Film

‘Japan Sinks: 2020’: When disaster strikes, keep your family close

by Matt Schley

Contributing writer

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before: 2020 feels like a disaster movie.

While disaster films like “Contagion” have been trending recently, “Japan Sinks: 2020,” a new Netflix anime series, offers a crisis in the very year we’re living through — though in the series, helmed by director Masaaki Yuasa (“Ride Your Wave”) and animation studio Science Saru, the calamity isn’t a pandemic, but the literal sinking of Japan into the sea following a series of massive earthquakes.

The series, which hits Netflix July 9, may sound familiar. It’s based on the Sakyo Komatsu-penned 1973 novel “Japan Sinks,” which has previously been adapted into a TV series, manga and two separate films in 1973 and 2006. So why take another crack at “Japan Sinks” now?

“There are things you can do in animation that are hard to do in live-action film,” says series producer Eunyoung Choi, CEO of the animation studio Science Saru. “There are a lot of people around the world interested in Japanese animation now, so we thought it was a good time to reintroduce ‘Japan Sinks’ to the world.”

Although the anime adaptation takes its basic premise from the original novel, it’s largely a new story.

She's the boss: As the newly minted CEO of Science Saru, Eunyoung Choi is a rarity in Japan as a non-Japanese woman who is in charge of a Japanese animation studio. She says this makes it easier for her to stand out. | COURTESY OF SCIENCE SARU
She’s the boss: As the newly minted CEO of Science Saru, Eunyoung Choi is a rarity in Japan as a non-Japanese woman who is in charge of a Japanese animation studio. She says this makes it easier for her to stand out. | COURTESY OF SCIENCE SARU

“The original takes place in the 1970s,” says Choi. “A lot has changed since then in terms of technology and culture. We wanted to portray how people in the modern day would respond if Japan really sank.”

One example of a major change: While the original novel was centered around scientists and politicians trying to save Japan, the anime version takes place from the point of view of the Mutos, a family from Tokyo attempting to reach higher ground as Japan submerges.

“‘Japan Sinks’ is all about loss, but more so than large, abstract concepts like ‘nation,’ I think the things you really miss when they’re gone are from everyday life, like your mother’s miso soup,” says Choi. “The people you share that everyday life with are your family, and when you’re trying to survive, it’s hard without your family’s love. We wanted to focus on that familial love.”

Another societal shift since the release of the original “Japan Sinks” is reflected in the international makeup of the Muto family: mother Mari (Yuko Sasaki) comes from the Philippines while father Koichiro (Masaki Terasoma) is from Japan. Meanwhile, son Go (Tomo Muranaka) dreams of living in Estonia and communicates with friends from around the world online using English. As the story progresses, other characters from outside Japan appear, too.

“Compared to even five or 10 years ago, you see a lot more foreigners in Japan,” says Choi. “By making Mari from the Philippines and the leader of the family as they move forward, we wanted to portray Japan’s increased diversity, as well as challenge traditional gender roles. It was a way for us to achieve better, more modern characterization.”

“We also wanted to avoid stereotypes,” continues Choi. “Not ‘Japanese people are like this,’ or ‘Americans are like this.’ The people you meet don’t always fit into such neat categories, and we wanted to reflect that in the series.”

As the Muto family make their trek across Japan, the rising tide is often the least of their problems. The aftereffects of the disaster mean that food and water is scarce and that the niceties of society have been stripped away, and the series is often dark when it comes to the horrors of the disaster, both natural and man-made. Choi credits that to the freedom offered by Netflix, which also streamed Science Saru’s “Devilman Crybaby,” another series with content that may have been met with roadblocks on Japanese television.

“With Netflix, there are very few limits in terms of things like creativity and storytelling. You don’t get told, ‘You can’t do that,’ which I think is great,” says Choi. “It also means the whole world gets access to our show at the same time. That’s another big plus.”

Though the series was announced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, its themes have taken on a whole new resonance in 2020, as many families around the world have had their lives turned upside down by an unforeseen crisis, much like the Mutos.

“Naturally, we had no idea things would turn out like this when we made the series,” says Choi. “It’s a story about how sad it feels to lose the small joys of everyday life. And it’s about a family moving forward, one step at a time, in order to survive. I think it’ll help deliver some positivity to people watching in these times.”

COVID-19 has had a major impact on the Japanese animation industry, with production bottlenecks causing delays for many TV series and films. By comparison, Science Saru, founded by Choi and director Yuasa in 2013, has fared relatively well under lockdown due to its embrace of digital animation techniques.

“We’re now slowly returning to the studio, but from March to May, we worked entirely remotely,” says Choi. “We do basically everything digitally, so as long as we send everyone home with a computer, we can keep working. Of course, if we can’t meet in person, teamwork slows down a bit, but it did help us realize remote work is a feasible option if cases pick up again.”

The COVID-19 situation did complicate a transition at the studio: On March 25, Yuasa, also known for series like “Ping Pong: The Animation” and “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!,” stepped down as representative director of the studio, with Choi taking over as CEO.

“It happened basically the same time as we were dealing with (the coronavirus), so everyone was too busy to think too much about it,” says Choi with a laugh.

This has made Choi, originally from South Korea, quite a rarity: a non-Japanese woman in charge of a major Japanese anime studio. The newly minted CEO says she has faced discrimination — some of it blatant — but that her unique position has its advantages, too.

“Being a foreigner and a woman, I stand out,” she says. “That makes it easy for people to remember me.”

Choi is far from the only non-Japanese employee at Science Saru, a multicultural group not unlike the Muto family in “Japan Sinks: 2020.” She says perspectives from around the world help create more well-rounded anime, but that the studio ultimately chooses animators based on their skill, not nationality.

“Animation is all about people with great skills, and among those great animators, if there’s someone who’s especially impressive, I think there’s value in bringing them to Japan and adding them to our staff,” Choi says. “Bringing in animators like that helps inspire our current team in turn.”

While Yuasa has stepped down as representative director of Science Saru, he is directing the studio’s next film, “Inu-Oh,” which is planned for a 2021 release. Meanwhile, the studio is looking to develop projects helmed by new directors, too.

“The most important thing for us is originality, so I’m looking for directors who can work with us to create something that’s never been done before,” says Choi. “We don’t want to follow trends; we want to make original works that give people hope and entertainment.”

For more information on “Japan Sinks: 2020” and Science Saru, visit www.sciencesaru.com/en.

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