Running time: 133 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
People often trumpet the old adage "Live everyday as if it were your last", but very few people do. Maybethey should. Lord knows that life is a transitory and fragile thing. The more we postpone, sleepwalk through, or simply ignore the things that are most important to us the more we jeopardiye ever truly experiencing them. The biggest obstacle to this is that we've built our civilization on distraction. From waking up in the morning to going to bed at night we are bombarded by easy entertainment, consumer coercion, and the constant pressure to bank things away for a golden future that may never come. It's almost as if we all knew that if everyone started to "live everyday as if it were the last" that every office would be closed, bank accounts would be emptied, and there would be chaos in the streets. Now forgive me if this is getting a bit preachy, but it's this central dilemma of facing our morality and seizing the day that lies at the center of Tomoyuki Takamoto's big screen adaptation of Motoro Mase's manga "Ikigami", but is terribly botched, at least in my estimation, by portraying a near future Japan in which the constant threat of death is used to keep the cogs and wheels of society working.
In the film Japan has been brought down by rising crime rates and a nose-diving GDP. The solution? A National Prosperity Law is put in place and enforced by a rather extreme measure. Upon entry into elementary school every child receives and injection that may or may not kill them when they reach adulthood. You see, 0.1% of these injections contain a microscopic nano-capsule that is designed to travel to the heart and rupture the coronary artery. This takes place on a set date and time between the host's 18th and 24th birthday. Nobody knows if they received the lethal injection as a child or not, nor do they know the date and time of their death. That is the job of a central government agency who keep track of the young men and women who are set to die. Hours prior to to their deaths an ikigami or death notice is hand delivered to them marked with the exact hour that they will pass. The ikigami grants them free access to food, lodging and transportation, plus a pension that will be paid to their surviving family. To prevent the person from going wild during their last day on Earth they are informed that if they commit a crime during the next 24 hours the pension will be paid to the victims of the crime or the victim's family instead.
Got all that? Good, because it's in this central concept that most of the problems with "Ikigami" lie. First off, there is Fujimoto (played by Ryuhei Matsuda's younger brother Shota) who is one of the government agents who is tasked with delivering the ikigami. We know nearly nothing about his character and we should, but the real crime here is that his performance elicits absolutely no desire in the audience to get to know him. Fujimoto wanders the city with a furrowed brow, obviously uncomfortable with the National Prosperity Law, but doing nothing about it. The recipients are another problem. One by one we are introduced to a group of young men (where are all the women?) who have been marked for death. There's Tsubasa (Yuta Kanai), a young singer/songwriter who is poised to make it big as part of a pop duo called the T-Birds, Satoshi (Takayuki Yamada), a small time loan shark who's been the sole guardian of his younger sister Sakura (Riko Narumi) who was blinded in a car accident that claimed the lives of their parents, and Naoki (Ryohei Abe), a young man driven to become a hikikomori or "shut in" by his politician mother's (Jun Fubuki) overweening desire to advance her career. After Fujimoto visits each of these men we're treated to their tearful last day and then the film moves on. This episodic quality is obviously a carry over from Maes's original manga, but it would have been nice if he (Mase headed up the script for the film) had taken a few more liberties with his original work when adapting it to a feature film. Yes, there is some overlap between plotlines, mainly Tsubasa's song and Naoki's mother running for a seat in the Diet, but the film never feels like a cohesive whole.
Now we come to the biggest problem of the film. If you've been bombarded with propoganda since you were a child about how the the deaths prescribed by The National Policy Law would serve the nation wouldn't you be happy if you were chosen? Pleased? Slightly honoured? I mean the whole point of it is to make people aware of their mortality (at least until they're 25) so that they'll be more productive and better citizens. The problem is everyone is miserable. If this law is designed to make society better I just don't see the evidence on the screen. It's not "Be a good citizen or we'll kill you" but "Be a good citizen and we'll kill you". Huh?
Obviously "Ikigami is reminiscent of such films as "Logan's Run", "The Island", and even "The Ballad of Narayama", but each of those films present believable scenarios as to why a society would sacrifice its people. In the case of "The Island" you kill people, but you convince them that they're going to a paradise instead. In 'Logan's Run"and "The Balad of Narayama" your justification for killing is that the older members of society have ceased being useful, which brings up another big problem with "Ikigami": why would you kill off the 18 - 24-year-olds? With a nation like Japan who is facing a growing crisis with a rapidly aging population it just doesn't make sense.
While director Tomoyuki Takamoto does a nice job capturing the look and feel of an Orwellian world "Ikigami" ends up being a muddled and maudlin mess that takes an intriguing central premise and very quickly riddles it with holes that any intelligent moviegoer can't ignore.