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House of 1000 Manga
Japan Sinks

by Jason Thompson,

Japan Sinks

"It's not as if our people simply moved to this island from somewhere else…even if we did, afterwards we've become one with it. We're Japanese…we're not human first and then Japanese…we are Japanese through and through!"

I love apocalyptic stories. In some form they've always been around—the end of the world is a part of many cultures' mythologies—but it's in the modern age that they've really gotten popular, perhaps because more people (in the West, anyway) are comfortable enough that they can afford to fantasize about imaginary disasters instead of dealing with real wars, famines and plagues. You could trace the modern apocalypse back to Lord Byron's poem Darkness (1816), about when the sun goes out, or a number of early plague/poison stories, from Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) to M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901). The appearance of Halley's Comet in 1910 led to a rush of "what if a comet hit the Earth" movies and novels. Another one of the oldest apocalypses, even older than the Bible, is the flood.

In Japan, the ultimate flood story is Sakyo Komatsu's Japan Sinks. Written between 1964 and 1973, it terrified Japanese audiences with its detailed, scientifically plausible vision of a natural disaster that sends the entire archipelago under the sea. It's not just a flood that does it, but massive earthquakes, a very Japanese vision of doom: Japan has been prone to earthquakes since ancient times, and the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake killed 142,000 people just a few years before Sakyo Komatsu was born. More believable than Godzilla or aliens, Komatsu's disaster epic was translated into multiple languages, including English, and adapted into two live-action films. Fellow science fiction author Yasutaka Tsutsui wrote a parody, The World Sinks Except Japan, which itself was filmed in 2006.(In the same year Komatsu himself also produced a sequel, cowritten with Koshu Tani, Japan Sinks Part 2.) Finally, Japan Sinks was the subject of at least two manga adaptations, including a 1970s one by Takao Saito's studio, now available on Crunchyroll Manga. And since it's raining like crazy in San Francisco this week, what better manga to read?

Takao Saito (Golgo 13) is the perfect choice for this manga adaptation; his art is known for its attention to realism, international settings and hard-boiled, serious feel. He's a commercial artist who created a company, Saito Production, with dozens of employees to produce his trademarked polished style: 15 artists are listed in Japan Sinks' credits. The manga doesn't start out too promisingly; the first pages show thousands of people fleeing an erupting volcano, including the main character, manly submarine pilot Onodera, and his kid buddy, Toru, the son of his boss. Toru's presence is probably due to the fact that the manga ran in a kids' magazine, Weekly Shônen Champion. What's going on? Volcanoes? What?!! Where?! Aggghh!! We're tossed back and forth between screaming and running and tons of exposition, telling us (rather than showing) that a series of volcano eruptions have struck Japan. Then the scene abruptly changes and we're thrust back in time for a long, talky opening sequence in which Onodera is hired to pilot a sub for some scientists investigating goings-on in the Sea of Japan.

This is how it begins: some small volcanoes have erupted on remote Japanese islands, and weirdest of all, one tiny island has entirely disappeared. Onodera, the pilot of the deep-sea sub Wadatsumi, is brought in to help with the investigation. (It's typical of this manga that, when the Wadatsumi appears, there's 6 pages of exposition on the history and invention of submarines.) We meet Professor Yukinaga, oceanographer, and Professor Tadoro, a rogue geophysicist with a bad reputation ("Not only is he a scientific outsider, he has no rules, period!"). Tadoro is one of those mad scientists who likes to talk about how human beings are powerless against nature ("Do you really think there is a big difference between people who build cities out of concrete and microorganisms that build coral reefs out of calcium carbonate?"). The crew interviews a group of Polynesian fishermen who were on the island when it sank, leaving them floating helplessly in the ocean. Then they head bravely down into the depths, for eerie scenes of submarine exploration. How did the ocean floor sink 200 meters in one day? What is the strange current running along the bottom of the sea? Why are migratory birds and fishes leaving Japan in droves…?

The beginning is slow and wordy, but it's just the calm before the storm. Up on the surface, the Amagi volcano erupts, then Mt. Mihara, then Mt. Asama, then Mt. Aso. Earthquakes become more and more frequent, and land starts to subside into the sea. Despite the manga's shonen origins, Toru vanishes for hundreds of pages so adults can do all the talking. In government agencies, sideburned Men of Science (there are virtually no women in this manga) run simulations on massive early-1970s tape-drive computers as they try to figure out what's going on. When a major earthquake strikes Kyoto at the end of volume 1, panic spreads and the public starts to realize this isn't just a temporary inconvenience. Finally, in a lengthy lecture on plate tectonics, Tadoro reveals his theory: Japan is literally being sucked back under the earth's crust, like what you're afraid will happen to you if you don't step off an escalator in time. "Just because something has never happened in the past, there's no guarantee it won't happen in the future!" Tadoro warns. The geologic data doesn't lie: within two years, all of Japan will be sucked into the sea!

Written before global warming was a widely accepted theory, Japan Sinks wins points for the original way it floods the world. Of course, realistically, global warming alone couldn't sink Japan or most countries; no matter what they show in the movie Waterworld, even if every glacier and iceberg on earth melted, the sea level would 'only' rise about 66 meters. (Of course there's also the resulting famine, loss of farmland, massive population displacement, etc. Here's a rising sea levels Google maps simulator, if you're interested.) In J.G. Ballard's classic sci-fi novel The Drowned Worldthe sea level rises higher than 66 meters because the melting glaciers also fill the ocean with silt, but the real problem in that novel is that climate change has rendered humans infertile and turned most of the planet into tropical, crocodile-infested jungles and swamps. Roland Emmerich's 2012 manages to get every place on Earth wet by trashing the Planet With earthquakes, volcanoes, magnetic pole shifts and mile-high megatsunamis, but scientists laugh uncontrollably at the mention of that movie. Perhaps the most epic flood story of all is Stephen Baxter's Flood, in which climate change isn't a factor; the Earth's core simply sweats out water, suddenly releasing subterranean oceans which have been trapped underwater for millions of years. The oceans rise…and rise…until after 30 years of mass death and population migration, the Himalayas are the only remaining land on Earth, and even then the flood doesn't stop…

…What was I talking about? Oh right, Japan Sinks. Unlike the books and movies I listed in the last paragraph, one of the interesting things about Japan Sinks is that it isn't a global apocalypse: the only country that sinks is Japan. Japan alone faces extinction, and much of the book involves the politics as the government tries to save its people with the help (or indifference) of the outside world. Unlike many American disaster stories that have a libertarian bent, Japan Sinks isn't cynical about the role of the authorities: although there are individual cases of corruption, for the most part Japanese politicians try their best to save the people, aided by some businessmen and industrialists such as Watari, a shriveled, 100-year-old millionaire. At first the government works to conceal the extent of the coming disaster, while working behind the scenes to find countries that will take in Japanese refugees. Money is secretly set aside to buy overseas land and ships to transport Japan's citizens. Finally, the true extent of the apocalypse is revealed, the U.N. holds special meetings on the crisis, and people in other parts of the world watch in awe on TV as Japan is destroyed.

On paper, these political scenes don't sound so exciting (some reviewers of the movies got bored), but actually it's surprisingly interesting and heavy stuff. In one scene, the Japanese ambassador begs Australia to take them in, but the Australian prime minister balks at the numbers: "If we take in five million Japanese, that's almost 40% of our present population…one in three Australians will be oriental! Refugee camps…? Confinement camps…? Ghettos…?" Ironically, the closest countries, Korea, China and the USSR, are the least sympathetic: "Japan is paying the price for having been hostile to its neighbors since the Meiji era! We turned ourselves into Asia's bully…and now we pay the price!" Matsuki, a news reporter who's covered conflict zones and refugee camps abroad, is harrowed by the vision that what happened in 'third world countries' could happen to Japan. ("Imagine…Japan will become a country like Vietnam, Palestine or Bangladesh…") For older Japanese (and certainly for author Sakyo Komatsu, born in 1931) the impending disaster brings back traumatic memories of the destruction of World War 2. ("Is it really going to be like back then, all over again…? No! I won't live through it once more! I've worked for thirty years to give my family a normal life!") Can the world find a place for 100 million Japanese refugees? Will they lose their Japanese identity, or worse, become ghettoized, second-class citizens? Or as one character asks, "Will the diaspora teach us anything over the years? Will we still be able to call ourselves Japanese?" One character fatalistically proposes the the Japanese should look death in the face and commit national suicide rather than leave their beloved motherland.

Luckily, for less politically involved readers, there's also tons of destruction. When Tokyo is eliminated in a massive earthquake and fire, killing 400,000 people, the final veneer of normalcy is destroyed. Lynchings and mob violence occur, with people killing suspected Communists and hippies, as well as people like me who've read too many disaster novels and are flippant about the apocalypse. ("They were checking out a twisted building and going on about how 'cool' it looked…people beat them to death…") Some are unable to accept the situation, and go on living as if it's some miracle solution will be found at the last minute. (Onodera, one of the first people to know the truth, wants to scream "Get away, everybody! Get out quick! Save your lives! Tomorrow won't be like you imagine it!") Every building and roadway begins to show signs of damage. The panoramas of destruction, of ruins and rubble and mud drawn in heavy-inked dark '70s-manga style, foreshadow other earthquake-disaster manga such as Go Nagai's Violence Jack (1973), Minetarō Mochizuki's Dragon Head(1995) and Takao Saito's own Survival (1976). Long before the death count really climbs, everything starts to look slightly shabby and ruined, with harrowing images of Japan plunged (again) into poverty, rationing and despair.

So what happens in the end? You'll have to read the manga. (It's only 4 volumes long, although they're long bunkobon-style editions, so it's more like 6 regular-sized books.) For starters, Mt. Fuji erupts, killing even more people and blanketing Tokyo with meters of ash. We see endless scenes of screaming crowds being crushed beneath falling buildings and plunging into water as bridges collapse beneath them. People flee by boat to Korea, where the authorities shoot refugees on sight. And Onodera and his buddy Toru—and Toru's big sister, Reiko—try to stick together and survive in the ever-sinking ruins. Some have criticized Japan Sinks for being nationalistic, and it surely is, but it's hard to think of an American disaster story that goes into such humbling detail about what might happen if America was rendered uninhabitable and Americans became stateless refugees, at the mercy of every other country on earth.

The beginning's slow, the art's old-fashioned, but stick with it. Japan Sinks is a super-well-researched, totally believable vision of what might happen during a mass disaster, both in the "big picture" and on the ground…while the ground's still there.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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