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 the expectations of both fans of his work and fans of disaster movies. This time though Yuasa may have fashioned not just a quietly subversive disaster epic but the fictional narrative summing up our feelings about 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 Pyeon-gang Ho and writer Toshio Yoshitaka adapting) focuses on the common folk struggling to stay alive. Where the novel had mostly Japanese characters the series makes an effort to include 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 onflight jet holding Mari, who is returning to Japan. Locker stadium home are seen impressionistically, mainly brief shots strung together (perhaps the most effective is Ayumu and her classmates flung against a rushing gray background, to land everywhichway they can). Mari's jet provides the godlike vantage point from which we view the general devastation.
Later the plane crashes into a river resting its nose against a bridge but the actual impact 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 huge tree lit at night in extravagant purple blue 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 glowing coals (camera glides past the Tokyo Tower, upper half dangling to one side); a quietly spectacular overhead shot of a Tokyo suburb some fifteen feet submerged, the water so clear you can still see the streets, the tops of trees and buildings poking out of 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 deciding to tag along--but Yuasa has one more shock in store before the first episode ends: bodies plunging from the sky and a helicopter spinning out of control to end its trajectory in a nearby fireball. The director's apparent message: don't expect the usual disaster movie, with tropes and conventions providing comfort in the midst of chaos--Yuasa doesn't have either the budget or 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 narrative and tone. Plot coincidences abound, characters survive by the most unlikely of means, and deaths are often passed over if not outright ignored. Yuasa addresses the latter early on (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the series!): Patriarch 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 dispatched himself)--and what does Yuasa do? Take the man away, with a bang and cloud of smoke (all the family has left of him is a big hand, literally). Nanami has a mini-arc where she develops an attraction to Haruo, has to fend off an attempted sexual assault by a random 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 somehow responsible (Koichiro because she wanted yams and he died looking for some, Nanami because Ayumu also had a crush on Haruo, and was jealous). Crass coincidence? Lazy plotting? Malignant teenage psychokinesis? Remember though that we see these moments through Ayumu's eyes--she naturally sees the world in terms of how it affects her and she it, and will color events accordingly.
As for several characters' passing, Mari's reaction seems particularly noteworthy: she stoically shrugs them off, especially the first one. Ayumu reflects our feelings and speaks to Mari: how can she ignore death just 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 Ayumu's angry words but smothers her feelings, internalizes them, allows them to seethe deep within without betraying a single sign of struggle. A recognizably human response, just not the kind we're used to seeing in movies or on TV.
Mari being a major character it's interesting to consider how Filipino she is. Her stoicism is atypical--Filipinos love to mourn their dead, are not shy about loudly and protractedly declaring their grief; on the other hand some Filipinos (especially the more practical kind) can be surprisingly reserved about their feelings: if there's urgent business at hand--the business of survival especially--I can believe she would suppress her grief till the emergency has passed.
Mari is Cebuana, in effect having grown up on a large island, and I find it believable she'd be an excellent even award-winning swimmer; Mari loves taking pictures and shooting videos which I consider hilariously Filipino; anyone familiar with my own Facebook timeline would know how obsessively I record every tiny detail of my life. This familiar even annoying habit does result in a potent emotional payoff--towards the end Yuasa cuts back and forth from the survivors to the pictures they've taken along the way plus a few from their previous lives, everything from a teenaged Mari in a swimsuit to Mari and Koichiro on their first few dates to Mari holding a newborn Go while Ayumu gazes in wonder. We too gaze in wonder; we come to feel as if we've known these people all our lives, and feel the loss of them all the more keenly.
At times Yuasa plays an even more sophisticated game, throwing out (during some dramatic moment) lines of dialogue in offscreen narration, and while we sense the words have significance we don't realize the full import till we see the relevant video playback.
So (skip paragraph if you haven't seen the series) Ayumu and Go, viewing the recording of a family dinner: "You're always ready to eat yams." "That's because the ones you make are delicious Dad." "You need to be able to eat anything so that you'll be fine wherever you go." "I'm not worried. I'm marrying Dad when I grow up." "Ayumu! You can't have Koichiro." "You're so mean, Mom." From Ayumu's guilt over her father's death to his admonition that she needs a more flexible diet--reminding us of the sinewy bond between him and his daughter and habit of handing out sensible advice (ironic that he dies over a foolhardy foraging adventure)--to the unspoken rivalry between mother and daughter, several years of a family's dynamic are caught in a few lines of dialogue. Having the words planted carefully through the series then seeing the actual context in which they were spoken makes the accusation that the script is carelessly wrought feel like a careless piece of criticism.
Then there's the cult (Again, skip paragraph if you haven't seen the series!), which admittedly represents a low point in the series animationwise--looks like Yuasa was scraping financial bottom when he worked on the episodes. We're waiting to learn that the cult is either fake or somehow evil and neither expectation is fulfilled: the cult follows what appears to be a genuine spiritual medium (or at least working telepath), and the group's intentions turn out to be sincerely benign--the Mutos aren't forced to convert, and they get to enjoy a hot shower. The few days' rest also functions as a turning point for several characters: Mari conducts a sneakily flirtatious relationship with sadsack Daniel and allows herself to mourn Koichiro; Ayumu finally gets to reconcile with her mother; and an old man named Kunio--an unapologetic racist--manages to relent 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). If the story feels like a ricocheting pinball I'd say that reflects the random nature of disasters; if we're upset that the plot shortchanges people, I'd say that's a tribute to the makers, who have compelled us to invest emotionally in these characters despite our skepticism.
"But what of Yuasa's inimitable animation style? What of the wildly imaginative Yuasa of Mindgames or Tatami Galaxy?" Japan Sinks looks and sounds and often feels like a reproach to every viewer who has fallen in love with any or all of his previous works; I suspect the man, at least in this series, is driven less by an impulse to be creative than by an impulse to be perverse--as if he had asked himself the question "what can I do to alienate every one of my fans out there?" Unrelenting realism, very little surreal imagery (well maybe the sight of Kunio firing arrows from his go-cart), even less humor. The only traits that mark this as a Yuasa project are its occasional jolts of horrific violence and its relatively understated sense of drama (I say relatively; there are moments when the series pulls out all stops, and one reacts to these moments favorably or unfavorably depending on how one feels about this particular Yuasa incarnation).
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!): KITE raises the possibility of saving Japan but no one points out KITE's failure--that he did little to prevent the sinking and had even less to do with its partial return. I submit that KITE didn't fail: he (with the paraplegic 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 nationalist 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 a conceptual as opposed to geographical 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 their flaws and virtues higher than any mere flag, and invite all (including paraplegics and those of mixed racial blood) to imitate, possibly integrate, perhaps declare themselves in turn honorary Japanese citizens. An American president once said: "Ich bein ein Berliner;" one can see KITE and Daniel and the rest of the world declaring similar allegiance to this once-upon-a-time nation.
But the series I submit does more than celebrate Japan: it captures a mood we all feel at this moment. People struggling to find food and basic necessities? People feeling the pressure cooker of constant close proximity--at the same time being wary of the stray passing stranger? People experiencing alternating surges of wild hope and abject despair, sometimes both at the same time? Japan Sinks I submit is perfect viewing in this time of corona, an essential if eclectic tool for mental wellbeing we should include in our select survival kit.
First published in Businessworld 8.7.20