OP: 「A Life」by (Taeko Oonuki & Ryuichi Sakamoto)
「The Beginning of the End」
So the dance begins anew. What to do about covering of a Netflix series? Great Pretender is already sitting out there (albeit on a bit of a release hiatus) and now we have Nihon Chinbotsu 2020. This time around Netflix has dumped the entire series (10 episodes) in the manner of their Western productions, and they’ve done it right in the middle of the usual anime premiere week to boot. I still don’t really know how to cover shows like this in a way that makes sense, to be honest, but if I default to my preferences as a viewer I’m certainly not keen to stretch it out over most of the season (and if I don’t binge it, I may have to abandon twitter for a while).
It’s inescapable to me that the two anime (with Major on hiatus, the only two) that really interest me are both Netflix productions. We can blame the state of anime this summer on COVID-19, but that only exacerbated what was already a grim trend in terms of quality. So two things seem to be happening here, really – anime as a whole is getting worse, and Netflix anime are getting better. I hope we’re not headed towards a time when the only anime of real consequence are Netflix series (I don’t like the idea of depending on them to that extent), but if the production committee system’s creative gutting of the medium goes on unchecked it’s a possibility that can’t be dismissed.
I’ve only seen the first episode, but Nihon Chinbotsu 2020 is everything Deca-Dence was not – challenging, intriguing, emotionally powerful. I’ve been guilty from the beginning of comparing this show to Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, and the superficial similarities are extensive. But in a medium that has dozens of interchangeable isekai and cute girl shows every year, two earthquake stories in a decade is hardly a stretch. Especially when you consider how deeply ingrained earthquakes are in the lives of the Japanese, who experience 20% of the world’s earthquakes in their modest island chain.
For the record, Tokyo Sinks 2020 is based on a novel by Komatsu Sakyo which was published way back in 1973. It’s already received three live-action adaptations which are generally regarded as undistinguished, but the novel is considered a classic. The production is in the hands of Science SARU, but while Yuasa Masaaki is listed as director, the studio continues to be less and less an extension of him personally. Pyeon-Hango Ho is the “Series Director” and Eunyoung Choi (who recently replaced Yuasa as SARU’s CEO) is a producer. It should be noted that SARU is a rarity in anime in not only employing many women in high-ranking positions, but foreign-born staffers as well.
It’s either a very good or very bad time for a disaster show, depending on your perspective. Japan has been lucky so far on the pandemic front but the entire world is living through a time of great unrest and upheaval. In truth the memories of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami are still fresh in minds here, and this theme will never be out of fashion given the realities of Japanese life. So many moments rang true for me here, not least of which when everyone’s phone in the locker room started to go crazy with earthquake warnings. That’s always an extremely unsettling moment because of course, you get the warning before you feel the shake if it’s a big one centered a ways off (as the one in this premiere obviously was).
I loved that there was no labored dialogical exposition here. We got to know the Mutou family members by watching how they dealt with this crisis. Something seems off with Mom Mari (Sasaki Yuko), who the flight attendant seems quite concerned about. Son Gou (Muranaka Toumo), casually slips under the table and keeps gaming as the intensity 5 foreshock hits, and talks to his online colleagues in English. Dad Kouichirou (Terasoma Masaki), is a construction boss and a picture of confidence and strength. And daughter Ayumu (Ueda Reina) is wracked with guilt after she leaves his dead and injured track teammates behind to rush off and try to find her family.
All this takes place sometime after the end of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which seem like something from a fantasy now) and Sakyo’s premise is thoroughly updated with modern communication and transport. Which is important, as that’s thoroughly disrupted after the quake. As soon as one of girls in Ayumu’s club mentioned that the first quake had been a 7 in Okinawa (!) you knew this was no mass-produced earthquake scenario – normally you’d never feel a quake from so far away in Tokyo. When the main quake hits it’s totally unlike anything you’d expect – more like the whole city is hit with a bomb (and that imagery is never far from the Japanese psyche, as this episode bears out).
This is a terrific premiere, plain and simple. It’s riveting and smart and ruthless. The production itself is not awash in SARU’s sometimes overwhelmingly distinctive style – you’d never mistake Yuasa’s hand at the tiller for anyone else’s, but he uses a relatively light touch with his singular directorial flourishes. The cast – not a stock list of big anime names – is excellent, and so is the sound design. It’s cinematic anime just like Great Pretender is (albeit in a very different way) and that’s certainly an encouraging sign as it reflects on Netflix’ growing interest in anime.
Even by disaster movie standards, this is obviously a dark ride. Death is not glossed over, nor is the way some survivors turn on each other in the chaos (which is deeply offensive to the Japanese sensibility). And it literally rains blood and bodies at the end of the episode – I’m not sure just what exactly is causing that but it ain’t good, whatever it is. You don’t get the idea this is going to be a standard, uplifting survive and rebuild story – this seems to have been a disaster of truly unprecedented proportions, and society is about to break down completely. Nihon Chinbotsu 2020 is likely to be a very painful viewing experience, but I’m intensely curious to see how this story plays out.