What if, to solve the strain of a country’s ageing population, everyone was offered the chance to self-euthanise when they turn 75? This is the premise of Chie Hayakawa’s PLAN 75, a low-key science fiction story set in near-future Japan as it struggles to accommodate its elderly citizens.
Shot and told with a passive indifference, judgement of the morality of such an idea is never laid on thick, which is especially effective in heightening the intrinsic horror. The Plan 75 program is like any other business, where people work desk jobs, phone customers, and ask people to fill out forms. There are no musical cues denoting villainy, just a bureaucratic mundanity that frightens most of all by how normal it all feels.
Michi (Chieko Baishô) is 78, and though she’s still in good enough health, she has difficulty finding a purpose. Too old for manual labour jobs, inexperienced with technology, and with her friends passing away with age (or by choice), she starts considering Plan 75. Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) is a young man processing the program’s elderly clients, who is taken aback when his uncle winds up sitting across from him for processing. Guiding Michi is Yôko (Yumi Kawai), who crosses professional boundaries by hanging out with Michi, meeting for a drink and taking her ten-pin bowling. Filipino immigrant and young mother Maria (Stefanie Arianne) is recommended a job at the program because it pays so well, and she ends up taking care of the corpses and the possessions they no longer need.
With this ensemble all caught up in Plan 75 in various ways, Hayakawa can unfurl the sociological impacts of her philosophical concept. It hasn’t come from nowhere either: in 2016, a man murdered nineteen people at a care home for the disabled in Sagamihara, framing it as a selfless act for the benefit of the economy and the people themselves, who he believed should have the choice to be euthanised. There’s even a word in Japanese – oyasute – for ‘abandoning a parent’, where elderly relatives are taken somewhere and left to die. For some of PLAN 75’s elderly, that feeling of being a burden only taking up space acts as a gentle push towards an early grave.
And there are lots of gentle pushes. The unassuming branding of the program hangs menacingly over a homeless soup kitchen. Michi is denied housing unless she can pay two years of rent up-front. It’s a welcoming job for an immigrant, like Maria, looking to provide for her child, ensuring there will always be willing employees. While there are hints at opposition, like a protestor destroying an advert for the program, there is enough support that the government is considering lowering the age of eligibility too.
The profound sadness in the film is unavoidable, but it also has something to say about how a country ends up here in the first place. When the young employees befriend those already in the system, they all feel the urge to stop them before it’s too late. While intricately pieced together to show how banal administration can lead to the deaths of vulnerable people, the emotional core of the film is really about loneliness and how elderly people are neglected, whether by shutting them out of active society or by being forgotten about by friends and family. Despite its looming presence, no one is forced into Plan 75, so the film asks why a country’s inhabitants would choose it over living their lives until the end.
Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Go, PLAN 75’s world is provocative in its difference but familiar enough to imagine. It shares that novel’s approach in amplifying its central horror by not making a big deal out of it. Hayakawa comes at her subject from all angles, holistically presenting the causes and consequences of such a program, presenting it for consideration with a documentarian level of detachment that is occasionally at the expense of really getting to know its cast of characters. However, as a piece of ‘what if’ sci-fi, its matter-of-fact style tells it like it is. That maturity and its optimistic offer of a more humane solution prevent PLAN 75 from being unbearably bleak. By showing something so terrible, the film is really showing what it so dearly values.