Japan Sinks and the Cultural Identity in Disaster Anime

by Andrew Osmond,

It is predicted that there is a 70 percent possibility of an earthquake directly hitting Tokyo within the next 30 years. Are you prepared?

- Tokyo Metropolitan Government website

Think about the first anime you ever saw. If it was Akira, then it was a film that started with Tokyo being consumed by a gigantic fireball. If it was Battle of the Planets, it was a series in which buildings were smashed and trampled every week. If you started with more recent anime, then it's not hard to come up with popular hits which include images of mass destruction. For example, try the oeuvre of Makoto Shinkai.

Any country is vulnerable to disasters. There's certainly nothing Japanese about being fascinated by visions of disaster; look at Hollywood producers and directors like George Pal, Irwin Allen or Roland Emmerich. Yet the fact remains that Japan went through a succession of huge catastrophes still in living memory, from the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, through the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, to the Tohoku Earthquake of 2011. They're part of modern Japan's heritage, and those experiences are inevitably reflected in the country's pop-culture.

There are fewer anime, though, that focus upon such calamities. Barefoot Gen and In This Corner of the World both hinge around the A-bombing of Hiroshima, and they contain harrowing images of its horrors, but they both take longer views, showing how people endure such tragedies and live on beyond them. Other anime treat disasters almost abstractly. In Akira, we see none of the millions of people obliterated by the opening explosion. In Miyazaki's The Wind Rises, the Great Kanto Earthquake – an unimaginably horrific event – is just a smoking backdrop to the feisty heroics of Jiro, who's more like Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, as he helps two women to safety.

The ultimate abstract apocalypse in anime is in the classic fan-film Daicon IV, in which a city (and perhaps the whole world) is joyously destroyed to a screaming J-pop soundtrack, before new mountains and forests burst into being to replenish the Earth. [EDIT: As a commenter points out, the song in Daicon IV, "Twilight," was actually performed by the English rock band Electric Light Orchestra.]

There are, however, two high-profile anime TV serials that both concentrate on disaster scenarios in similar ways. One is the recent Japan Sinks: 2020 by Masaaki Yuasa, released on Netflix. The other is a TV anime called Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (left), which was made by Bones studio in 2009, the same year it was also making Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. It was directed by Masaki Tachibana, who'd be later known for Princess Principal.

Both series start with catastrophically massive quakes hitting Tokyo, killing untold thousands of people. Both focus on small groups of characters, and are told primarily through the eyes of girls. Both are also almost exactly the same length. Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is eleven episodes long, while Japan Sinks: 2020 runs ten, but with an extended final episode.

One contrast is obvious from the start. Japan Sinks: 2020, as the title suggests, has a fantastical premise – that the entire country of Japan could be submerged by a concentrated series of disasters – that's not so different from an Emmerich film like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow. As the series goes on, it's clear this is at least partly a pretext to talk about what "Japan" means, what the end of Japan would mean, and bring up controversial questions of Japaneseness, or nihonjinron.

For example, some of the show's characters are supposedly not “pure” Japanese, leading to friction with characters for whom that matters. Like much science-fiction, Japan Sinks: 2020 smuggles in social commentary that might have been a hard sell to audiences in other contexts. Among anime studios, Production I.G has a track record in that kind of SF; for example, in Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, on the other hand, doesn't present itself as SF at all. Each episode begins with a sombre pre-credits statement: “This work of fiction is based on a hypothetical situation of a giant earthquake occurring in Tokyo, and has been produced after extensive research and inspection of facts.” There's no fantastical threat to Japan's existence in the series; just a catastrophe that's happened in Japan many times before, and will inevitably happen again in the future.

All too soon in the future, given that the series was broadcast in 2009. In fact, Tokyo Magnitude was being repeated on Japan's Animax TV channel at the time of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, and was promptly suspended as being too close to home. It was one of several anime with disaster imagery to be affected by the quake, as reported by ANN at the time.

In terms of dramatic set-ups, both series stick with small bands of characters, as opposed to telling parallel stories with different sets of characters. (Lots of disaster films start like that, though the characters often converge.) Both series also have family or quasi-family units.

In Japan Sinks: 2020, the central players are mostly members of one family, the Mutohs. There's the father, mother, sister and younger son, plus a couple of neighbors and others picked up later. Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 focuses on just three characters through the whole series. There's a middle-school girl, Mirai, and her little brother Yuzuru. They've been allowed to travel out to Odaiba (an artificial island in Tokyo Bay) by themselves when the huge quake hits, followed by an ongoing series of aftershocks. Unable to contact their parents, the children are protected by the kindly Mari, a woman who's determined to lead them to safety despite her concern for her own family members, similarly out of reach.

While both series highlight girl characters, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is more locked into Mirai's perspective, which sets up a crucial story device in later episodes which anyone who's seen the show to the end will remember. Mirai's “issues” precede the earthquake in part 1; she already resents her parents, knowing there are conflicts between them. As a middle-schooler, she's old enough to know grown-ups are flawed, but immature enough to think the worst of everyone as a result – she often snipes at Mari, unwilling to accept this strange woman is helping them altruistically. (Amusingly, Mari is voiced in Japanese by Yuko Kaida, who'd play Isabella in the anime of The Promised Neverland – a mother figure who should definitely not be trusted!)

Ayumu, the girl character in Japan Sinks: 2020, is several years older, and her issues arise from things that happen during the disaster, and her guilt at not stopping them. In the very first episode, she traumatically experiences her own cowardice, when a horribly injured schoolmate begs her for help and Ayumu runs away in terror. In contrast, Mirai behaves insanely recklessly after the quake, plunging into the burning ruins of Odaiba's Sunshine City complex in frantic search of her brother, and endangering both her life and Mari's.

In both shows, in fact, the girls' relationships to their younger, cheerier brothers become emotional lifelines, especially when their journeys turn very dark in later episodes. Ultimately, the kid brothers in both series bring out the best in their big sisters.

A big contrast between the series is in how they show adults. In Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, no grown-up threatens serious harm to the protagonists. This doesn't make the series too cozy, because it emphasises the viewpoint of the kids, who can be easily shoved and separated in crowds; you're always fearing they'll be trodden underfoot. But it's still far more optimistic than Japan Sinks: 2020, which introduces a brutal would-be rapist early on, even if it lets the women be empowered by bringing the monster down.

Leading on from that, there were times I was watching Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 when I wondered if the series was aimed specifically at younger viewers, perhaps Mirai's age. A few parts of the series feel overtly educational, such as when the children watch remote-controlled robots helping with the relief effort (the show's weakest episode). In fact, Tokyo Magnitude had a late-night premiere on the Noitamina slot, shown at 12.45 a.m.

The fact that Tokyo Magnitude could be mistaken for a primetime anime for a younger audiences is no criticism, and certainly doesn't mean there's no trauma in the show. You need only see Grave of the Fireflies to know anime doesn't need brutal violence to be devastating – and actually, there are parallels between Fireflies and Tokyo Magnitude, especially in terms of the sibling relationships. But Japan Sinks: 2020 goes far further in its bloody violence. It goes much further, in fact, than any mainstream Hollywood disaster film, in which huge masses of people die bloodlessly but the dogs are always fine.

Both anime, though, come very close together at their endings, culminating in valedictory sequences of pictures. These are memories in the form of snapshot images, preserving happier times and saving lost lives. And in the face of terrible disaster, they might be all we have left.

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