An authoritarian state maintains order by systematically killing one in every thousand individuals in this satirical, dystopian drama. At the age of six, children are injected with a vaccine with a 0.1% chance of killing them at a specified time between the ages of 18 and 24. The people who are due to die receive 24 hours warning in the form of an Ikigami (or death notice); they are given access to free food, accommodation and transportation, as well as a pension for their surviving relatives, but if they commit a crime this money will go to pay their victims. Kengo Fujimoto (Shota Matsuda) works for the government office responsible for delivering these notices, little by little beginning to question his work as he sees the human impact of this policy. The first person he contacts is Tsubasa Tanabe (Yuta Kanai), who receives notification of his impending death on the eve of a major breakthrough as a singer. The second is shut-in Naoki Takazawa (Kazuma Sano), the son of a politician (Jun Fubuki), whose Ikigami stirs him out of his apathy and depression to violent action. And finally Satoshi (Takayuki Yamada) who is caring for his blinded sister Sakura (Riko Narumi) after the two of them were orphaned.
Ikigami” presents an fascinatingly subtle dystopian future, that could even be set in the modern day if not for this minor addition of the law mandating the death of a percentage of the population. The film’s opening sequence, where we see a man attempting to take revenge on his school bully, is something of a misdirection, leading us to think we are about to witness an action-packed anti-establishment thriller. The film soon settles into a more sombre, downbeat tone, with almost monochromatic offices where the government officials deal with the death notices, and sentimental moments as the characters contend with their premature ends. This is intentional, with director Tomoyuki Takimoto and the crew drawing a distinction between the cold corporatism of this inhuman policy, with the deep emotionality of the humans it affects. The score by Hibiki Inamoto, of heart-wrenching strings, is used sparingly, often allowing the performances to speak for themselves. The sizeable cast do a great job, with what is effectively three separate storylines, of Tsubasa, Satoshi and Sakura, and Naoki. Importantly, we sense the connection or lack of with these characters and those around them, buying into their sense of regret at things left unfinished, or deep sorrow at what they will miss out on. In the direction, with scenes shot through surveillance cameras, or the repeated shots of monorails, the film provides visual shorthand for many of the themes and ideas, such as mortality and the seemingly impossible struggle against faceless authoritarianism.
“Ikigami” is based on the novel by Motoro Mase, who also worked on the screenplay, and establishes a simple yet compelling premise. The given reason for this seemingly cruel act is that it provokes a respect for life in the citizenship, and that their fear of death keeps them subservient. We learn that crime rates have fallen and people’s gratitude for life makes them work hard and not step out of line. The film’s subtle authoritarianism, reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 with its references to thought-crime and the coldly bureaucratic nature of state violence, is a dystopia that only slightly exaggerates a lot of common societal problems and a government’s attitude towards controlling their population. Japan is a society very much built around ideas of conformity and the film satirises this perfectly, with parents willingly allowing their children to be injected with a potentially fatal capsule; politicians actively cheering on the death of individuals for the greater good; and the matter-of-fact way this horrific law has become a part of everyday life. There are suggestions throughout that people are fighting back against the system, but they are shut down quickly, with people being hauled off for re-education or punishment. And despite the senselessness of what is happening, most of those affected accept their fate without considering taking action against the state. In this way the film is perhaps more powerful, or gives a better idea of how insidious totalitarian ideology can be, as there is no impending revolution, only a fragile hope for a better tomorrow, and a population with no way to organise or fight back against a fatal, technocratic evil.
While the film might most easily described as a satire, there are also elements that seem jarringly sentimental and life-affirming. Tsubasa’s reconciliation with his old friend, and Satoshi and Sakura’s relationship almost seem to be proving the government’s argument that the system works to create a respect for life. These moments, packed with emotionality, stand in stark contrast to the world of Fujimoto, of workers carrying out orders without ever truly contemplating the effects of their actions. In a sense the film is providing propaganda for the totalitarian regime, while trusting that the audience are wily enough not to fall for it. A striking dystopian drama that shows the true horror of totalitarianism and the dangers of an overly passive society.