On the eve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, massive earthquakes begin to rip the Japanese archipelago apart. With little in the way of a plan or information, the Mutoh family pulls together to escape Tokyo as it crumbles and to find a way to survive.
Artistically stunning, surprisingly quiet, and heartbreakingly human, Japan Sinks 2020 feels like the perfect show. Not for its dark, apocalyptic nature (though it certainly has a place here) but more for its beautifully understated presentation of human endurance, love, and hope in the face of seemingly endless devastation.
Cards on the table: I’m writing this as an anime outsider—I haven’t watched a full season of anything in years and only occasionally check out entire new movies (though I had my days in the early 2000s—I have the Studio Ghibli tattoo to prove it).
Even if my knowledge was up to date, I don’t think I’d find much, either in American media or the anime scene, to properly compare it to because it feels incredibly set apart in terms of mood, pacing, and story. Simply put: everything is understated in the best way possible.
Plot-wise, everything is extremely straightforward: Japan is sinking into the ocean as earthquakes rip it apart, and a family struggles to make it out alive. There’s no conspiracy or villain, just a natural force that no one saw coming. It allows the viewer to focus completely on the character’s stories, the soundtrack, and the beautiful animation rather than constantly trying to think one step ahead. Despite the destruction and pain that runs through the entirety of the series, the simplicity is a breath of fresh air when so much entertainment encourages the viewer to keep track of as many dramatic subplots as possible. (Those pieces also have their place. It’s just nice to enjoy something different.)
The same can be said for the soundtrack (which is on Spotify. You’re welcome.). Music actually feels rather rare in the show. There were many times that I found myself noticing just how quiet some moments were, though that silence, like the rest of the show’s quiet nature, works to the story’s advantage. The soundtrack that is there does the same, blending soothing piano with lo-fi-like rhythms and hints of sounds from the background of real life to highlight the beautifully drawn scenery and painfully human moments that the characters live through. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but I can’t stress enough how I haven’t seen a story like this anywhere and probably won’t anywhere else.
The story and music work together to present the tragedies in a candid, quiet way that, frankly, startled me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show or movie with tragedy at its center that didn’t draw out the destruction and death for effect. Here, it’s simply shown for what it is, no more or less. As someone who grew up surrounded by disaster movies, thanks to 2012 looming in the future, and had to keep functioning on deployment in the midst of a tragedy of my own, to see loss handled in such a true, honest, human way sucked me in so that I couldn’t stop watching.
All that honesty and humanity came together to create a finale that I couldn’t have expected but was desperately needed, both in the show and this hellscape of a year. Obviously, I’m not going to share any spoilers, but after watching this family overcome so much in such a quiet, candid, heartbreakingly human way, the way everything is wrapped up had me absolutely bawling in the face of a truth I’ve been reminded of the hard way this year—pain and suffering are what they are.
There’s no cosmic explanation, for better or worse. They just exist. Joy and life are the same, though quieter in how they arrive and thrive, making them all the more precious.
All that being said, as highly as I recommend Japan Sinks 2020, I will put forth a small content warning. Given the raw, realistic nature of the show, it can get gory and violent as well as atmospherically dark. Then there’s simply the fact that most of us have been through a lot this year. If a show where every episode brings a new loss or tragedy is too much for you emotionally, maybe hold off on this one for a while.
So, if the TV-MA content doesn’t dissuade you and you’re in a good place to handle a show like this (I thought I was, but I assure you, I. Was. Not), check out Japan Sinks: 2020 on Netflix, whether you’re a long-time anime fan or not. It’s beautiful, original, well-told, and—probably most importantly in December 2020—has a stunning, hopeful ending that we all could probably use right now.
Finnely King-Scoular (’14) is stationed at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, VA, where he lives with his wife, Rosalind (’13). His writing, including the Faerie Court Chronicles series from NineStar Press, focuses on contemporary fantasy with an emphasis on LGBTQ+ representation.