw people together; a panning shot of the Shiba-koen district, dim concrete towers lit from below by what looks like a vast bed of coals (glide past the famed Tokyo Tower, upper half hanging to one side); a quietly spectacular overhead shot of a Tokyo suburb some 10 to 20 feet submerged, the water so clear you can still see the streets, the tops of trees and buildings poking out of the gently lapping waves. The family is happily reunited — with next-door neighbor Nanami having found Go and bandaged his eyes, and track-star-turned recluse Haruo coming along — but Yuasa has one more shock in store: bodies dropping from the sky, and a helicopter spinning out of control to end its trajectory in a nearby fireball. His apparent message: don’t expect the usual disaster movie, with tropes and conventions providing comfort in the midst of the chaos — Yuasa has neither the budget nor inclination. Anything can happen to anyone anytime, and probably will.
That’s what initial audiences apparently reacted against: the series flouts conventions too much, is apparently unmoored and ridiculous in its narrative and tone. Plot coincidences abound, characters survive by the most unlikely of means, and deaths are often passed over if not downright ignored. Yuasa addresses the latter early on (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the series and intend to!): Koichiro is the best qualified and most natural leader of the group, an outdoorsman who knows where to find potable water and yams and even how to field-dress a wild boar (which he dispatches himself) — and what does Yuasa do? Take the man away, literally, with a bang and a cloud of smoke. Nanami has a mini-arc where she develops an attraction to Haruo, has to fend off an attempted sexual assault by a truck driver, then dies, just like that. Ayumu — the series’ ostensible protagonist — is horrified by these deaths, partly because they’re so sudden, partly because she feels she had somehow caused them (Koichiro because she wanted yams and he had died looking for some, Nanami because Ayumu also had a crush on Haruo, and was mildly jealous). Crassly manipulative? Maybe, but remember the story is being told through Ayumu’s eyes, at least in these passages, and she can’t help but see the world in terms of how it affects her and she affects it.
As for several characters’ passing, Mari’s reaction seems particularly noteworthy: she stoically shrugs them off, especially the first one. Ayumi reflects our feelings and says as much to Mari: how can the woman just ignore death like that? But Mari’s reflects one way people cope, rightly or wrongly: by focusing on the business of survival. Mari feels the trauma and Aymumu’s hurtful angry words, and internalizes it — a recognizably human response, just not the kind we’re used to seeing in movies or on TV.
Then there’s the cult (Again, skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the series and intend to!), which admittedly comes at a low point in the series, animation wise — looks like Yuasa was scraping financial bottom when he worked on these episodes. We’re waiting to learn that the cult is either fake or somehow evil, and neither expectation is fulfilled: the cult does have what seems like a genuine medium, or at least an actual telepath, and its intentions turn out to be sincerely benign — the Mutos aren’t asked to convert, and they enjoy a few days’ rest, not to mention a hot shower. The rest stop does function as a turning point for several of the characters: Mari conducts a sneakily flirtatious relationship with the sad sack Daniel and ultimately allows herself to mourn Koichiro, Ayumu and Mari finally reconcile, and an old man named Kunio — an unapologetic racist — eventually relents in his racism.
Mind you I’m not saying Yuasa and his writer Yoshitaka do flawless plotting (Komatsu I absolve because very little of his original story was used, aside from the premise). If the story feels like it pinballs all over the place, I’d say that reflects the relentlessly random nature of a disaster and its aftermath; if we’re upset that the plot seems to shortchange some characters, I’d say that’s thanks to the care put into their development by the makers, our indignation a tribute to the emotional investment we in turn have put into them.
The last few episodes are devoted to KITE and his attempt at data gathering, the resolution to this particular plotline giving rise to a flaw no one seems to have noticed (Again skip the paragraph if you haven’t seen and intend to!): KITE implies the possibility of saving Japan but no one points out KITE’s failure — that he did little to prevent the sinking and even less to do with its partial return. I submit that in a way KITE didn’t fail: he (with Onodera’s help) salvaged data predicting the return of portions of Japan, and that data helped convince the rest of the world to continue recognizing Japan’s sovereignty. KITE in effect helped preserve the idea of Japan, not just among its remaining citizens (the Muto family in particular) but among the international community.
Which leads us to one of the strongest criticisms leveled against the series: that it, like its source novel, is a jingoistic piece of nationalistic propaganda, meant to promote the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. I’d argue that: 1.) Yuasa kept very little of the original novel, and, 2.) the series if anything is an argument against nationalism. When Japanese athletes do march in the 2020 opening ceremonies (an event that, right off, marks this series as taking place in an alternate universe) it’s as citizens of a country whose land has vanished. These athletes, like KITE, believe in the idea of Japan, of a people with marked flaws (provincialism; suspicion of outsiders or those who seem different) and even more marked virtues (the ability to work hard and when challenged, work harder; the ability to get along with others under the worst circumstances; the ability to sacrifice oneself for the common good). The athletes wave these flaws and virtues higher than any mere flag, and invite all and sundry (including paraplegics and those of mixed racial blood) to imitate, possibly integrate, perhaps declare themselves in turn honorary Japanese citizens in a gesture of solidarity (as an American president once declared, inspired by similar sentiments: “Ich bein ein Berliner”).
But the series, I submit, does more than celebrate Japan (as a concept not necessarily as a nation): it captures the mood of desperation we all feel, isolated and struggling to stay in contact and stay sane. Japan Sinks with its beleaguered but persistent optimism feels like perfect viewing in this time of corona, an essential if eclectic tool for mental well-being we can include in our select survival kit.