Ikigami (2008) by Tomoyuki Takimoto

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.

Shangri-la (2009)

In a future where global warming has caused mass devastation, the world has implemented a carbon-exchange mechanism to control the amount of carbon produced. Japan has become largely desolate, either underwater or covered in a vast forest. The people live in partly ruined buildings, a shadow of their once great civilisation. The exception to this is Atlas, a large tower that rises high above the Tokyo skyline. The ultra-modern society that dwell there are in stark contrast to the ordinary citizens below. The only way they can reach this tower is by winning a lottery. The series begins with Kuniko Hojo (Mikako Takahashi) being released from jail. She is greeted by Takehiko (Kenyu Horiuchi), Momoko (Joji Nakata) and Miiko (Hochu Otsuka). They are part of Metal Age, a revolutionary group that aim to take down Atlas and allow the ordinary people to enter. Atlas itself is ruled over by Ryoko Naruse (Rei Igarashi), an authoritarian with sadistic tendencies. Also residing in Atlas is Mikuni (Yui Ariga), who lives the life of a princess with her handmaidens and attendant Sayoko (Rie Ishizuka) and Karin Ishida (Yuka Iguchi), a computer genius who has developed a programme to disrupt and profit from the carbon market fluctuations. She spends her time blackmailing foreign governments and amassing a vast wealth while the people outside the tower struggle.

“Shangri-la” is directed by Makoto Bessho (Death Note) with a script by Hiroshi Onogi (Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne) The series is based on a science-fiction novel by Eichi Ikegami, also made into a 2009 manga, and has some really interesting ideas. The premise of a world that is ruled by a carbon market as a way to tackle the climate crisis is one that is timely and inspired. It allows for the perfect set-up of the elites and the commoners, both in Atlas and in the outer city of Duomo. The series is also forward-thinking in having two strong transgender characters, Momoko and Miiko, who play an important role throughout. Momoko especially is hilarious, able to laugh at herself, resilient and fiercely loyal to Kuniko. There is a huge cast of characters and all are given plenty of time to shine. Many do take typical roles, such as the schoolgirl heroine Kuniko, with uncanny martial abilities; the almost dominatrix-esque Ryoko, with her harem of male attendants; the curious Mikuni, who early on seems to be in the wrong series entirely, speaking in antiquated dialect and surrounded by pre-industrial décor. The show fits comfortably the expectations of a particular type of anime fan. One example of this is the inclusion of Akihabara and the three old men who are running a shop there: one a military obsessive, one an idol obsessed camera-man, and the other dressed in schoolgirl clothes and speaking primarily in cutesy anime phrases. These three provide a lot of comic relief and it is fun to see that even in the apocalypse Akihabara, the holy site of all that is geek culture, has still survived.

Akihabara is one example of the fantastic design of the series. It shows a different angle to the one usually presented, as we see the recognizable billboards rising above streets that are underwater. The idea of a heavily forested Tokyo is also one that is unique and appealing, doing away with the normal depictions in favour of something that is more primeval, with overgrown foliage and dense treescapes. The depictions of Atlas in contrast are slightly lacking, being all shiny walls and sparse office space. This perhaps is an indication of the brutalist, money-obsessed, culture as opposed to the bustling real-world outside. The animation certainly has its high-points, particularly in the sequences involving bombing raids.

One of the weirdest things about the series is that it seems like two very different stories jostling for position. The early episodes set up a conflict between the outsiders and the elites of Atlas. We also see Karin as she makes stacks of money off the carbon markets. It seems that everything is set up for a socio-economic satire of capitalism and the climate crises. However, part way through the series we are introduced to several other plot strands. The introduction of Hiruko is where this comes through the strongest. Hiruko resides in a dark chamber in Atlas, with grotesque eyes looking out from the walls. He seems to be swimming in a vat of what may be blood and is covered in ancient scraps of parchment. We learn that he survives by possessing the bodies of poor unfortunates who are thrown to him when the previous body can no longer survive. This second strand of the story, with a magical element, involved Mikuni (known as the “Moon Child”) and increasingly becomes the central strand of the plot. While it is a fascinating story, full of twists, and with a complex history worked out, the focus on this mystical thread does mean that the ideas established early on do fall by the wayside. The story becomes much more a story of a “Chosen One” than a revolutionary tale. “Shangri-la” also has a couple of sudden tonal shifts that make it hard to understand exactly what it wants to be. One of the most jarring of these follows a daring escape from a prison yard via hot-air balloon. This kind of bizarre feat is something that happens a lot to the characters, who are rarely troubled by logistical or even logical concerns. However, it is followed by a moment in which the other prisoners are violently gunned down. It is shocking and unexpected, but it feels that the lack of a consistent world in terms of tone means that some of these moments perhaps don’t hit as hard as they should.

All that being said, there is a lot to recommend Shangri-la. They throw in a lot of interesting ideas, a large cast of characters, fun dialogue and some great action moments. It’s main failing is perhaps in attempting to do too much and following common tropes. It is clear that the creators had some excellent ideas and it would have been good to see them push these original concepts a little further.

Akira (1988) by Katsuhiro Otomo

Akira opens with the devastating image of what appears to be a nuclear explosion tearing apart Tokyo in a flash of blinding white. 31 years later Neo-Tokyo has risen from the devastation, the urban sprawl of the city burying the secrets of the past. Motorcycle gangs, rioting and protests against the government are commonplace, and the city appears to be once again on the brink of societal collapse. Teenage friends Tetsuo and Kaneda, members of a biker gang head out to take on their rivals, the “clowns”, in a high-speed chase through the city. Tetsuo crashes into a boy who appears to have strange powers, his first interaction with a trio of mysterious children with telekinetic abilities. The government capture Tetsuo, who soon comes to realise that he is developing powers that he is barely able to control. Meanwhile Kaneda has fallen for a girl, Kei, who is working with a radical anti-government group attempting to uncover the governments secretive experiments on these children.

Written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote the manga on which it is based, “Akira” is a stunning achievement. From the high-speed chase that kickstarts the action to the cosmic horror of the final moments, the animators go all out to create a world that is vibrant and alive. The backgrounds are detailed with graffiti and signs of decay that make the world feel real and lived in. Add to this the explosions, shattering glass, water and lighting effects, and there is so much visual information on screen at any one time that it demands your attention. This is a good thing as the story moves at a break-neck pace. The manga on which it is based runs to 2000 pages, which means certain characters and subplots in the film are addressed only briefly, such as the government discussions and the quasi-religious group who worship Akira. Characters such as Tetsuo’s girlfriend and the leader of the resistance movement are likewise underdeveloped. This does however go a long way to making the film’s world feel absolutely real, as there is always the sense that a lot more is happening off-screen. There are two main story threads, one involving Tetsuo and Kaneda’s relationship, and one involving the secret government experiments, both of which are engaging and benefit from the background information we do get. The impact of the score is one element that cannot be understated, with tribal drums and breathy vocals, chanting and bells, it creates a unique sound that is traditional and timeless. The blasts of sound are an assault on the senses in the same way as the striking visuals.

Akira is a film that is at once epic, dealing with themes of cosmic significance, societal collapse and man’s hubristic drive towards ever more destructive technologies, and at the same time deeply personal, dealing with the psychology of Tetsuo, a young orphan who feels mistreated by the world. The nuclear era has more than ever led humanity to confront its inability to control what it is creating. The scientists and military in the film are representative of the naïve attempt to control such weapons (in this case represented by the children they are experimenting on). In one scene of the film we see the colonel and the scientist descending in an elevator, looking out over the towering skyscrapers. This visual metaphor for the inevitable fall after the rise of civilisation is poignant, even more so given that what they are facing has already happened before. They are doomed to this cycle of destruction and rebirth. Kaneda and Tetsuo are oblivious to their machinations, living at street level they are unaware that there are grand schemes afoot. The tragedy of Tetsuo is that he is a victim of society who is suddenly given absolute power. He is jealous and insecure, but what is terrifying is not that he is a flawed individual, but that he is given a power that allows him to act out his most harmful urges. It is also possible to see in him a rejection of religious ideology. Those who believe Akira and Tetsuo to represent some sort of salvation are in for a rude awakening when they realise that ultimate power can be misused and in fact will rarely benefit society. It is a rejection of the notion that absolute power is a good thing and questions the belief that the relentless march of progress is heading in the right direction.