In 2018, Chie Hayakawa already explored her idea of a governmental program to decrease the elderly population in her contribution to Ten Years Japan (2018). For her first feature film, she revisits this idea. As her short-film was already so engaging, it seems a given that a more developed treatment of the same themes would result in an amazing narrative.
One day, the Japanese government launches Plan 75, a program to encourage citizens aged 75 and above to euthanize themselves in order to diminish the threat they pose for the economical stability and ensure a bright future for the country. Elderly people who decide to register for the plan are rewarded with sum of 100,000 yen to ‘prepare’ in any way for their death. There is no need to use this money to arrange a funeral and burial as the group-plan – i.e. a plan where elderly people’s ashes are buried together – is completely free.
Despite being well past retirement age, Michi (Chieko Baisho) still works part-time as a hotel chambermaid to maintain her independence. The commitment of Hiromu (Hayato Isomura), a plan 75 salesperson, to the bureaucratic ‘welfare’ program is challenged when his estranged uncle, by signing up for the scheme, confronts him with radical lack of desire. Meanwhile, to pay for her daughter Ruby’s medical treatment, Maria (Stefanie Arianne), a Filipino care worker, decides to take a higher-paying job at one of the many mass crematoriums.
Plan 75 paints a bleak future where the ethical thought of utilitarianism is radically followed. With her dystopian story, Hayakawa does not merely confronts us with the dark terminus of the maxim The greatest good for the greatest number but also reveals the radical and inhumane nature of such an ethical thought. It is because such thought becomes bureaucratized, merely applied to a set of a-subjective numbers that represent the societal/economical ‘good’, that it produces its horrible truth – the horror of the symbolic machine.
The promotional video played at the plan 75 centre which frames the program as giving the elderly subject the right to decide when to die is, of course, merely a facade. The humane benevolence of granting anyone above 75 a right to euthanize does not change the fact that the success of the program depends on how much cremations it can accumulate, how much it can reduce the burden elderly people pose for the economy. The bureaucratic truth of the program is subtly echoed through its slogan: “to protect our future”. Rather than celebrating subjective choice, the slogan frames the subject’s choice to die as a necessary sacrifice to protect the economical future of his/her society (Narra-note 1). As the narrative illustrates, some elderly subjects have no problem, in part due to myriad of luxurious benefits they receive, to view the advertised need to die as their duty to their offspring.
The subjective trajectories of Michi and Hiromu touch each in their own way upon the increasing problem of loneliness within Japanese society, the disintegration of familial bonds and the subsequent social isolation of subjects. Michi might not have any familial bonds left, she tries to give her existence meaning by working. Her decision to work is thus not merely motivated by monetary needs – to ensure that she can support her independency, but a need to hold a symbolic position so that her life retains a minimal direction (Narra-note 2, General-note 1). Yet, as her sudden sacking at the hotel illustrates, she tries to hold on to a minimal symbolic position within a society that does not want her, a society that not only ostracizes the single elderly person but has elevated the choice to euthanize as the only meaningful act possible for the elderly. The sudden isolation, the falling away of minimal symbolic bonds, is the main reason why Michi ultimately decides to register for the program.
Maria’s choice to work at a mass crematorium allows the spectator to grasp how much the elderly subject is dehumanized by the economic discourse that lingers within the societal fabric and guides the subject’s thinking. One of Maria’s colleagues puts it rather crudely: You’re useful, no trash. The ultimate point he makes is not that once people die, they become useless trash, but that, from an economical perspective, the elderly subject is already dead before his/her cremation. He/she is but a sack of organs and blood without a societal function. The way the bodies of the elderly are disposed off is not merely impersonal – an assembly line-like mass cremation – but an event that is radically cut off from the symbolic. The body does not receive any funerary celebration that would inscribe its loss into symbolic, but is disposed as waste outside the societal eye and erased from the symbolic. Hiromu glances in his own way at the horrific inhuman bureaucratic truth – elderly people are societal waste – that underpins the plan 75 program. Is it not this glance that, as a catalyst, determines his subsequent actions?
Chie Hayakawa delivers a composition that does not only have a measured visual flow, but also boasts many elegantly composed shots (Cine-note 1). While both elements as such are important element to ensure the spectator’s visual enjoyment, the strength of her composition lies, in our view, in the way the visual rhythm reinforces the impact of the shots. Not only does Hayakawa’s restrained use of the cut allow the beauty of her geometrical compositions come to their full right, it also allows the cruelty that hides in the moments of visual elegance to reach and touch the spectator.
With Plan 75, Hayakawa hauntingly confronts the spectator with what would happen if the existence of the subject was radically reduced by the government to how much he/she financially contributes to the society. In such a calculative societal system, where subjects become either positive or negative numbers, the elderly become expensive waste that is better quickly disposed off than left rotting in the societal field. Moreover, via the sci-fi element, Hayakawa highlights the very societal ills that plague the Japanese Other and for which the goverment has no approproate answer. Highly recommended.
Narra-note 1: Plan 75, as the narrative hauntingly implies, does not merely allow the government to lighten the burden on the economy by pushing elderly to their death, but also allow it to decrease spending tax-money on combatting the societal problems the elderly population faces. In fact, the governmental failure to adequately respond to these problems is one of the reasons why Plan 75 is so successful.
The government, as the closure of the welfare consultation counter and outreach events shows, takes active but underhanded steps at making Plan 75 favourable to the isolated elderly population.
Narra-note 2: In contrast to her friends, Michi cannot utilize a familial signifier (e.g. grandmother) to give her life some sense. Instead, she needs to rely on the signifier ‘part-time employee’.
General-note 1: Japanese pensions are quite low compared to other countries. Many elderly people do some kind of part-time work to improve their monthly income.
Cine-note 1: The measured nature of the composition is not only function of the restrained use of the cut, but also the slow and generally fluid dynamic moments.
Cine-note 2: The beauty of Hayakawa’s shot-compositions is, in many cases, due to a simple geometrical play that is intensified by using lighting and colour-contrasts.