REVIEW: ‘Japan Sinks 2020’ (2020) Gives Disaster Stories Just a Little New Life

Rating: 3 out of 3.

A good show with genuine surprises and admirable optimism, but one much too cautious to reach the greatness it dabbles in.

You might expect quite an extreme take on the disaster genre when it’s from the director of Devilman Crybaby, Maasaki Yuasa, and this series certainly tries its best to play with our predictions. Japan Sinks 2020 is an adaptation of a 1970s Japanese novel with the same title, less the date; the title’s casual directness a hint at this being a large-scale, ridiculous, old-fashioned epic in the vein of Hollywood’s numerous disaster movies. This is, however, a much smarter tale than it sounds, tapping into anxieties about Japan’s place in the world through a 21st Century lens, and the sense of looming threat obviously feeling relevant in the uncertain era of coronavirus. But can it really rid itself of its genre so well-established trappings?

Narratively the series plays with a pretty familiar structure as, like its disaster movie forebearers, it’s not simply about visually startling chaos but skewed towards the connections within an unlikely ensemble. The ostensible protagonist is Ayumu (Reina Ueda), a teenage track-runner caught in this midst of the earthquakes laying waste to Japan, but she really just provides a view onto the story and its characters; an assortment of people in a situation significantly bigger than themselves. This approach is much more interesting than in something comparable, though, partly by virtue of the realism presented in the scenario – but also with the sense of journeying that a series provides above a 90 minute flick.

Ayumu and Gō are sat inside a tent-like liferaft; they are looking at each other with the former reassuringly putting her hand on the latter's leg
Image Courtesy of Netflix

Indeed, the show seems conscious of being a class above your average disaster narrative and B-movie-esque entertainment, even if it can’t quite reach the heights to which it’s aiming. The opening tries to set a particular tone, with the gentle ‘slice of life’ imagery and music highlighting that this is about people rather than action – though you find yourself wanting to watch that show rather than a people-oriented disaster flick. Similarly, the simple, representational line work gives the series an extra dose of realism, but lacks the expressiveness needed to truly bring its world to life.

The attempt to imbue the story with gravity and meaning is impressive, though, and the tone it manages to reach – amidst all the genre conventions – is unexpected and confidently conveyed. It feels, at least for its often-sanitised genre, boldly post-apocalyptic in the sense of the world’s brutality and our characters’ vulnerability, and is juxtaposed perfectly with an optimism about humanity that’s surprising and sometimes rather sweet. The exploration of our follies and, mostly, courage is cleverly played, too, with surreal ideas nicely skirting just into believability and reactions largely devoid of the melodrama that makes such stories so predictable. It’s just a shame that the scope of this story is too limited, and the very fact that it’s all around means that all the characters can’t help but fall into familiar circumstances no matter how well presented.

YouTuber Kaito smiles against a rocky backdrop whilst holding out his phone
Image Courtesy of Netflix

Japan Sinks 2020 is an enjoyable watch despite everything against it and a clever refinement of the traditional disaster tale. There’s rarely a dull moment because of a keen directorial eye for reinventing this sort of narrative through the maintenance of careful pacing and realism. But despite the admiration for the work and the general enjoyment you get the show still rarely takes off and becomes unmissable or truly original. The story as it is would be a fascinating part of a larger work, one that really digs into the histories and hopes of the people in it, but the result here is simply an intelligently refined version of something widely seen before.

Director: Maasaki Yuasa

Producer: Nori Ueki

Cast: Reina Ueda, Yûko Sasaki, Masaki Terasoma, Tomomi Muranaka

Release Date: 9 July 2020