Within the pages of Satoshi Kon’s “Tropic of the Sea” is a scene that will send chills down the spine of anyone who witnessed footage of the tsunami that swept over coastal towns in Japan’s Tohoku region on March 11, 2011. It’s only two or three frames, but Kon’s drawings of a large wave engulfing a town are eerily familiar and unsettlingly accurate. This is all the more remarkable because the manga was first published in 1990.
Kon, who died in 2010 at just 46, is best known to audiences overseas for the psychologically complex anime he created, including “Paprika” (2006) and “Perfect Blue” (1998). But many years prior to finding his niche as a film director, he was a struggling artist in a “shabby apartment” producing this serialized manga (originally titled “Kaikisen”) for Kodansha’s “Young Magazine.”
Yosuke is the eldest son in a family that for generations has protected a mermaid’s egg, which is kept in a box full of water within a local shrine. Legend has it that every 60 years they must return the egg to the sea to keep their coastal fishing town safe and ensure abundant catches for the town’s fishermen. Yosuke’s father, however, has lost faith in the myth and is in cahoots with developers who want to turn the rapidly aging town into a tourist destination. But what will happen if the egg is not returned to the sea?
The environmental message here is naively obvious and Kon himself, in an afterword written in 1999, was a little embarrassed by the lack of complexity in the work. And yet in post-tsunami Japan, you can’t help but wonder if the young Kon knew something back then that the rest of us didn’t.