It's a Japanese live-action adaptation of a manga with a central idea as evil and thought-provoking as Death Note
and Battle Royale
. The film's nowhere near as powerful as those two, though. It's plodding and sentimental, but nonetheless also as compelling and bleak as the likes of Logan's Run.
The film's concept is that at the age of six, the Japanese government forces all children to have an injection. 99.9% of these injections are harmless. However one in a thousand contains nano-capsules which at a pre-determined time in the next 15-20 years will head for your heart and kill you. This is government policy. It keeps track of who's going to die and then 24 hours before their termination, sends out an official with an ikigami (i.e. Death Notice) to give you time to make any final arrangements. You probably won't be happy about this news, but on the upside the government will provide a pension for your family afterwards and in the meantime give you lots of money and complete freedom to help you enjoy what's left of your life. You have 24 hours in which to do anything you like. What would you do?
This is pretty extreme. Naturally the first question to ask is "why"?
The government's official line is that making people afraid of death teaches them the value of life. What's more, this argument has some force. Someone who's received a Death Notice might do things that could have changed their lives years ago if they'd just had the guts to do them, while of course they're counting every hour and minute until the end. The official line is that the dead have been sacrificed for the state, as "the foundation of national prosperity". They claim that suicide and crime rates have fallen since the introduction of the "Prosperity Law", while productivity and GDP have risen and turned Japan into an economic powerhouse again.
If we believed these figures, you could argue long and painfully about whether this was justified. Consider just the fall in suicides, for instance. If the number of lives saved was double the number of people killed, would you vote for this law?
However in practice of course this is merely what the government are telling you. This is a society where "thought crime" is punishable by brainwashing and you're under CCTV surveillance all day every day. As with the Battle Royale
Act, it thus seems just as likely that they're simply trying to control their citizens through fear. Besides, even if those in power actually believe what they're saying, that still doesn't mean their conclusions are correct. Governments do and think bone-headed things all the time, especially totalitarian ones. For instance it's perfectly possible that the boost in economic activity is due to a counter-intuitive population boom as terrified parents have more children and thus defuse Japan's demographic time bomb, which would be quite clever (in an evil way).
So that's the premise. How does it work as a film?
The bad news is that unlike Death Note
and Battle Royale
, a killer story idea doesn't seem to have translated into a killer story. There's no tension. You can't escape the inevitable. There's no question of who will live or die, but instead merely a series of sombre character pieces as we watch people face the end. Besides, the central question isn't quite as fascinating as it sounds. Personally I'd be really boring if I were given a Death Notice, for instance. I wouldn't go around buying helicopters or robbing banks, for instance. Why would I want to do that? Maybe if I lived in Brazil or Columbia I'd start trying to kill members of the drug gangs, but I don't.
Our lead character is Shota Matsuda, whose Orwellian job is that of hand-delivering the letters. You wouldn't catch me applying for that job. People aren't going to take the news well. Matsuda is weasel-faced and has no discernable personality, but he's also a nice guy who's willing to get into hot water with his bosses for the sake of his, um, clients. (Imagine the warmth and human compassion you'd expect in the Government Department of Randomly Killing People For The Sake Of The State. Nope, sorry, you've overestimated.)
As for his clients, there are three main stories, plus a fourth brief one in the pre-credits sequence. They're all unrelated. None could be called exciting, but they all have their own drama and they're all capable of being shocking. I cried. At its strongest, these stories pack one hell of an emotional punch, whether it be from a grieving single mother or from a blind girl and her brother. Admittedly the film is capable of being heavy-handed in its sentiment, but that's counterbalanced by the frequent use of black comedy. There are some truly evil laughs here. There's a lot of irony, especially when it comes to the story involving Jun Fubuki. I last saw her playing Junko Sato in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seance
(2000) and here she's playing someone with even more reason for the audience to hate her: a politician campaigning for re-election on a "Prosperity Law Yay!" ticket. What she says and does here is breathtaking, but not in a good way. This is a role that could have crushed a lesser actress and if nothing else, you've got to admire Fubuki's courage in tackling the part.
This is quite a film. I'd recommend it, although don't expect it to be jolly. (I was about to say "not a barrel of laughs", but in fact I was actually laughing quite often, albeit usually in an appalled way.) That said, I don't think it hits all its emotional targets. The musician's song and the final shot of the cherry trees, for instance, didn't work for me. However these things are all subjective and when the film does hit a target, you'll really feel it. The ending feels sequel-hunting, but apparently the original manga isn't one of those never-ending series and there almost certainly isn't going to be an Ikigami 2. That's okay, though. This film is about life, death and the relationship between them, not plotting.
Incidentally, that bit right at the end where the camera's focused on some anonymous white-coated scientist... I think that's the guy who got dragged away at the beginning for his thought crimes. I'd need to rewatch to be sure, though.