In 2016, a 26-year-old man went on a violent rampage murdering 19 people at a care home for the disabled claiming that he had done it “for the sake of society”. Prior to his crime, the killer had written an open letter in which he stated that he dreamed of a world in which those with severe disabilities could be peacefully euthanised, while claiming that those with no ability to communicate had no right to life and were nothing more than a drain on society. An expansion of her earlier short featured in the anthology film Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 opens with a sequence which appears to directly reference the 2016 mass killing but in place of the widespread outrage and reconsideration of a social stigma towards disability that followed in its wake, the government decides to implement a “voluntary” euthanasia program for those aged 75 and over in response to the “concerns” of the young in an ageing society.
Intergenerational resentment does indeed seem to be a motivating factory, the killer in this incident feeling himself oppressed by the responsibility of caring for the elderly while simultaneously hemmed in by a stangnant economy and heirarchical society. He points out that Japanese people have always praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation and alludes to the archaic tradition of ubasute or throwing out the old in which elderly people were abandoned on mountainsides to die in time of famine. There is no denying that the Plan 75 initiative has its insidious qualities in placing undue pressure on elderly people to give up their lives in order not to “burden” the young, an elderly woman attending a cancer screening remarking that she feels a little awkward as if she’s “clinging on to life”, being somehow greedy in the simple desire to continue living.
Meanwhile, their society has already abandoned them. 78-year-old Michiko (Chieko Baisho) had no children and lives alone supporting herself with a job as a hotel maid where all of her colleagues are also elderly women. When one of them has a fall at work, they are all laid off. The hotel claims that they’ve received complaints from guests about exploiting elderly people, but Michiko suspects it’s more like they don’t want one of them to drop dead in someone’s room. Not wanting to be a “burden”, Michiko is reluctant to apply for social security but even when she accepts she has few other options the desk at city hall is closed. Her building, like her now old, is set for demolition but no one is willing to rent to an unemployed 78-year-old woman nor is anyone willing to employ one. More and more Michiko is pushed towards Plan 75 if only to escape her loneliness. Being robbed of the opportunity to work also removes the opportunity for socialising especially as the other old ladies decide to move in with family and leave the area.
This is in fact an integral part of the Plan 75 business plan with case workers specifically instructed to keep the applicants happy through regular phone calls while prohibited from meeting them in person to prevent the older person changing their minds having made new social connections that make their lives more bearable. In the quietly harrowing scenes at the processing centre, for want of a better term, it becomes obvious that the majority of those submitting to Plan 75 are women as staff members empty out their handbags, dumping their possessions into a large bin while setting aside anything of value such as watches or bracelets which are perhaps another valuable revenue stream for a callous government that sees the programme as a cost cutting exercise.
Case worker Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) only becomes conflicted about Plan 75 after recognising an applicant as his estranged uncle and eventually discovering that despite sales claims of dignified funerals remains are often sent to landfill care of an industrial waste company. His uncle’s plight perhaps highlights the pitfalls of life in post-war Japan. Living hand to mouth working construction jobs all across the country he never had an opportunity to put down roots or save for his old age and is now living a lonely life of desperate poverty. Heartbreakingly he put his application in on his 75th birthday, an act Hiromu’s boss describes as almost heroic as if he couldn’t wait to sacrifice himself for the common good. Later a sign goes up that fixed addresses are no longer needed to apply, while the Plan 75 stand in a local park where they are in the process of putting bars on the benches so that homeless people can’t sleep there doubles as a soup kitchen.
One has to ask, if there was money available for all of these resources to help people die why is it not available to help them live? A young woman assigned as Michiko’s handler appears to have second thoughts while bonding with her over the phone, tearfully reminding her she still has the right to withdraw (though it’s never mentioned if that means repaying the $1000 signing bonus) while Michiko’s life too has been brightened by this little bit of intergenerational friendship, itself cruelly commodified in the allotted 15-minute sessions included in the plan. Told with quiet restraint, Hayakawa’s vision of an eerily dystopian future in which human life is defined by productivity and all human relationships transactional, where loneliness is the natural condition and society itself has become little more than a death cult, is painfully resonant in our increasingly disconnected world.
Plan 75 screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 20 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.
Festival trailer (English subtitles)
Images: © 2022 KimStim