Book review: 『日本沈没2020』 by Toshio Yoshitaka

日本沈没2020 (にほんちんぼつ にーぜろにーぜろ)
Title: 日本沈没2020 (にほんちんぼつ にーぜろにーぜろ)
First published: 2020
Published: 2020
Format: Bunko
Page Count: 284
This is the novelisation of the Netflix anime series 『日本沈没2020』, which was inspired by the novel 『日本沈没』 by famous author of SF Sakyo Komatsu (小松左京). It was published in 1973 in Japan (two volumes) and translated into English by Michael Gallagher under the title Japan sinks. The anime is currently available on Netflix (10 episodes of 25 minutes). The author of the novelisation, Toshio Yoshitaka, is also the scriptwriter of the series.

I first read the book and then watched the series. Overall, I liked the story of Japan Sinks 2020, but there are also several things I did not like in the series. As for the book, I cannot say that I enjoyed reading it, because it was a strict novelisation that did not add much to the story or the characters.

The story is mainly focused on the Mutoh family and how they try to survive after a violent earthquake shakes the country and destroys everything around them.

I liked the Mutohs being a mixed couple and the two children, Ayumu and Go being half-Japanese half-Filipino (from their mother). I liked the character of Ayumu and found her relationship with her mother very interesting, though I also found that it could have been more developed in the series as well as in the book. Ayumu’s complex feelings to her mother are an essential part of her personality, and I wish that the novel had gone deeper in this direction.

I also hoped that the story would be more realistic. I was hoping to see how things would unfold if such a catastrophic scenario were to happen: what would be the government’s response, how international assistance would work, how rescue would be organised, what would people do, and so on. The story is mainly focused on the Mutoh family and the people they meet along the way, and some episodes seem strangely disconnected from what is currently happening.

Personally, this is one of the things that I did not like in the series. The whole Shan City episodes, for example, were very weird to me. All of a sudden, the characters do not seem to care anymore, they do not even seem to be aware of what is going on. I wish that the book had given some kind of explanation for this or had shown that the characters do care by using introspective passages. As it stands, I felt weary of the characters at that point because I felt that I could not understand them.

Some of the characters’ choices were also a complete puzzle to me. For example, how come that they befriend Kunio so easily? This just does not seem credible at all. As a consequence, I could not feel close to or identify with the characters in the series, but here again, the book could have been the place to develop on this: how the characters feel toward each other and how their feelings start to change. But the book is strictly following the series scene by scene and almost never adds elements of this kind.

What bothered me the most in the book is that it just feels like the author is describing what appears on screen. As a consequence, we see what the characters do, but not what they think. This also leads to awkward transitions. For example, in episode 3 of the series, our group sees a pickup approaching. The next scene shows our group riding the pickup with Nanami sitting next to the driver while the others are sitting in the back. This kind of sudden transition is perfectly okay in films, but I found it very weird in the novelisation. The book just describes the pickup approaching and then describes our group inside the pickup. It does not add any information on how they came to ride it in the first place. Believe me, if you read the novel without knowing the story or having watched the series first, this passage feels very awkward. There are also sentences like 助手席にはななみの姿があった which, once again, feels like the author describes what appears on screen rather than telling a story.

All in all, I think that the novelisation is just too short. Less than 300 pages for a whole season… There are so many things happening, so much pain and tragic events, some very shocking turns of event too that completely took me by surprise. But similarly to the series, the book just moves on to the next scene, and I thought that I needed more time to digest what had happened. I was constantly thinking “can’t we take a couple of pages to reflect on what has happened? I want to know how the characters feel, what they think…”. But as it was, it sometimes felt like the characters themselves did not care, and I ended up not caring about them anymore at some point.

To sum up, I liked the story overall and while I am not a big fan of the series, I still watched it until the end. The problem about the book is that:

  1. it did not manage to improve what I found were weaknesses in the series (dispassionate characters who are difficult to understand overall, a pace that does not allow you to feel any emotion, little place left for grief or complex feelings, some unrealistic episodes and characters, strange mix of sudden deaths and improbable rescue episodes, etc.)
  2. the book in itself lacked in narrative fluidity that would have made it agreeable to read as a novel.

I can only recommend this novelisation if your goal is to use it to practise reading in Japanese while using the series to help you understand the story (but even then, 『日本沈没2020』 is not particularly easy to read, so it might not be the best choice here). However, I cannot really recommend it as a good novel, and if you have watched the series already, you won’t gain much by reading the novelisation.