Japan Sinks 2020 featured image.

Japan Sinks 2020

Dept. of Apocalypse Now


The Japanese are obsessed with how they’ll eventually end. They are haunted by death. They are, after all, the only people in history to truly understand what it means to be on the receiving end of not one, but two, nuclear bombs.

The lasting legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on their popular culture has been prolific and outstanding. Unlike America, whose pop-culture dabblings in the radioactive lead to the creation of heroes and superheroes (see: The Hulk, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.), Japan often found itself having to deal with monsters both real and metaphorical. Be it a massive kaiju wreaking havoc on downtown Tokyo. Or a post-apocalyptic future in which violence and corruption push a country to the verge of collapse.

From Black Rain, to Godzilla, to Akira, Japanese fiction has given the world tremendous insight into the consequences of that moment in history and its impact on the inner and outer lives of their people. It has helped us all navigate tragedy. It has helped us all find hope in despair.

Japan Sinks 2020 is the latest take on an old idea. Loosely based on Sakyo Komatsu’s cult classic from 1973, these 10 episodes chronicle the story of one family’s journey of survival following a series of catastrophic earthquakes that devastate the country. This is the big one. The one that doesn’t just lay waste to the landscape but causes the entire country to sink into the ocean.

Previous adaptations of the novel have adopted a more traditional approach, skewing closer to the tropes we’ve come to expect from these sorts of post-apocalyptic visions. Here, writer Toshio Yoshitaka and director Masaaki Yuasa (Devilman Crybaby), taking a leaf from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, never shift their focus away from the Mutohs and their plight. Yes, there is a much bigger story taking place, but we witness all of it through the eyes of these average, working class individuals, who are bound together by love and common purpose.

A house reduced to rubble after the big quake in Japan Sinks 2020.

As Ayumu, her younger brother, and her mom and dad – along with the few stragglers they pick up along the way – journey through Japan in search of sanctuary, we bear witness to how they grapple with the practical and moral dilemmas of their new normal. How do they cope when the ground beneath their feet begins to give way? What does it mean to lose both their home and their country? Where do they go?

A natural disaster is indiscriminate in who and what it affects. And Japan Sinks 2020 takes full advantage of this uncertainty to give you an unrelentingly nerve-racking experience.

The series seesaws between hope and trauma, building us up and breaking us down, keeping us at the edge of our seats, and never once allowing us get too comfortable. There is no longer a status quo. Death comes when you least expect it. Moments of beauty, joy, and peace are shattered without warning.

Consoling the little one after the big quake in Japan Sinks 2020.

Japan Sinks 2020 begins by painting such a vivid picture of normality that it is genuinely shocking once everything begins to fall apart. The fear and anxiety of watching people – albeit animated ones – deal with such loss on such a scale is absolutely ruinous. You will experience a rollercoaster of emotions as you watch this family struggle to find the strength to keep going.

And the reason this series works so well because it has the time and space to tell its story. Masaaki Yuasa makes great use of these 10 episodes by pacing this tragedy. The emotional arc of these characters, their journey from chaos and confusion to begrudging acceptance, is a leisurely one. And ultimately, a rewarding one.

From the calm, everyday routine that’s depicted in the opening moments of first episode, to the gradual unraveling of reality, this is a series that hits you and hits you hard.

My favourite episode is the most sparse. Ayumu and her younger brother are adrift in a lifeboat just waiting to be saved. The episode plays out like a shorter, crisper Life of Pi, where both siblings connect and reminisce about simpler times, while trying to distract each other from the dangers in the waters that surround them.

It is simple. It is beautiful. It is a testament to how well this series handles every aspect of its story. Whether they’re moments of intense violence, zany escapism, or quiet contemplation.

A fork in the road. Do they go east or west?

But it isn’t all just death, destruction, and despair. At the heart of this particular story is also the belief that every generation exists to facilitate the next one. To fix past mistakes and to ensure a better future. So much of this, however, is rooted in our ideas of home and of nation. And what Japan Sinks 2020 does is subvert this idea by forcing us to re-examine those fundamental notions.

All of this running sure will come in handy after the big quake.

Japan Sinks 2020 was quite an affecting experience. It is a simple story of survival that’s punctuated by individual moments of great poignancy and relevance. Especially now. Now that we’ve moved past our initial fears of the world coming apart around us. Now that we’re still here and trying to figure out what comes next. Maybe what we need isn’t another story about how to save the world, but rather a story about how to survive it.

Japan Sinks 2020
Netflix, Season 1, 10 episodes
Director: Masaaki Yuasa
Writer: Toshio Yoshitaka
Cast: Rena Ueda, Tomo Muranaka, Yuko Sasaki, and Masaki Terasoma

Japan Sinks 2020 is now streaming on Netflix.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

Greg and Leandro featured image.
Previous Story

The Old Guard: A Conversation with Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernandez

Next Story

Palm Springs

Latest from TV