I give this new take on the famous novel...a 40/100.
Masaaki Yuasa is an anime director and animator who became pretty famous in recent years, though fans are divided on whether his works are actually good. I myself only just got introduced to his work. I didn't like Devilman Crybaby, I thought Kaiba was really confusing, I absolutely LOVE Ride Your Wave, and one of his more recent anime, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken, turned out to be pretty amazing as well, but I haven't seen it yet. So when I heard that Yuasa was making an anime called Japan Sinks, based on the popular 1973 sci-fi novel by Sakyo Komatsu, I was psyched, because the premise reminded me of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, one of my favorite anime of all time. Since the pandemic has kind of been screwing over the entire world, I thought it'd be nice to check this out to see if it's any good. But then it came out and people began noticing things about it that were just...wrong, not just from a narrative standpoint, but a lot of the decisions the show seemed to make really detrimented its overall quality. Seeing as I already decided to watch it, I decided to give it a fair chance.
Needless to say, they were absolutely right. I wouldn't call this the worst anime I've seen, but I'm not gonna lie, Japan Sinks 2020 is a hot mess. Yuasa, what the hell?!
So at first, you think the premise is gonna be kind of cool, focusing on a family and some of their friends dealing with a massive earthquake that decimates everything around them, realizing that Japan is going to sink into the ocean, and doing all they can to help each other and survive. People love stories about people trying their best and dealing with bad situations, and considering that disaster shows/movies tend to overdramatize or exaggerate them to the point of not being accurate to real life, Japan Sinks 2020 promising a realistic drama seemed like a breath of fresh air, and people went into it with those expectations in mind. I know I did, having seen and loved Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 myself. Japan Sinks does start off that way at first, but after a couple episodes, it quickly turns into a complete mess with weird story decisions, bad animation, random irrelevant characters and subplots thrown in that don't fit or don't add anything to the narrative, badly executed themes, and is completely inconsistent in every way. And coming from Yuasa, who actually can write a good story when he wants to, you'd think he'd have known better!
For one, the animation. Again, Yuasa is well known for being a great animator, with his works always displaying surrealist or fluid animation that really brings out the best in what he's working on. With simplistic character designs that stay away from the typical anime style, low shading, and realistic backgrounds, you'd think this would be great. Hell, the opening is fantastically animated, opting for a slow moving, watercolor look to it that absolutely encapsulates the peaceful life the Mutous lived before everything went to shit, with the song being just as good. Sadly, the animation is just one of many, many problems that plague the show. Many times the characters look plain wonky, with body parts looking out of place or have weirdly angled faces. Or other times you'll get shots like this, where they look like they were drawn by back-alley artists who can't seem to get perspective down in any way whatsoever, resulting it hilariously bad anatomy. Character motion is oddly jerky and stiltied, and facial expressions always look more derpy and cross eyed, failing at conveying any kind of emotion whatsoever. In stark contrast, the backgrounds completely avoid such problems. All of the backgrounds are wonderfully drawn, from multicolored lights illuminating the forest around a shrine, to tumultuous waters during a stormy sea, , to collapsed buildings and landscapes that convey just how desolate Japan is after the earthquakes that hit it, from a visual standpoint, those stand out in the best ways. Sadly, because of the lackluster character animation, this makes the overall art direction in the show very inconsistent. Also, some of the character designs are flat out strange. Go, the little boy, has a big head of hair that makes him look like he has a big mud ball on his head, one that's too big for his head at that, and the thick eyebrows just don't work. Ayumu, our lead character, is said to be in middle school, but she looks like she could be in high school at the oldest.
The music fares much better, all of it being either well performed or well sung, with the opening song being the best out of them all. But it's the usage of the music that doesn't work. It's no question that Kensuke Ushio is a great musician who makes great music. However, for some reason, the creators of this had the bright idea to place ill-fitting music in ill-fitting scenes, such as upbeat piano tunes during a disastrous earthquake, or a peppy beat when a character is brutally killed, or a sad, somber melody when cooking dinner. Great music won't work if you continually misuse it, and again, Ushio's work is scattered all over the place and used inappropriately. It really says something when the English Digimon soundtrack, as flawed as it is, manages to make better use of its music than this does, and considering many people hate the Digimon dub's soundtrack for a variety of reasons, that's saying a lot!
Speaking of somber and ill-fitting, the show seems to think that if it shoves in as many mature elements, kills people off every episode, and becomes darker and darker as it goes on, that that will make the show good. This is not the case. As shows such as Magical Girl Site, Cross Ange, and Afro Samurai can attest, continual drama, angst, darkness, violence, and mature subject matter do not automatically make something good. Again, it all comes down to execution, and frankly, Japan Sinks fails at making use of its themes, setting, and pretty much everything else. The absolute nadir of this is the random cult arc that takes up episodes 4-6, where the characters take shelter at a camp that turns out to be a cult that worships a woman who can supposedly speak to the dead. I know that in some circumstances, people tend to fall back on religion when disasters happen, but the whole cut thing just felt tacked on and pointless, along with various other scenes within it, such as a random sex scene between the cult leader and her husband (Though, to the show's very little credit, the sex scene is MUCH more tasteful than anything in Devilman Crybaby), various cultists trying to shoot said cult leader and steal her gold for no clear dumbass reason, the cult leader's child being mute, and so on. Basically, the whole arc doesn't do anything to further the story other than introduce the scientist who would later join them, and the writers could have easily written a much more organic, sensible reason for having him join them. It's just overall pointless and needlessly padded out. You could cut the whole arc out and nothing to be lost. Also, what the hell was the point of having TWO scenes were some creep attempts to rape two of the female characters?! It'd be one thing if those scenes actually furthered the narrative, but they don't, and throwing in random rapists in an attempt to cause conflict is just tasteless because they're just there to be creeps and nothing else, so they're totally vapid and one-note, serving no purpose other than trying to force drama when there doesn't need to be any.
And speaking of vapid and one-note, the characters. All of them are pretty much stereotypes with little to no real personality to them other than being eccentric in some way, and many of them get killed off without even so much as a real character arc. Not only that, their characterization is wildly inconsistent at times. Take for example Ayumu, the main girl. At one point, she disses some guy's footage of Okinawa sinking as fake news with no basis, and later on, she suddenly soapboxes about how stealing is wrong. The biggest offender is the old man with the drug problem, who isn't even named in the show (He's called Kunio in the credits, but if the show itself doesn't care to give him a name, why should we?) who wildly flips between being violent to caring to drug-addled to crazy, often within the same scene. Hell, Kite, the white haired YouTuber, isn't really so much a character as he is a plot device whose sole purpose is to replace the dad and make things more convenient for the characters. He's somehow this super awesome dude who can get anything done, and everything he does is conveniently beneficial to the characters, from flying on balloons to somehow acquiring a SEAFARING MILITARY TANK OUT OF FREAKING NOWHERE. Plus, any development the characters do get isn't even on their own, but due to some outside source. Haruo, the shut-in who doesn't talk much, and arguably the best character in this series IMHO, gradually talks more and becomes more proactive, but is it because he willingly decides to come out of his shell and help people rather than wallow in his own issues and problems? Nope! It's all because he got hooked on weed! So the development he winds up getting doesn't feel earned and is just the result of the writers having someone else force him to become more assertive because they couldn't be bothered to, y'know, write him more naturally. Furthermore, several one-off characters, such as xenophobic racists, are only thrown in there just to be a one-off adversary the main cast can soapbox about being Japanese too without actually trying to write them being more subtle and three-dimensional. Oh, and all of the issues the show tries to tackle, such as national identity, racism, xenophobia, and drugs, are all written with as much subtlety as an elephant in a china shop or a nihilistic 14-year-old emo kid thinking cramming mature subjects in will automatically make something good. Uh, no. That's not how this stuff works! Yuasa, you should know this by now!
Building off of this, I'm going to paraphrase something a fellow reviewer said about the show and why its characters and characterizations are so haphazard: Lots of anime have characters that are little more than archetypes, but here's the thing: When you promote your show as being something, such as a realistic character drama, you're giving your audience expectations for that show and its characters. Nobody goes into shows like Princess Connect: ReDive or Love Live to have realistic, grounded characterization for its cast, because those shows rely on a certain gimmick, like moe cuteness or idols. But when you bill your series as a realistic character drama, the viewers are going to expect that, so Japan Sinks throwing in all of these random archetypes, stupid subplots that either detract from the narrative or don't go anywhere, and ridiculously overblown darkness and melodrama goes against the expectations the audience has for it, which further begs the question of why the writers even decided to go this direction in the first place. Seriously, if you want a disaster anime that's actually a realistic character drama and doesn't get off on trying to be as dark and shove in as many "mature" elements as possible, just go watch Tokyo Magnitude 8.0! It may be years since I saw that show, but I can guarantee you that it has much better writing, characters, and themes than Japan Sinks could hope to achieve, and it didn't try to be something that it wasn't!
Which begs the main question: What the hell, Yuasa?! How could you go from writing awesome anime such as Ride Your Wave and Keep Your Hands off Eizouken to this?! You're good at writing well-rounded characters, stories, and know how to get a handle on your themes when you're not trying to go all out in your weirdness! You should know better! And considering this is his last TV project, as Yuasa announced that he was retiring as president of Science Saru, you'd think he would want to end his animation career on a high note! Well, there is Inu-Oh coming up, so that could change. Now, the only reason I didn't rate this lower than 40 is because it didn't make me angry or offend me like other genuinely bad stuff I've seen did, and it does have very, VERY few genuinely good things about it, so I'm going to give it what little credit it does deserve. Japan Sinks honestly isn't the worst thing I've seen/played/read (Those honors still go to Ijime, Elsie Dinsmore, and The Hate U Give), but it's just not worth it. Seriously. Don't waste your breath on this one. Just watch Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, which IMHO tackles this premise much better.