My Review of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0

It’s summertime in Japan! No more pencils, no more books, no more senseis dirty looks… This is especially true for seventh grader Mirai Onozawa, who’s elected not to take any summer classes, and as a result, she gets to have the whole vacation to herself! Unfortunately, her parents aren’t so lucky, and they still have to spend that time working, meaning that there are no plans for the Onozawa family to take a fun trip this year, like several of Mirai’s classmates are. Her newfound freedom comes back to bite her in the ass when her mother assigns her to take her little brother, first grader Yuuki Onozawa, to a robot exhibition in Odaiba, which he’s been looking forward to attending for months up until then. Poor Mirai trudges her way to Odaiba, carrying her little brother in tow while lamenting just how lame her life is, and while she does manage to have a little bit of fun there, she’s all to happy to get out of there when it’s finally time to leave and go home. She lets her brother go off unsupervised to use the bathroom and pick up some drinks, and she waits outside for him, tweeting about how much she wants the world to just break apart.

No sooner does she post this message than the legendary city of Tokyo is hit by a massive magnitude 8.0 earthquake, shaking the convention center to it’s foundation and causing a catastrophic amount of death and destruction to the city. By hanging onto the guard rail outside of the center, Mirai is able to safely get a clear birds eye view of the damage, but her brother is still inside! With the help of gold-hearted motorcyclist and struggling single mother Mari, Mirai finds Yuuki, and the three of them get out just in time as as the first of many aftershocks hits. They’re out of the convention center, but they’re not out of the woods yet, as they’re still miles away from home, blocked off by seemingly endless destruction. Together, the three of them must traverse the ruins of a great city, encountering people who have lost everything as they strive to hold onto what little they have left, but with danger at every corner, aftershocks striking when they least expect it, and no means of contacting home, do they even stand a chance?

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 was produced by Studio Bones, and it was a pretty solid effort. I honestly don’t have anything to complain about with the animation here. There’s a lot of walking and talking which really doesn’t require that much money to keep up in terms of quality, and the extra money clearly got poured into the heavier action scenes and a few very beautiful art pieces, none of which last nearly long enough to truly appreciate their eye candy potential. There are a few moments that feel a bit undercut, like they had to go cheap to compensate for a more complicated visual down the line, but they’re few and far between, and they never really last long enough to matter. The bulk of the budget was most likely spent on the earthquake itself, which often looks so viscerally realistic that you could swear you were actually there, trying to survive it alongside our young heroes. The running animations, along with all of the practical effects like rubble falling, dust flying through the air and people bracing themselves against each impact lend the series a truly harrowing feel.

I’ve never been to Tokyo, and I don’t know much about it’s geography or infrastructure, so I can’t really speak as to how accurately it’s portrayed in this series, but the level of detail in the architecture is breathtaking. It’s almost a shame to see these buildings collapse and crumble, because it feels like they put a ton of time and effort into drawing them as intricately as they did. They took great strides to make everything look as realistic as possible, so not only are the buildings themselves thoroughly designed, but the destruction as well is truly awe inspiring, creating an appropriately post-apocalyptic mood that I normally only see in video games that actually DO take place in a post apocalyptic setting. There were parts where characters would be poking around inside of a building, and I was half-expecting a zombie or even a Clicker to pop out. This makes the sense of devastation and isolation feel real, bringing a heart-pounding level of immersion to the ravaged wasteland that Tokyo’s become.

The characters are about as realistic in proportion as Bones characters can possibly get, with the only real fantasy element being the giant eyes of all the children in the story. Aside from that, characters are believably proportioned, with heads the appropriate size in comparison to their bodies, uniformly dark colored hair and normal, almost boring looking clothing. They do look a bit cartoony when juxtaposed against the more realistic backgrounds, but that’s a nitpick. The lighting changes noticeably to match the time of day, at times hitting a beautiful twilight glow, and there are certain moments where the color mix is just exquisite. A few of these scenes are strongly tied to some heavy spoilers, but the one example I think I can give you is when Mirai, Mari and Yuuki stop by a shelter, they sit by the edge of a small pool, and the reflection on the surface is a blend of colors that Mirai compares to stained glass windows, and she is not even slightly exaggerating. It’s very good looking show all around, but you might want to watch this particular scene a few times through.

I don’t really have a lot to say for Koh Otani’s musical score. It blends into the show so well that you barely notice it unless you’re deliberately listening to it, and when I play it out of context, it just comes off as a little generic… Not bad by any means, just the same kind of score that I’ve heard in a million other anime. My personal disconnect with the material might be why I have such a hard time feeling any emotional impact from his work on this project, and if so, I guess that’s on me. It does it’s job. I had a very similar reaction to the opening theme, Kimi no Uta by Abingdon Boys School… Weird name for a band, unless it’s actually a music class that’s responsible for this song… Played over what I’m assuming were production sketches from the developmental stages of the series. Once again, it’s fine, but doesn’t really stand out in any way. I actually strongly preferred the ending theme, M/Elody by Shion Tsuji, which had a really Indie feel to it, even though it’s visuals were just photographs of Mirai and Yuuki walking.

The English dub is a little on the mediocre side, too. That’s not to say it’s bad, I mean, I actually think Luci Christian pulled off an exceptionally strong performance as Mirai, all things considered. The character does very little but complain and act like a sourpuss for the majority of the series, and Luci’s grounded, subtle performance made her sound like a long suffering teen who thinks she’s over the world, even though she clearly cares about her family, and she managed to bring a deep sadness to the character whenever she needed to. Tiffany Grant played the younger Yuuki, and while she proved she could be just as unrecognizable in a child role as Christine Auten has in the past, she didn’t have much to work with out of unrestrained happy-go-lucky loudness and the occasional crying. I’ve never found Shelley Callene Black to be the strongest emoter… Unless she’s playing a really strong or cold role, I’ve always found sort of a wall of insincerity in her way… So I think I would have enjoyed better casting in her role as Mari. Greg Ayres and Brittany Karbowski also pop up here and there, playing extras and one-shot characters, but they’re hit and miss.

So here’s the thing. There are a lot of things we anime fans have in common in the way we judge anime, and there are a lot of values and standards that most of us share, but if there’s one that I’ve found to stand out in particular, it’s that we all seem to love a good tear jerker. I always see people giving exuberantly high ratings to any anime that gives them that incurable emotional illness, “The Feels.” If an anime makes you cry, it’s an instant masterpiece, regardless of whatever problems it may have had throughout. I know I’m not the only person who’s noticed this, because there are a lot of anime that have taken advantage of it to compensate for other major issues in their stories, effectively using shameless tragedy porn to grab people by the hearts and string them along for an easy 10/10 score that’s pretty much guaranteed to them, and if you complain about the logical or ethical fallacies that people have missed or just straight up ignored, they criticize you for nitpicking, saying you’ve gotta watch the series with your heart and not your head, or that you’re thinking too much, just turn your brain off and have a good time.

The backlash for some of these titles can be devastating, like for people who saw through the epic romance of Sword Art Online, but for most shows, emotional manipulation can lead to large and highly defensive fanbases. Clannad makes them cry, so who cares about the blatant harem aspects, or the fact that it all centers around a reprehensible deadbeat asshole? Who cares about the fact that the characters whose deaths you’re crying over are written so badly that you feel worse for the person losing them than you do for them in the first place? Who cares if stories like Angel Beats and Steins Gate don’t make any sense, and are full of game breaking plot holes? It’s the feels, damn it, the feeeeeeells! Which is why, when I get around to watching a show that’s been touted as heart breaking and emotionally powerful, I normally approach with caution, lest I be tempted and eventually let down by another predictable, cliched title that confuses tragedy with drama. So where does Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 fall in my rankings?

Well, unfortunately, talking about the lauded ‘big tragic twist’ at the end of this series is gonna take us to some heavy places, so let’s instead start by talking about something more basic, the story and characters. This series is about three people trying to survive a natural disaster, and pretty much nothing else. There’s no real depth, there’s no real message, it’s just a straight journey through the devastated town to get back home. That’s not necessarily a bad thing… I mean, I loved homeward Bound as a kid… There’s really nothing wrong with a simple or shallow story, and it does have a strong concept, even if it’s not really trying to say anything with it. Even the worst concept can be carried by great characters, so let’s see who we’re working with on THAT front. We only have three major characters, with plenty of other named roles popping in an out of the story before being ultimately forgotten, and since those main roles consist of two children who we presumably wouldn’t want to see die and an adult risking her life and chances to make it back home just to watch over them, we could easily form a serious bond with our survivors.

Our main character is of course the tween-aged Mirai, with her little brother Yuuki serving as costar, and they’re total opposites as far as one being extremely positive and the other one being extremely negative, and the story treats them both like crap because of it. Mirai is the negative one, and she is constantly getting shit dumped on her as a result. She’s sour, she’s poutty, she’s ungrateful, and it feels like she’s constantly getting punished for it. A note to any aspiring writers out there… If you don’t like your main character either, then either develop them or make them likeable, don’t splatter hot food on them. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but the most development or nuance she gets is that she occasionally shows concern for people, which, congratulations, you’ve just surpassed the bare minimum of not being a sociopath. You’ve proven you can stop bitching long enough to cry and worry about people, that doesn’t give you a free pass to be the less interesting version of Grumpy Cat.

And then you have her little brother, the happy go lucky Yuuki, who takes things to the other extreme, being positive and acting upbeat for at least 95 percent of his screen time. In fact… Wait, how mean do I want to get with this? Screw it, no holding back now. He has all the personality and emotional range of a puppy. The only thing about him that makes him even remotely relatable beyond the bare idea of childhood is his love of robots, but aside from that, he’s more of a McGuffin than a character. I can’t really talk about my biggest problems with him without giving away some very heavy spoilers, so instead, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to spend the rest of the review just calling him Mirai’s puppy, just to see if it ever becomes a problem. Mirai has a puppy that she took to Tokyo for some reason, it walks around making unimportant barking noises, feeling way too joyful for the situation, worrying about his other humans that he hasn’t seen in a while, and constantly running off and causing trouble. He’s a fucking puppy.

And then you have Mari, who… honestly, I really wanted to like her. She’s saintly, mature, responsible, she takes two children into her care without a thought for her own well being… But I can’t, mainly because I don’t believe her. No, I’m not calling her a liar, I just don’t believe in the existence of a person like her. I don’t think I’m stretching things too far when I call her a Mary-Sue, and if you think I am then PLEASE, tell me what her flaws are. Even if you can believe in her as a person, and that she basically adopted Mirai and Yuuki for their trip home, why stop at them? Why form this three person group, and then just stop there? What makes those two kids so special that she doesn’t want to invite anyone else to join? They meet other people on their journey. They meet other CHILDREN on their journey, but no, it’s the three quakesketeers, because the idea of a single mother joining forces with two unaccompanied minors in a fight for survival is more marketable, I guess. And yes, I seriously wish they’d added more people to their group, because obviously their dynamic as it is does not work for me.

If there was ever an anime that badly needed a larger cast, it was this one. Rather than just three characters and a bunch of small cameos from other people, I kinda thought we’d get a much stronger exploration of the earthquake and it’s devastation if the series were more of an anthology piece, switching back and forth between different characters whose paths would occasionally converge. I’ll admit that I cared a little about Mari getting home to her daughter and mother, but when it came to Mirai and her puppy(See? I told you I’d do it), I honestly found myself wondering what it was that made them so much more important than anyone else, while I couldn’t stop thinking about the elderly couple who lost their grandkids, or the woman with a stuck stroller, or Mari’s scavenger friend. Mirai gets depressed over her inability to talk to or console her friend Megu, so how about just letting her do it? It might have actually been interesting to see. And of course there’s Kenta, the boy Mirai’s age which obviously means he’ll briefly serve as a love interest. I could have seen more of his exploits, although like the others, we never see him again after his appearance, meaning he might as well have died offscreen.

And as far as the story goes, all I can really say is that stuff happens. The earthquake itself is probably the only thing that’s ever foreshadowed(Aside from the tragic twist, which we’ll get to in a minute), and the rest of the anime is just the three main characters either moving in one direction or resting, all while being shaken by aftershocks so plot-specific that they honestly wound up being predictable more often than not. Even my first time through, I called about half of them a second or two before they happened. That’s not to say that there aren’t some scary moments, or that I never felt my pulse race, but even the most terrifying moment, the collapse of a certain monument that’s been featured in a ton of anime before, is ruined in retrospect by the realization that Mirai and her puppy clearly graduated from the Prometheus School of Running Away from Things. It’s a story about survival at it’s core, and while the characters are weak, it does at least manage to tell a story about survival, which is just about the least that was required of it.

So, the story is bland, it doesn’t live up to it’s potential, and the characters we’re supposed to be rooting for are less interesting than the one shot characters we never see again. If there’s anything that can save this anime, it’s the big tragic twist that everyone and their mothers praise the gospel about, right? It’s that element to the story that makes it emotionally powerful, heartbreaking, and a true masterpiece of anime tragedy, right? Well, okay, let’s examine this, and I’ll try to do so with as little spoilers as possible. I will admit that yes, the tragedy is set up really well. The catalyst is subtle, most people either won’t notice it or will just forget it over the course of the next few episodes, and there are just enough clues that I can safely say that someone on the writers team was at least trying to respect the viewer’s intelligence. As the clues get bigger, that unsettling feeling of dread creeps in, and the big reveal is built up, and when it’s finally time to lift the curtain, the other shoe drops… or does it? DUN DUN DUN!!!

Yeah, I’ll be honest, I was actually feeling very forgiving of this anime right up until they tried to make a plot twist out of it. They made so many bad decisions surrounding it, at least from my perspective, that I’m honestly not sure how to start, or how to even broach the subject. I guess I could start with the fact that they made a twist out of it in the first place, adding a layer of smugness to it that kinda takes away from the sting of it. I can’t really get emotional over it, because I can’t stop seeing the faces of the writers, saying “Hah hah! You didn’t see that coming, did you? Look at how smart we are! We totally got you, didn’t we? We made you think it didn’t happen, but it totally did! You fell for it, didn’t you?!” Honestly, no, I didn’t fall for it. Even my first time through, I saw through their act right from the start, because I’m not an idiot. I’ve seen this exact plot twist before, and I’ve seen it done so much better. Shyamalan did it better with The 6’th Sense, Goosebumps did it better with The Ghost Next Door, Scrubs did it better with Brendan fucking Frasier, and From the New World did it so well that the reveal hit me like a punch to the gut.

If burying the tragedy under a plot twist doesn’t telegraph to you just how manufactured this tragedy actually is, well, this part’s going to be REALLY hard to talk about without spoiling anything, so instead of talking about it directly, I’m going to talk about some heavy spoilers from Clannad Afterstory and the Studio Ghibli film Grave of the Fireflies. In both of these shows, the emotional highlight involves the death of very young children, but while one is considered an enduring masterpiece by audiences and critics alike, the other is considered by at least half the people who view it as shameless tragedy porn. Keeping this in mind, what separates the emotionally manipulative from the genuinely poignant? Well, in Clannad, the characters we lose… Both Nagisa and Ushio… Aren’t characters we’re supposed to identify with. We identify with Tomoya, so when he loses these characters, we’re supposed to feel their loss through him, and that’s just about the least dignified reason to kill off a character… A death where they aren’t even the focal point. To make matters worse, she just died so she could be brought back to life, like Brian Griffin. Thanks for nothing.

To be fair, Setsuko’s death in Grave of the Fireflies is also in service of another character, her older brother, but the point isn’t to make you sympathize with him, nor is it to draw cheap tears just because it wants to. They’re not trying to make us feel bad for him, so we’ll ignore all of his flaws… We know her death is his fault, we know HIS death is his fault, and it carried a powerful message that Japanese youths at the time needed to hear. This isn’t a fireflies review, and I’ll let you do your own research about the Japanese crime wave of the late eighties and the bubble economy that wound up popping, but suffice to say, Setsuko and Seita didn’t just die because people remember tear jerkers… There was an actual point to it. There was no point to the tragedy in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. There was nothing in that story that warranted a sad ending. A story has to earn a tragic ending when it’s characters are struggling against fate, but they ultimately fail due to their own flaws and the harshness of reality.

The tragic ending in 8.0 ultimately comes across as false because the characters, and by extension the story, never earn it. They don’t struggle, they don’t grow, they don’t have arcs, and the constant bad luck getting thrown their way often just feels like pointless cruelty from the writers, who have nobody but themselves to blame for writing a story that features little more thought than moving game pieces from point A to point B. It feels like a drama or action series, right up until it swings into Tragedy territory because it damn well wants to, and the fact that it has to hide under a hallucination gimmick so ridiculous that the hallucination has to tell the person having it that they’re a hallucination, we’ve officially entered territory so pathetic that I honestly would have taken a ‘ghost’ reveal more seriously. So did this big, tragic twist tug at my heart strings? No, but I’d be lying if I said I felt nothing throughout the series. It had it’s moments, and while I found that oh-so-celebrated twist to be pointlessly cruel, I did get a little choked up at certain scenes that took place AFTER the reveal was over. Like I said, it at least did the basics of a survival story competently enough.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is available from Maiden Japan, a child company of Sentai Filmworks. It can also be viewed on Hulu.

Despite my griping earlier, I don’t hate this show. It’s tolerable enough, even if I take some serious issues with it’s writing and it’s pathetic attempt at an undeserved sad ending. Do I think it should have had a happy ending? Well, it might not be as popular if it had gone that route, but it would have at least felt more true to itself. Of course it would have had to consist of much greater character writing to support this change, and for those of you who think I’m asking too much of a show whose cast is mostly comprised of children, I could point you towards plenty of titles that featured well written and interesting child characters… There’s Lilo and Stitch, pretty much every incarnation of Fullmetal Alchemist, the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies… Actually, you know what’s the perfect example of this? If you want to watch a series about two young siblings, one positive and one negative, facing danger and uncertainty as they try to make their way home, but both of them are fleshed out and have definitive personalities, check out Over the Garden Wall. For now, though, I give Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 a 5.0/10.

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