A diet of rice and tofu, plenty of regular, gentle exercise and excellent hospitals: the Japanese have nailed the formula for getting old prolifically. With a little less than 30% of the population over 65, Japanese society is now officially termed as “super-aged.” Meanwhile, thanks to a low birth rate and an ingrained opposition to immigration, the total number of people is falling dramatically. Each year, there are fewer younger people to look after more older ones. It’s a slow-burn economic crisis.
Of course, there is an obvious solution, unthinkable in real life but very much in working order in Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, which screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. The plan of the title is a hypothetical government-funded program that merely offers seniors the chance to be bumped off quietly. It is never acknowledged to be a mass extermination program. On the contrary, it is entirely benevolent.
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There are little nudges along the way, it’s true. Those who volunteer may receive a cash gift for that final-fling holiday, a free funeral, even the chance to die in a five-star spa resort. Muzak-filled infomercials playing in every hospital waiting room gently remind potential clients that nobody wants to become a burden and that the Japanese have a proud history of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Suicide is not compulsory, but grab the chance while you can!
Michi (Chieko Baisho, giving a truly magnificent and moving performance) is 78 and still works as a hotel cleaner. All her colleagues are similarly elderly, a happy crew who pool their lunch treats – “those apples look yummy!” – and gather outside work for economical fun outings. When one collapses on the job, however, they are all forcibly retired. Coincidentally, Michi discovers that her apartment block is about to be demolished. She has no income and nowhere to live. A man behind a desk suggests she could go on welfare, but her expression of dismay tells us that this is seen as akin to sleeping on a park bench. Better death than humiliation.
Actually, even park benches are becoming an elusive option. We first meet Hiromu, (Hayato Isamura) a young social welfare department bureaucrat, as he tests new arm rests being retrofitted to existing benches to deter rough sleepers. He laughs as he rates each one for discomfort; the meanness of this policy doesn’t even occur to him. It is only later, as he passes an outdoor soup kitchen, that we see his salaryman’s bravado slip. It falls from him entirely when his own uncle comes into his office, ready to sign up for Plan 75.
Cut to Maria (Stefanie Arianne) a warm-hearted Filipina care-worker whose church elder helps her get a better-paid job at Plan 75 “working with old people, I think, but for more money.” One of Maria’s jobs as a Plan 75 carer is to empty the handbags left behind by the people who have come there to die. It takes only a few seconds to upend and clean out the last scraps of an old lady’s life.
A life that is still vivid and valuable, as Plan 75 counsellor (Yumi Kawai) recognizes when Michi is added to her list of clients. The counsellors are supposed to ring the imminently dead every few days and, in the guise of caring friend, ensure they don’t change their minds. Instead, this sweet young woman takes Michi to go bowling. Seeing Michi’s excitement when she scores a strike with her second ball, high-fiving the young folk who congratulate her, almost finishes her. It almost finished me. Fortunately, Michi is not quite finished herself.
There is nothing flashy about the way Hayakawa approaches her subject, no dramatic chases or rescues or confrontations; this is sober, thoughtful storytelling. There is nothing dystopian about it, either; most of it is set in grey, strip-lit departmental offices and well-scrubbed hospitals – overwhelmingly ordinary places – where everyone is trying to do the right thing. Stylistically, it looks a bit like a training film. What this means – the brilliance of this film – is that Hayakawa is able to make the idea of wiping out a generation seem drably normal within about quarter of an hour, something to ponder in itself. Could this really happen? By the time she’s done with us, it feels as if it already has.
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