Death Notice – Ikigami

cast: Shota Matsuda, Yuta Kanai, Jun Fubuki, Takayuki Yamada

director: Tomoyuki Takimoto

133 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
MVM DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Death Notice – Ikigami

My heart sank when I learned that this film is based upon an award-nominated manga serial by Motoro Mase. It sank not because I was familiar with the manga, or because I dislike manga in general, but because of the tendency for Japanese film adaptations of manga to bend over backwards to please the fans of the original manga without worrying about whether or not the film is actually any good on its own terms. Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s 20th Century Boys (2008) I am looking at you. However, Death Notice – Ikigami is not only a good film; it is also a work of cinematic speculative fiction that functions neither as a thriller nor an action film but as a genuinely moving work of tragedy.

Death Notice is structured as a series of short films held together by a sort of framing narrative. The framing narrative concerns Kengo Fujimoto (Shota Matsuda) who is recruited into the branch of the Japanese civil service devoted to enforcing the national prosperity laws. The NPL laws demand that one child in a thousand be injected with an undetectable nano-capsule that will detonate at some point between their 18th and their 24th birthdays, killing them on the spot. In return for this act of sacrifice, the grieving families receive a pension and the entire Japanese nation lives their young lives with the knowledge that they could be one of the citizens chosen at random to die.

This possibility reportedly adds zest to life and so the Japanese nation enjoys much reduced suicide and crime rates and levels of economic productivity that are the envy of the world. However, in order for this system to work, Fujimoto’s government agency has to serve the death notices and ensure that the deaths go smoothly as well as clamping down on anyone who commits a ‘thought crime’ by questioning the system. Fujimoto has his doubts about the validity of the system but he keeps his doubts in check as he serves his notices to three very different people.

The first notice goes to an aspiring musician (Yuta Kanai) whose death is due to occur at the same time as he is scheduled to get his big break by appearing on a TV show. Initially frozen by the knowledge of his imminent death, the musician then starts to pick over the choices he has made in order to get him to the verge of success. The more he digs, the more he realises that he has made silly mistakes and so, he decides to redeem himself in a way that suggests that, beneath the thought crime legislation, the Japanese people might well be getting sick of sacrificing their children to the national interest.

The second and third notices are delivered almost side-by-side as Takimoto decides to interweave their individual stories. Seemingly intended to evade the problem of an overly episodic structure, this interweaving does little but break up the dramatic flow of the two stories whilst adding little to either the individual stories or the increasingly political framing narrative.

The second notice goes to a young man (Takayuki Yamada) who works as an illegal debt collector. Initially, this pegs him as a criminal who has failed to make much of his life before his death but it soon transpires that the man’s descent into criminality is less a question of laziness or selfishness and more a means of acquiring as much money as possible as quickly as possible so that he can offer a better life to his blind sister. When he learns that he is due to die, the young man organises the donation of his corneas so that his sister can have an operation that will restore her sight but his sister refuses to accept his eyes and so he has to engage in an elaborate scheme in order to hide his death from his sceptical sister.

The third notice goes to the son of a noted conservative politician (Jun Fubuki). When she hears that her son will die, the politician attempts to get him to endorse her political campaign in a gesture that will most likely put her over the top and secure her the victory that she so desperately craves. However, her son is a traumatised shut-in and he refuses to give her his endorsement. When the politician decides to lie about his endorsement of her campaign, the son is moved to act as his trauma turns out to stem from the moment his mother was dragged away to be re-educated in the wake of her prosecution for thought crimes.

Another reason for interweaving the second and third notices is that they are both less substantial than the first and their pay-off speaks less to the internal dynamics of the characters and more to the overarching political issues as raised in the framing narrative. Indeed, is it acceptable for a state to sacrifice 0.1 percent of its population if it means that 99.9 percent of the population gets to lead better lives? Aside from this moral question, the film also raises a practical question in that while Japan’s economy is clearly booming and average earnings are way up; individual Japanese people seem just as likely to be grappling with depression, poverty and a sense of missed opportunity as everyone else. If the Japanese state cannot guarantee that individuals will lead better lives, then does it have any right to demand the sacrifice of 0.1 percent of its population?

However, while these are all fascinating questions of political philosophy, they remain very much in the background of a film that uses dystopian tropes to look at the different ways in which people confront death. Death Notice – Ikigami is a story of human tragedy rendered in wasted potential, sublimated love and repressed resentment. The tragedy flows not from the simple fact that its characters have to die but from the messes they have got themselves in when they realize that they only have a day to live and sort themselves out.

For example, the young musician reached a point in his life when success seem assured but in order to get to that point he had to betray his friend and take-up with an arrogant sharp-elbowed careerist who sees him as a means-to-an-end and treats him as little more than an employee. That the musician made a mistake is beyond question, as is his need to make things right and so the tragedy lies in the fact that he has lived his short life burdened with regret. The fact that he will never get a chance to become successful with his friend is genuinely heartbreaking. Similarly, there is something incredibly sad about the way in which the politician mistreated her son for his failure to live up to her artificially engineered expectations whilst seemingly oblivious to the fact that his emotional frailty was because she was carted off to be re-educated. Each scolding and every screaming match saw her trying to force expectations on her son when it is those expectations that cripple him.

There is something profoundly refreshing about Death Notice because not only does it seek to tug the heart-strings rather than quicken the pace, it also tugs the heart-strings in a way that displays a real depth of insight into the human condition and the different ways in which we face death. Each of Death Notice’s episodes functions as a delicious and perfectly contained capsule of loss, grief and hope in the face of death. This beautiful and intelligently written film reminds us not only of the power and versatility of science fictional tropes but also of Japanese cinema’s capacity for innovation and emotional depth.

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Back to the review of the movie,

Even if you do not generally enjoy tales of science fictional dystopia, there is more raw humanity in this film than in half the mainstream art house dramas to be released in western cinemas.

Death Notice – Ikigami comes with trailers as the only extra but the Wikipedia page promises much. When the original manga (known as Ikigami – Ultimate Limit) was published in Japan, it was serialised in Shogakugan’s Weekly Young Sunday magazine. The serial ran between August 2005 and September 2009 and was translated for the American market by Viz Media. According to Wikipedia, there are eight volumes of Ikigami – Ultimate Limit, which leaves ample room for a sequel. Mostly, I have little interest in sequels because they tend to mean that either the narrative is bloated or that somebody has decided to milk a bit more money from the good will generated by a successful intellectual property. However, the ending of Death Notice – Ikigami suggests that Fujimoto and some of the victims’ families may be poised to begin a campaign to overturn the national prosperity laws. This is a story that needs to be told; especially if it means that, it can be told through vignettes as well observed and beautifully drawn as the ones in this film. I generally have no truck with sequels but, for fuck’s sake, someone please make a ‘Death Notice – Ikigami 2’!