Jul 9, 2020
cateypillar (All reviews)
It’s fitting how this show is called “Japan Sinks”, as my expectations for Japan’s animation industry seemed to sink lower and lower with each passing minute that I viewed this train-wreck.

Japan Sinks is undeniably a poor work, but what truly prompted me to fully mull over this cesspool of incompetence and juvenility was how fascinatingly abysmal it truly was. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill Netflix-commissioned anime schlock, this is a show created under the eyes of the renowned Masaaki Yuasa. Science SARU (Masaaki’s own studio), was at the helm here, and while they’ve been fairly hit-or-miss over the past year or so, they also created Devilman: Crybaby back in 2018, a show that shook the earth (pun intended) with its experimental flare and masterful use of controlled chaos. Many -- including myself -- had high hopes for a similar situation in which culture would be completely shocked, hopefully creating a work as impactful and year-defining as that was. Everything has been lining up to its release, I mean, 2020 is the year of endless possibilities for controlled chaos -- just look out your window. A show as dark in tone as Devilman coupled with a more realistic edge released in a year of actual disasters was clearly a recipe for true success. It would be foolish to wonder “what could go wrong?” in a year that continually proves to be the antithesis of that philosophy, but the answer to that sadly lined up with the established pattern of our beloved 2020.

In Japan Sinks, we follow a family throughout a period of seemingly-endless suffering, all triggered by a few gargantuan earthquakes. There’s not much to say about this family, because they’re more so based off of the archetypal roles of a modern family, rather than being real people with genuine motivations and personality traits. This issue is also extended to the numerous friends they meet along the way. Because of this, none of the characters in this character-based show feel real. In a story in which Japan literally sinks, it’s unsurprising that there’s going to be loads of death and destruction, but the way the characters handle all of these incidents proves to be frustratingly alien. Nobody seems to care all that much when a man is blown to bits by a bomb or when a child is brutally crushed by a falling building: they instead tend to grieve for a few minutes, then move on with their comedic-hijinks directly after to lighten the mood. The pace isn’t so rapid and dizzying to send a suffocatingly-bleak message along the lines of: “this is your new reality, people perish like that!, and after that it’s time to move on.” No, far from it. It feels more like the creators were too apprehensive around the idea of fully committing to a despairing atmosphere, so they instead opted for the most extreme version of tonal-whiplash possible. After the first few episodes, we’re clearly shown that these non-characters will be killed off out of nowhere for the sake of creating a dramatic cliffhanger at the end of each episode, so why should the viewer care? They have no unique identities to assume outside of their most basic character descriptors, (Mom. Daughter. E-boy.) and their passings aren’t convincingly grieved over by the rest of the cast, so why should we care?

The characters are already bad enough, but even worse are the situations that they’re thrust into. Japan Sinks has to be one of the only one-cour (actually, even less!) shows I’ve seen in which multiple episodes felt like complete filler. It’s hard to understand what the show was going for in the middle portion in which the cast find themselves entangled in a cult, but these episodes completely eradicated any suspension-of-disbelief I attempted to latch onto at first. The show transforms from what seems to be an intimate family drama to a total cluster of tonally-conflicting concepts, truly making you wonder what the show wanted to say. The fact that the most famous YouTuber in all of Japan decides to ride around with this random family after a chance encounter is inadvertently hilarious in and of itself, but are we truly supposed to take that seriously? How much in this show is supposed to be taken seriously at all? The realistic edge I presumed it would have seemed to be absent following the first few episodes, as fantastical elements such as spiritual mediums who can speak to the dead as well as a travel YouTuber a la Logan Paul having a kind heart began to ruin any sense of thematic consistency it started with.

Visually, it’s a nightmare. It hurts to say that seeing as Yuasa is one of the most visually-inventive directors in the medium, but it’s the sad truth here. The character designs are fairly basic, yet they rarely seemed to stay on-model, and this was increasingly apparent within the middle segment of the show. It’s clear that a large part of it was outsourced to places it shouldn’t have been, but keyframes are constantly missing nonetheless, which leads to scenes that should be able to deliver some kind of impact falling flat and often airing on the side of hilarity. There’s moments where Yuasa clearly did have his influence with his strange use of color and anatomical fluidity, but they’re few and far between. The messy transitions from these visual peaks back down to the horrific rest of the show harshly broke immersion, and had me promptly recall, “oh, I’m watching Pyeon-Gang again,” every single time. The bitter feeling of squandered potential truly stung in those moments.

There’s an awful, awful choice made regarding the voice-acting throughout the entirety of this catastrophe that made this one of the most unintentionally hilarious shows I’ve seen in a long time. In a moment of pure genius during production, someone realized in order to truly immerse the viewer in the cultural-diversity of the cast, (seeing as it follows the aftermath of the 2020 Olympics), characters should shout out miscellaneous phrases in English...usually at the worst possible times. At least this aspect made this train-wreck somewhat entertaining. The son who’s not a fan of Japan and its culture compensates for his disdain by often randomly blurting out Engrish jumbles of words in the middle of horrific moments, like “What the! That is cwazy! No!” anytime anything that could be considered “shocking” occurred. The absolute peak of the show was when he unironically said “live, love, laugh!” like a 50 year old white woman in the midst of what should’ve been a scene of pure emotional catharsis. After that, I was simply waiting for him to screech “bazinga!” after stumbling upon a mutilated corpse. There’s also a stereotypical caricature of an American man who claims to be British despite there being no indication of such being the case, (Well, I mean, I wouldn’t be opposed to distancing myself from America in 2020 either, so I don’t necessarily don’t blame him), and he also speaks in this way, but at least it fits his identity? Ok, well that’s actually no excuse, because he cried out “hasta la vista baby!” during what the show wanted to be a dramatic climax, and I think I lost a solid number of brain cells upon hearing that. Really, what am I supposed to feel throughout all of this? All of these choices are constantly at odds with a story that should’ve fully embraced its tragic circumstances.

These are all separate pieces of a puzzle that simply don’t fit together. The vision of the creators is present, but what message does this show actually want to deliver to its audience? During its conclusion, it takes a pseudo-nationalist stance, campaigning for the idea of loving your country no matter what and endlessly supporting them in times of need. Ok. Interesting message (if not somewhat tone-deaf to reality), but where was it for the first eight episodes? Not to mention this message feels shoehorned-in in the most banal, trite way imaginable. The characters are too one-note to get attached to, the timing of both the comedic and disastrous moments are both so poor that they blend in together eventually, and the “inspirational story” backing it all up that should have mitigated a number of these glaring flaws is too flawed in and of itself to take seriously. The fascination that captivated me around this show wasn’t from a source of awe like when pondering Devilman, but instead came from seeing something that had so many things going for it disregard all of that and fail in such a calamitous way. If I, a highly-sensitive crybaby found myself laughing at what should’ve been devilishly disturbing, then you know they messed up on this one. Honestly, the real 2020 disaster was this show's existence itself.