What would the Big One, Tokyo style, be like if it was animated? How would it affect the lives of an ordinary girl and boy? Bones did their research and tried to show what might happen, with nuanced, realistic results. It’s the most promising show of the season.
Many of you might not know that I bear a lot of antipathy for a show that is beloved of many fans, Saikano (which I still know by its original translated title, My Girlfriend, the Ultimate Weapon). Perhaps it was the frequent comparison to the deserved masterpiece of realistic sorrow, Grave of the Fireflies, that set me off, but despite some genuinely affecting scenes, Saikano drowned in excessive tear shedding and forced pathos before ending in one of the most nihilistic and depressing visions of life I’ve ever seen in anime. (And I’m a fan of Evangelion, remember.)
So I am relieved, and happy, to discover that at least so far Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 avoids the Saikano trap by instead focusing slowly on realistic character development. We spend the first episode getting to know the protagonist, Mirai, and her rather depressingly ordinary home life. The mother is a workaholic; the father is distant; she is on the cusp of adolescence and has no hopes for the future, and is constantly annoyed by her little brother Yuuki. It is, in other words, a very ordinary middle-class existence, a story that can be repeated by millions of children in developed countries. This is a deliberate choice, because the focus of this series is to depict what would happen to a family that is relatable and believable to the audience: the fact that she is not particularly charming or likable is part of the package. It signals that this is trying to do more than simply entertain.
I also like that this show chooses to focus on the micro rather than the macro level of the disaster. Aside from the snatches of news reports coming in by cell phone (how is that possible, though, if cell phone signals are dead overall? TV tuners in the cell phone itself? I’m ignorant of Japanese cell phone tech…), the focus never leaves Mirai, Yuuki, and their temporary mother Mari. For a show of this nature, it’s very important that a disaster have a face, that it not just be about faceless hordes running away from
Godzilla collapsing buildings and bridges, or even major landmarks. This sort of leads to what might be described as one of the few missteps, if it is one–the need to constantly put Yuuki in danger and make Mirai rescue him, usually after they have a fight or be in some situation where she will feel not only desperation, but guilt. It worked powerfully in episode 2, where the desperation was earned. Honestly, it’s probably earned in later episodes too, but being consecutive episodes, it feels just slightly less so in subsequent episodes.
This might be nitpicking though, because on the whole, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 wonderfully balances both the tension/suspense of being caught in dangerous situations and the relative sedate, even boring parts of simply waiting: waiting for help, waiting for a way out. The “slow” parts contribute to the sense of realism, because that’s what you would expect when communication and transportation are difficult. In terms of character, this translates into Mirai becoming both irritable and impatient, which acts as a foil for the optimism of both Mirai and Yuuki, to the point where it seems a bit exaggerated: but I think Mirai’s response is believable, given her character and her age. People don’t change overnight, even in the midst of disaster; the moment there’s any level of stability, Mirai and Yuuki settle back into an almost normal pattern of bickering. This shows a nuanced understanding of human behavior that’s rare in anime.
One thing that’s noticeable at least so far is how well civil society is holding up. The authorities as depicted here actually seem to be doing a decent job in spreading information and getting people to the right places (especially given the circumstances). Relief supplies are being distributed in an orderly way. There is some rudeness, pushing, and shoving, but no major breakdown in the bonds of civility as of yet. This may change as the crisis is prolonged, of course–particularly after such a symbolic landmark gets toppled in episode 4, which can only be a harbinger of more bad things to come. But either this is a relatively optimistic look at what might transpire in such a devastating quake, or we simply have yet to reach the worst parts of the crisis. Typically, major disasters can bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. We’ve been mostly seeing examples of the best so far. If this anime is in any way accurate, Tokyo is not going to be suffering anything like the fate of New Orleans in 2005, and perhaps the famous Japanese reserve and rectitude is going to help them make it through. (See Haruki Murakami’s reflections on how Tokyo-ites experienced the sarin gas attacks in 1995, Underground.)
Once again, Bones has chosen a good project. This is not the kind of show that one usually sees in the sedate summer season, and it’s definitely worth your time to watch. It might even–living in an earthquake prone area myself that’s going to have its own Big One eventually–inspire some forethought about what might be done during a similar disaster. I should probably go gather up that earthquake emergency kit now….