Reviews of Japan Sinks (1973) and related work

Japan Sinks (1973Text)

Komatsu Sakyō (writer).

Read in 2021.

I read the 2016 Dover edition which proclaims, in its colophon, to be an “unabridged republication” of the 1976 Harper edition. That is a conspicuous lie by omission. The 2016 and 1976 editions both contain the same English translation by Michael Gallagher and are both abridged from the original text by a ratio of approximately 1:4 or 1:5. Because I have experienced only a quarter of the work, I have not rated it.

Rapid tectonic developments cause the islands of Japan to sink beneath the sea over the course of just a few years, amid powerful earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. There is enough time to negotiate with other countries and evacuate, but who will want an insular people when its place is gone forever?

The casual sexism of 1970s apocalyptic fantasy bridges East and West.

Despite being abridged, the Gallagher translation does include some rich thematic material, not just the spectacular disasters themselves. It is sometimes oddly literal and sometimes a bit broken, as when Namibia is misnamed Nambia, a common mistake made famous by Donald Trump.

References here: “Mono no Aware” (2012/2013), Your Name (2016), Weathering with You (2019), “On Thin Ice” (2020).

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Tidal Wave (1973Moving picture, 82 minutes)

A prominent title in Japanese “post-nuclear sublime” cinema, made at record cost by the studio behind Godzilla (1954) after the huge success of the novel from the same year. Like the novel it is rich in nihonjinron-, Sonderweg-type mythology yet played with remarkable seriousness.

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Sinking of Japan (2006Moving picture, 135 minutes)

Higuchi Shinji (director).

Just as the original novel was adapted the year it came out, this new adaptation was occasioned by a 2006 sequel to the novel. All that posturing and no sekai-kei, no nihilism, just romantic moekko anti-apocalypticism.

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Everything Sinks, Except Japan (2006Moving picture, 98 minutes)

Parody on the occasion of the remake, adapting a novel published shortly after Komatsu’s original. It turns out very little is lost without the seriousness.

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Japan Sinks: 2020 (2020Moving picture, 4.2 hours)

Seen in 2020.

A Filipino-Japanese family negotiates the sinking of Japan along with random people they meet along the way, including the Estonian Youtube influencer who breaks the news that Okinawa is gone.

Yūasa Masaaki. What is up with that guy.

In the year of his triumph with Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (2020), Yūasa made this derivative low-budget re-re-adaptation of Komatsu’s 1973 novel. Like his Devilman: Crybaby (2018), it’s got rap, rape threats, a wild cultic party, grating apocalyptic anguish, hard drugs and bizarre violence, in this case including one scene of a decrepit morphinist hero shooting people with a bow and arrow off a spinning handicap scooter.

That may sound funny, but there is almost no comic relief or supernatural fantasy in this production. Instead, there is plenty of crappy spectacle. An open shelter somehow catches fire and almost everyone in it is killed, inexplicably failing to walk out. On day two after the biggest earthquakes, survivors are attacked by a wild boar, as if boars could find nothing to scavenge at that point. One character in the weirdly depopulated apocalyptic landscape steps on a civilian’s perfectly intact high-explosive land mine, presumably an illegal extreme rarity. Nuclear power plants have Chernobyl-style meltdowns, leading to radioactive rain, instead of shutting down safely like the modern reactors (5 and 6) did at Fukushima. An invisible, immediately lethal cloud of gas blankets a valley. A barge full of Japanese racists explodes, again for no apparent reason. I think this stuff was all meant to seem plausible. Granted, it’s not as dumb as the out-of-control machinery in A Wind Named Amnesia (1990), but it isn’t plausible. Absolutely none of it happens in the abridged English translation of the original novel.

More than Higuchi’s 2006 version, this one takes the focus off Onodera and Tadokoro. The former participates, but not as an action hero. He’s almost completely disabled by an incurable spinal injury, which is an interesting touch, apparently based on the novel’s epilogue where Onodera is still able to speak but otherwise disabled on a train going through Siberia. Tadokoro barely appears but is commemorated with a statue, in the classic lab coat of mad scientists in Tezuka comics; the figure in the novel is larger than life but not so cartoonish. Like Higuchi, Yūasa does the stereotypical thing in contemporary Japanese animation: He shifts the focus onto a cute girl, here a talented teenage athlete protagonist who must bear the burden of everybody else’s sacrifice. She corresponds to none of Komatsu’s female characters (Reiko, Maki and Hanae), though her athleticism might be loosely based on Reiko, who once tied a record in scuba diving.

The structure is simplified. The disaster is abrupt. Almost everyone is killed saving the protagonist, as well as her younger brother and the rogue geologists’ bizarrely private data, whereupon she has a refreshingly ugly cry about the memory of everything she’s lost, and then she becomes an Olympic athlete anyway. It is not clear whether sinking helps her run. Importantly, the story is not that of the 1973 book and film, where millions of people are already evacuated before the big one hits, and where the theme concerns the position of a “unique” people thus made homeless. The 2020 version opens with the major Tokyo earthquake in the middle of the book and goes straight into the entire country sinking in mere days. It completely loses track of the original theme and has none of the resilient power of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō (1994) to replace it.

The 2020 version discusses nationalism but is much more ambivalent about it. It celebrates national pride (Haruo exclaims “Japan rules!”) but rejects racism outright. There is no scene of heightened mono no aware here, corresponding to a scene in the book, at Hakone, with lots of natural imagery. The TV series instead acknowledges the cosmopolitan nature of the Internet and its importance to society. It has a long, counterproductive detour into a money-hoarding cult surrounding a psychic medium, and it ends by looking 8 years ahead. These differences in no way justify the work. For reference, the abridged English adaptation of the novel does briefly mention a sea cult and, in an unrelated context, it does include one scene at an odd-looking modernist building, but those similarities are paper thin. For a children’s view from below of a major earthquake in modern Japanese animation, prefer Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 (2009).

This was made at Science Saru, the same studio as Eizouken. I speculate that the studio may have taken on this project because name recognition raised the probability of making up budget shortfalls. It does not appear to have been an auteur’s labour of love. Ho Pyeon-Gang is credited with series direction, Yoshitaka Toshio with script and composition, numerous others with episode direction and animation direction. It may be a case of too many cooks on such a short, sub-1-cour ONA. There are certainly good parts. The first half of episode 8 is the best of them: Isolation on the open sea, a motif familiar from the myth of Noah and absent in the novel.

I like that the script actually includes a clearer geological explanation than the novel or any previous adaptation, although it is bad: Supposedly, the archipelago is floating on a collapsing bubble caused by the melting of a subducted Pacific Plate “megalith”, apparently in the asthenosphere, as if the mesosphere of the Earth were not also melted and churning on a time scale smaller than the 100 Ma existence of Japan. I like how episode 6 explains why the episode titles are all written in katakana: That is the normal decoding script for Japanese Morse code, the use of which makes sense in Onodera’s paralyzed state because he is a submarine pilot. There are other good moments: A few nice apocalyptic backgrounds; a few shots of decent animation; a number of scenes showing that the characters are genuinely traumatized by specific events, not jaunting their way through a cozy catastrophe. Yet all of these good things sink beneath the poorly animated waves.

The English dialogue and text composition are bad. A lot of the virtual camera work is bad, just linearly interpolated pans across a few points. Amateur stuff. The episode 9 rap about nationalism is bad. A lot of the art direction is bad. The whole thing looks bland and flat like Devilman and reminds me of Ralph Bakshi’s unshaded rotoscoping, both in style and story. The characters are pretty boring and don’t develop. Unlike Komatsu’s original, there isn’t any larger point to it all, even if you read it as a comment on the contemporary recession of the Japanese economy. It is essentially Devilman without humour or imagination.

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