On July 26, 2016, a 26-year-old ex-employee of a Japanese care home for intellectually and mentally disabled people broke into his former place of work and stabbed 19 defenseless patients to death in their beds. Believing his massacre to be a kind of mercy for his victims — and a noble sacrifice for the benefit of the entire nation — the killer wrote that he envisioned “a world where a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanized, with an agreement from their guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.”
The killer claimed that doing so was a necessary step to protect the economy of the world’s most rapidly aging country; an economy that’s stressed even further by the highest life expectancy of any country on Earth, and crushes its young people under the financial burden of paying for that longevity in the face of Japan’s strained pension funds. He claimed that the elderly recognized themselves as the personification of that burden, and were desperate for a way to resolve the inconvenience of their own deathlessness.
The mass slaughter in Sagamihara was an act of civilian violence so casual and horrifying that it seemed to owe as much to contemporary American fascism as it did historical (and also mythical) Japanese notions of nationalistic self-sacrifice, but the killer was confident that his bloodshed would strike a particularly dissonant chord in a country where troubling ones neighbors is often internalized as an immortal act.
To judge by Chie Hayakawa’s powerfully sobering and sinisterly benign “Plan 75” — a scripted drama born from the ghoulish plausibility of the murderer’s vision — he may have been right. The scariest thing about Hayakawa’s film isn’t its familiar depiction of a society that privileges human output over human dignity, but rather its soft dystopian sketch of a society that’s able to soft-shoe around dehumanization and/or sell it as an act of grace.
A loose knot of interconnected stories that often suggests a twisted inversion of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” (Hayakawa taps into that film’s slow-motion urgency, even if she fails to match its transcendent effect), “Plan 75” is held together by the contemplative nature of its approach and the gentleness of its argument, both of which allow this movie to annihilate the economic case for euthanasia without alienating those of us who believe in the right to merciful end-of-life care.
The film opens with its most jarring and aggressive scene as something of a bait-and-switch: An oblique restaging of the Sagamihara attack that tees up an alternate reality in which Japan effectively agreed to the killer’s terms. In Hayakawa’s drama, the massacre is but one of the many age-related, financially motivated hate crimes that has prompted the government to create a social welfare program in which citizens above the age of 74 can volunteer to be euthanized in exchange for $1,000.
But that cash pittance isn’t the real incentive. For one thing, you can’t take it with you. For another, the program is designed to target people who have no one to spend it on. Plan 75 is meant to attract — or coerce — lonely pensioners with tedious jobs who feel like leaving the world before their time might be more gracious than overstaying their welcome.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how friendly the young Plan 75 staff might be (Hayakawa wisely neglects to show us any of higher-level government functions), or how personalized the onboarding process is to each volunteer (so long as it doesn’t take too long). The minute Plan 75 was signed into law, it put an unbearable onus of expectation on every Japanese citizen of a certain age.
Now it’s as if, with each breath, they have to justify their continued existence to everyone they meet. And to themselves. That kind of pressure could force the hand of even the most beloved and well-supported person in their twilight years, let alone a semi-frail and seemingly family-less hotel maid like Michi (Chieko Baisho). From the moment this movie starts, it’s only a matter of time before she numbly begins to fill out the paperwork and prepare herself for cremation.
The rest of “Plan 75” is no less violent than its bloody prologue, its veneer of gentility just makes it seem that way. Eager and handsome young government lackey Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) is the kind of gentle-natured soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and yet he doesn’t think twice about a job that requires him to register new Plan 75 patients. In one brief scene typical of the film’s glancing fury, Hiromu blithely participates in a demonstration of anti-homeless park benches. As Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” would suggest, the soul of a city is reflected in its parks and playgrounds.
Later, Hiromu will experience a change of heart when his estranged uncle submits to Plan 75. Hayakawa obfuscates such conventional developments to a degree that makes them feel less staid — if also less satisfying, as is the case with an unformed plot thread about a Filipina nurse who takes a job at Plan 75 to help raise money for her sick daughter back home — but her film is always more compelling when it privileges mournful details over bigger story beats.
That’s especially true when it comes to Michi, whose despondent surrender to the Plan 75 process is raw and heartbreaking right up until the moment when Hayakawa threatens to interrupt it in the dying minutes. The quiet resignation of Basho’s performance faintly echoes that of “Tokyo Story” actress Chieko Higashiyama, but it’s further complicated here by a deep well of resentment, and also a last-ditch grasp at getting something more out of life.
Michi and the young woman assigned to prepare her for euthanization develop a protocol-breaking friendship in a well-rendered subplot that evokes “Ikiru” in its own way. The warmth and compassion these strangers show to each other is painfully counterbalanced by the purpose of the government program that brought them together, and the benign sterility of Hideho Urata’s cinematography — at once both menacing and melancholy — allows the spontaneous beauty of that friendship to sit alongside the inevitable loss that overshadows it. What good is a healthy economy when the richest parts of life are stripped of their value?
“Plan 75” isn’t for or against assisted suicide, but it tenderly laments a society in which “death with dignity” is only offered as compensation for a life without it. This is an ultra-delicate whisper of a drama — the kind in which a typical scene might consist of an old woman sitting alone in her apartment for several minutes of haunted silence. And yet the anger that fringes such bittersweet moments gradually accumulates into a palpable and lingering rage at how good we’ve become at branding cruelty as compassion.
Rewatching the movie, I was morbidly amused by the opening title card announcing that its production was subsidized by the Japanese government. I wonder how they felt about the role they play in this story, especially the part when Plan 75 proves so lucrative that rumors begin to swirl about rebranding it as Plan 65 instead.
KimStim will release “Plan 75” at the IFC Center on Friday, April 21. It will open in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale on Friday, May 5.