Movie Review: Japan’s Oscar Contender is about an Aging Populace Considering “Plan 75”

Japan’s aging and shrinking population is the inspiration behind “Plan 75,” the debut feature of writer-director Chie Hayakawa. Expanding her short film of the same title, she imagines a Japan which a government program, “Plan 75,” incentivizes the elderly to choose euthanasia.

Do it for the convenience — as an agency will arrange everything, even “group cremations,” for the comfort of not being a burden on the young, and for a little cold hard “last splurge” cash.

In a world where a capital-obsessed conservative politician in the U.S. suggested that elderly Americans let themselves get sick and die from COVID, this is a totally credible concept. In divided and fractious America this would never happen. In culturally, racially and socially cohesive and “duty” conscious Japan, it’s not hard to imagine.

Hayakawa’s spare, quiet film doesn’t have to reach for “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!” to make us recognize capitalism’s dispassionate end game. She doesn’t need sentimental music or many poignant moments to pass on that funereal, doomed “On the Beach” vibe. She just introduces us to a group of little old ladies who have a work “family,” cleaning hotel rooms well into their ’70s, a young bureaucrat helping administer this new government program — which is straining the nation’s crematoria — and a single-mom Filipino retirement home caregiver who finds higher paying work in the employ of Plan 75.

Meeting 78 year-old Michi (Chieko Baishô), you wonder about the limits of Japan’s social safety net. She is all alone, save for her workmates, other widows and the unattached elderly who have to work to keep going, well after what used to be considered “retirement age.” When a friend and co-worker collapses in the middle of cleaning rooms at their hotel, all of the elderly employees are given little “retirement” tokens and put out to pasture.

A notice on her apartment building bulletin board is the first she learns that the place is scheduled for demolition. No protests, no government stopgap to protect anyone. She’s hunting for an affordable apartment, and a job to pay for it — at 78.

A rental agent tells her he’s found one place that will “take elders” — for “two years rent, up front” (in Japanese with English subtitles). Mich’s’s starting to rethink a friend’s question from when Plan 75 was first announced.

“You ready to kick off?”

Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) is one of those faceless functionaries answering potential clients’ questions, assuring everyone who calls or comes in to sign up that “you can back out at any time,” but also stressing the convenience of knowing your final “arrangements” and expense are covered. Then a long-estranged uncle, a loner, comes in to sign up. Hiromu follows him home, notes that he is still working — picking up trash — and wonders where “death with dignity” figures into any of this.

Maria (Stefanie Ariane) is one of those foreign workers who has to make up the gap in employees in an aging, dying-off populace. She has a nursing home job, which doesn’t pay enough to help her sick five-year-old. But she has a church and that church not only takes up a collection for her, a lady there gives her an inside tip on “a government job.” Maria will be helping the elderly die.

Hayakawa opens her film with a montage of “facts” and faux news interview coverage — accounts of hate crimes against the elderly, and a young person telling an interviewer, “Surely the elderly don’t want to be a blight on our lives.”

Then she shows us what Kurosawa hinted at in “Ikiru,” what Bergman showed us in “Wild Strawberries” and what any number of films about aging and the elderly underscore.

Life is lonely and only gets lonelier by the day. Even in places which don’t have Every Woman/Man for Him/Herself economies, life shrinks, financial uncertainty grows and despair closes in from every corner with every passing year.

Although the film was written and directed by Hayakawa, it’s worth mentioning that the story came from Jason Gray, for years the Japanese correspondent for Screen International and a longtime translator of Japanese films into English. That would seem to account for the film’s outsider-looking-in perspective, a foreigner seeing something unique happening to a culture that was the envy of the world 30 years ago. The first “tiger of Asia” has lost its teeth and, the film suggests, its compassion.

A favorite moment comes when the operator Michi regularly deals with has to call her with her final, legally-required “update” and “get out of this at any time” reminder. The young caller is unsettled, if not wholly upset by this part of what is otherwise a telemarketing job. She’s taking on hospice counseling duties, and even if she doesn’t know this kind, almost anonymous woman who keeps thanking her for her reassuring manner, she lets us see she doesn’t think this is the best idea.

Maybe she, unlike the culture that has resorted to this draconian act, has genuine compassion. Or maybe she’s simply thinking “Some day I’m going to be on the other end of this phone call,” and that this is no way to go.

“Plan 75” rarely manipulates and never tugs so hard at the heartstrings that it breaks your heart. Honestly, I think it needs to.

Our filmmaker keeps a safe remove from this material, mimicking the compassion/generation gap she shows us in the movie. But she’s still managed to make a film that will give you pause, make you ponder your mortality and hope that no person, politician, government or insurance oligarchy ever gets the license to suggest that your life is more useful to “society” if it ends.

Rating: unrated

Cast: Chieko Baishô, Hayato Isomura and Stefanie Ariane.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Chie Hayakawa. A Loaded Films production.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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2 Responses to Movie Review: Japan’s Oscar Contender is about an Aging Populace Considering “Plan 75”

  1. Jason Gray says:

    Hello,
    This is Jason Gray, one of the producers of PLAN 75. Thanks for the well-written, considerate review! I greatly enjoyed reading it. I just wanted to clarify the co-story credit I share with writer-director Chie Hayakawa. PLAN 75’s characters and overall concept (which began life as the “Plan 75” short film in 2018 anthology feature TEN YEARS JAPAN, which we also produced) are all Chie’s. I collaborated with her over several years on narrative structure, character arcs, story ideas, and helping her nail down the true theme of the film. The intolerance Japanese society has toward the weak and “non-contributing” is what drove Chie to portray the preciousness of life. You’re correct that despite being a longtime resident of Japan, I also undoubtedly still bring an outside perspective/audience mindset to the table. We also received valuable input from our French and Filipino partners (cultural authenticity). Thanks again!

    • Roger Moore says:

      Which is why I never mention “story” credits, except in this lone case for the reason I gave in the review. The murkiest, most hair splitting and no longer Oscar recognized “credit” for a reason.

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